Byline by M J Akbar: How much sleaze can you spare, brother?
“My case is cleared, na?” said the politician who wanted to be telecom minister to the lobbyist for a telecom major four days before the present Union Cabinet was sworn in last summer. The middle-woman, Nira Radia, was coy and comforting in her first-name-basis response: “Your case was cleared last night only.”
The truly touching aspect of the politician’s piteous plea is a syllable, na. It has every shade of pathos, not to mention every variation of bathos, kneaded into it. The lobbyist is in command, and why shouldn’t she be? She knows something that is privy to perhaps three or four people at the very highest level of the present Government. She has a vested interest in telecom, and therefore a direct stake in the person who will run this department. The minister-to-be, A. Raja of the DMK, is in her debt, and he better not forget it. She does not convey how she knows the decision was taken the previous night, but she implies that she has intervened on Raja’s behalf. Raja does not care whether a corporation got him this job or not. He is merely desperate to get it.
We know this today, a year later, because of some sterling journalism done by the television channel Headlines Today, which obtained transcripts and audio recordings of the taped conversation and honoured the profession of journalism by doing the story.
Text demands context for greater clarity. Raja is an intimate associate of the Karunanidhi family and Radia must now be the most famous middle-woman in the world. She is on the payroll of some of the most important corporates in contemporary India, both those with a tradition of grease and those with historic claims to probity.
Corporate warriors did not record this conversation, as a hapless Congress spokesman vainly tried to suggest in defence of an indefensible ally. It was taped by income tax authorities, who suspected Radia of tax fraud, with formal permission of the home secretary. Raja’s phone was on tap; Radia’s was. It was fortuitous that the six-month window of taping coincided with a general election and formation of a new Government. This information has been available with the Manmohan Singh Government for many months now. Its only response was to harass and transfer the officials, as it sought to protect politicians.
It is the right of partners, in a coalition, to demand their quota of Cabinet members, but the allotment of portfolios is the privilege of the Prime Minister. Dr Farooq Abdullah, a veteran who became Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 1982, is not particularly happy with renewable energy, but he has respected the Prime Minister’s privilege. DMK accepted a change in the other portfolios allotted to its ministers, but made telecom conditional to its participation in Government despite the fact that Dr Singh was reluctant to give it.
Why was DMK insistent and PM reluctant?
Because both knew that Raja, as telecom minister in the first UPA Cabinet, was involved in a rip-off of incredible proportions. The Bofors allegations, which damaged the Congress in the 1980s, amounted to Rs 64 cr. This 2G scam is said to be of the order of over Rs 60,000 cr, or a thousand times that of Bofors. If you want to understand the scale of this rip-off, think of this. Mrs Sonia Gandhi has been pressing Government to provide food security for those below the poverty line. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has said Government does not have the resources to do so. The cost of a year’s food security is far less than Rs 60,000 cr.
The unambiguous fact is that Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi were aware of this, but chose silence because the price of disclosure would have been the collapse of Government. DMK has levelled a cash pistol at the head of Government, and the head has nodded in acquiescence because the alternative was to watch its brains being blown up. DMK blackmail has worked, and would have continued to do so but for the integrity of some journalists.
The most important question awaiting an answer, unless a large, interconnected, corporate-politician-media establishment protects the brazenly guilty, is: how did a lobbyist know of portfolio distribution? It is ironic that one of the reasons that brought the UPA back to power was a reputation for financial integrity, bolstered by the Prime Minister’s personal image (which remains clean).
Radia was privy to specific details of the politics of Government formation, much more than can be discerned by common or even uncommon sense. The tapes are proof of her contacts, at one level; at another, they also reveal the squalid civil wars within the DMK. The war of succession between the Brothers Alagiri and Stalin is only one detail of a diamond-studded opera that is surely beyond the fantasy of any television soap.
This much we know thanks to a leak in Government, possibly initiated by an officer who saw this option as a last resort. But think of the perhaps hundreds of conversations between minister and middle-woman that could not be taped. How much sleaze is stored in them?
Nothing, it is said, clears the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Judging by Raja’s face after the story broke, nothing confuses the mind like the prospect of demotion, to paraphrase from Hindi, from raja (royalty) to runk (commoner).