In testimony to a parliamentary committee, a senior bureaucrat has said that in December 2007, he wrote to the Prime Minister suggesting that mobile network licenses be sold for Rs 36,000 crore each to telecoms. The licenses, however, were sold a month later for Rs 1600 crore each and the manner in which they were allotted led to then Telecom Minister A Raja spending nearly a year in jail.
K M Chandrashekhar was then the cabinet secretary. He appeared yesterday before the fractious Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) that's studying the allocation and pricing of spectrum between 1998 and 2009. His disclosure about his letter has allowed the opposition BJP and the Left to reiterate that the Prime Minister was aware that second-generation (2G) airwaves and mobile licenses were worth a lot more than what they were being sold for. Citing the deposition, the BJP has renewed its demand that the PM and Finance Minister P Chidambaram must testify before the JPC.
Jumping to the defence of the Prime Minister, the head of the parliamentary committee, PC Chacko, who is from the ruling Congress, said, "There is no revelation...actually it was one of the reports sent to the PMO. The Cabinet Secretary had reported at that point of time - when various aspects were being considered by the PMO, the Department of Telecom (DoT) and the Finance Ministry - that if 2001 prices are revised to some level, then what will be the implication...it was just a calculation...It wasn't the responsibility of the PM to revise the entry fee, or the spectrum price or charges."
"Anything that goes to the PM, he has he has to refer it to the concerned minister. If the prices are to be revised, it is to be revised at the level of the Telecom Minister. The Telecom Minister has to go by the TRAI recommendation...this is known to everybody...TRAI had very clearly said then that prices needn't be revised. They must have their justification....PM had inputs from many places. These inputs could have been utilised by TRAI or Telecom Ministry."
Gurudas Dasgupta of the CPM told NDTV that Mr Chacko's statement reveals that as the head of the parliamentary committee, he is incapable of impartiality. He also blamed the PM and added, "The PM should have ensured that there is no loss of revenue. He has not done his job. It is a part of his responsibility."
The BJP also echoed the same objections and said his statements confirm his "reluctance for a fair probe." "He (Mr Chacko) has prejudged the issue. Mr Chandrashekhar's deposition confirms that the nation suffered a loss. This all raises more questions on the PM. What did he do after he got the letter? How can the PM take no decision after the Cabinet Secretary's note? P Chidambaram too stayed silent...These are important questions...The Finance Minister and the PM are obliged to reply to our queries," said BJP's Ravi Shankar Prasad.
The parliamentary committee was created as the Supreme Court began monitoring the telecom scam which is being investigated by the CBI. The premise of the swindle is that Mr Raja ignored advice - including from the Prime Minister - to auction spectrum. He gave airwaves at no cost along with under-priced licenses to firms who he pushed to the front of a long line of applicants. In February this year, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 of the licenses issued by him; they will now be distributed by the government via an auction.
The BJP has been boycotting the committee - it has six members on the panel. The party says that Finance Minister P Chidambaram and the Prime Minister must testify for the group to explain why they did not intervene to prevent Mr Raja from blatantly bending the rules.