Byline by M J Akbar: Before the court of public opinion
At some point, when the wound begins to hurt, the narrative in a scam story arcs towards the bizarre. You can be almost sure that the change in trajectory has been propelled by some lawyer trying to be a judge.
A lawyer’s training is conditioned by loyalty to the client; a judge must rise above his background and become a servant of the law instead of the cheque book. On Friday, Kapil Sibal gave a grand press conference to declare that his predecessor A. Raja was totally and indisputably innocent in the telecom scam that has disabled Parliament and rocked the country. On the same day, in the same city, Delhi, yet another judge said in open court that there was sufficient evidence to maintain a complaint against Raja. Special CBI judge Pradeep Chaddha, while admitting Subramanian Swamy’s petition seeking Raja’s prosecution, said, “I have gone through the complaint and the bunch of annexures ... and I am of the view that this complaint is maintainable and the proceedings will continue.” Courts, high, supreme and special, have seen the record and found a basis for prosecution. Sibal, being a modern Gandhian, can see no evil, hear no evil and will speak no evil unless it is about the Opposition, in which case he can be vituperative.
The only concession Sibal made over this prearranged handout of licences on a first-come-first-served basis, was that there might have been a “procedural lapse”. That is an elegantly discreet description of bribery which should find a place in a quotation book.
If Kapil Sibal believes what he says, he should send in his resignation immediately so that Raja can be reinstated. Why was Raja dropped from the Cabinet, at such political cost, personal anguish and Karunanidhi family heartbreak if he was innocent? At the very least Prime Minister Manmohan Singh owes Raja a grovelling apology. Raja should in fact sue Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi for libel, since their decision to wrench him out of the office he coveted amounted to, by Sibal’s interpretation, defamation and humiliation on a national scale. Obviously, Sibal was either on holiday or so immersed in his public service duties that he was totally oblivious of media when the Radia tapes took complete control of airwaves and print. Or, perhaps, again like a good lawyer, he had no interest in any fact that would be relevant to the prosecution.
Since Sibal will still need a job after resignation, he can easily step into a vacant home ministry. P. Chidambaram will surely now have to resign. Chidambaram, after all, sent a letter to the Prime Minister accusing Raja of malpractice, not mere “procedural lapses”. A letter emerges from a conscious decision to place a view on record, so Chidambaram must have felt very strongly about what was happening. Nor is Chidambaram ignorant of the law; by any account he is as good a lawyer as Sibal, if not better. So the only conclusion is that Chidambaram was consciously misleading the Prime Minister, on a matter of such public significance, possibly for partisan reasons, and therefore must be held accountable. Indeed, there is a strong rumour doing the rounds in Delhi that Chidambaram could lose his portfolio in the next reshuffle; so maybe these little dots scattered across the capital’s landscape do connect after all.
Something clearly also needs to be done about this pesky Comptroller and Auditor General, Vinod Rai who refuses to keep quiet even when someone as self-important as Sibal delivers an obiter dicta. Rai insists, even after the Sibal intervention, that the treasury suffered a massive loss, and that a proportionate benefit went to private sector telecom players. And then there is the insufferable judiciary, which remains coolly indifferent to the pressure tactics of such majestically powerful ministers. Surely there must be a way in which judges like Chaddha can be transferred to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Sibal has eliminated the distance between the Congress and the DMK’s spectrum sale at highly discounted prices. For some reason, an impression had been growing that Mrs Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister wanted to increase this space. Clearly, that impression was inaccurate. It is inconceivable that Sibal would have gone public without clearance from both the PM and the party president. The DMK-Congress alliance can now march shoulder to shoulder towards electoral triumph in the next Tamil Nadu Assembly elections using the spectrum scandal as a mark of pride rather than a sack of defacing coal. There is no question, either, of government seeking any compromise with the Opposition during the Budget Session. If Raja did no wrong, why should there be an enquiry?
When a good lawyer gets a bad case his instinct tells him to shift the narrative. Political lawyers believe that they can manipulate the court of public opinion, but the people see all the evidence, not just some of it, before they reach a decision. The public is an excellent judge.