Acquittals in 2G court case trigger seismic fallout

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Supporters of Andimuthu Raja celebrate outside the court in New Delhi.  Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

It was known as the mother of all scams in India. Back in 2010, it was alleged that the distribution of telecom licenses had been manipulated by the Minister for Telecoms, Andimuthu Raja, in favor of the rich and powerful.

The fallout plunged Dr Manmohan Singh’s administration into crisis and then chaos when the Comptroller and Auditor General of India revealed that the government had lost 1.76 trillion rupees (US$39.3 billion) by selling the rights too cheaply.

What happened next was predictable. The minister resigned before being arrested after the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. As the legal battle rolled on, the Supreme Court canceled the 2G licenses, branding them “illegal.”

On the political front, the scandal contributed to the crushing defeat of the Congress Party in the 2014 general elections. It also ushered in the Narendra Modi government with a full majority for the first time since 1984.

In the space of four years, this high-profile scam had literally changed the face of Indian politics and brought the telecom sector to its knees.

Fast forward to five days ago, and the plot lines in this long-running saga have taken another twist with former minister Raja acquitted in court of any involvement in the multi-billion-dollar corruption case.

MP Kanimozhi Karunanidhi was also acquitted. She is the daughter of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, whose DMK party was an important ally of the then Congress-led federal government.

Both welcomed the verdict, which they said “vindicated” them. Fifteen other people, including bureaucrats and businessmen, and three companies were also acquitted of charges.

The fallout from this complex case was seismic.

“I have no hesitation in holding that the prosecution has miserably failed to prove the charges and all the accused are acquitted of the charges,” a judge was quoted as saying by Mr Raja’s lawyer on NDTV news channel.

P Chidambaram, who was finance minister when the alleged scam took place, was just as forthright and bullish.

“(The) allegation of a major scam involving the highest levels of the government was never true,” he said. “(It) was not correct and that has been established.”

Arun Jaitley, the current finance minister, put a different spin on the New Dehli court verdict. He told reporters that “Congress [would] treat the judgement as a badge of honor.”

Still, the decision has major ramifications. Many felt that India’s CBI failed to put together a concrete case.

The CBI has also been accused of lacking legal skills when compiling its list of prosecution witnesses, and assembling crucial documents and paperwork from bureaucrats, businessmen and companies involved in the trial.

Kanimozhi (C), a lawmaker, is escorted by her husband Aravindan (in yellow) outside a court after a hearing in New Delhi, India, December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, center, is escorted by her husband Aravindan, in yellow, outside the New Delhi court. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

Judge OP Saini highlighted the problem when he underscored the holes in the prosecution’s case.

“Mere deficiencies in some documents would not be enough to prove criminality,” he said. “It is a common fact that private businesses in India are not known for immaculate paperwork.

“Defective paperwork, per se, will not make a business transaction criminal,” he went on to say. “To show that the transaction was criminal, appropriate suggestions ought to have been given [by the prosecution] to the witness.”

In one stroke, a crucial piece of the CBI’s investigation had been blown away. Then there was the role of the Supreme Court.

The decision has now raised several questions about its move to cancel the 122 2G licenses. What we do know is that government is preparing to appeal the verdict.

How that will work out is impossible to say as the case built by the CBI appears to have serious flaws. Plugging those holes might prove difficult.

In the end, the case that propeled Modi to a historic majority government is in danger of turning into a shambles.

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