2G note controversy: PM meets Chidambaram, Pranab

2G note controversy: PM meets Chidambaram, Pranab

Pranab Mukherjee leaves 10 Janpath after meeting
Congress President Sonia Gandhi. (PTI)

New Delhi:  The Congress has a one-point agenda today - to find an exit route from the emergency created by the now-infamous 2G note that has provoked calls for the resignation of Home Minister P Chidambaram.

The Prime Minister has met the two principals in this latest episode of the epic telecom scam - Mr Chidambaram and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee - this evening. This is the first time that the PM met with both ministers since the letter-bomb controversy erupted with brute force for the Congress.

The two are expected to address a joint press conference at 6 pm. Mr Mukherjee met Sonia Gandhi earlier in the afternoon. Sources say she is keen to close the controversy today.

"All is well," said Law Minister Salman Khurshid this evening.  His party's frenzied activity through the day make the opposite point. Minutes before the joint press conference Mr Khurshid and senior minister Kapil Sibal met Mr Mukherjee at his North Block office. Mr Chidambaram was present too. 

This is the first time that the two ministers will speak in public on the issue since the controversial 2G note was presented in the Supreme Court last week. Both had made clear that they would keep silent on the issue till they had met the Prime Minister.  

The note was prepared by Mr Mukherjee's Finance Ministry in March and sent to the Prime Minister's Office. It was excavated by a Right to Information application filed with the Prime Minister's Office, and submitted last week in the Supreme Court, which is monitoring the CBI's investigation into the 2G scam. The political noise since has been deafening, mainly because the note suggests that when Mr Chidambaram was Finance Minister in 2008, he should have enforced the auction of valuable second-generation or 2G spectrum. Instead, A Raja as Telecom Minister liberally distributed mobile network licenses and 2G spectrum to companies he allegedly favoured. Mr Raja is now in jail.

The most damaging part of the 2G note is its stress on the fact that if the Ministry of Finance under Mr Chidambaram had "stuck to its stand," Mr Raja may not have been able to waive off an auction of spectrum.

Till yesterday, the  government was trying to dismiss the note as one prepared by a junior bureaucrat.

Then came a lengthier explanation by Mr Mukherjee in a new note sent to the PM and to Mrs Gandhi. Mr Mukherjee, sources say, has clarified in his letter that the 2G note against Mr Chidambaram had inputs from different ministries and officials including the then Cabinet Secretary, KM Chandraksehar,  and the Prime Minister's Office. Mr Mukherjee also said the 2G note was prepared as an inter-ministerial background note to help coordinate the government's strategy for explaining the telecom scam to different parliamentary committees.

Mr Mukherjee, say sources close to him, is believed to be angry with the Prime Minister's Office for placing the 2G note in the public domain through the RTI application it answered.  Mr Mukherjee is also likely to tell the PM that he saw the note on the same day that it was sent to Dr Manmohan Singh's office.  He's expected to explain why Mr Chidambaram was not shown the note.  According to Mr Mukherjee, key ministries like the Department of Telecom and the Law Ministry were privy to the note; as Home Minister, Mr Chidambaram was not.  

In his explanation to Ms Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh, Mr Mukherjee is believed to have pointed out that the document does not suggest any criminal culpability on Mr Chidambaram's behalf. In fact, it provided some defense, suggesting that the former Finance Minister "may not have insisted on auction apprehending litigation." The government has repeatedly said that while different ministries favoured auction of spectrum and higher prices for licenses, Mr Raja rushed to sell licenses at 1600 crores each before his telecom policies could be evaluated. Effectively, the government then had no option but to accept his actions.

In the court, CBI gave clean chit to Mr Chidambaram. CBI said that the Home Minister is soft target as it is fruitful politically.

Congress sources say that the party is debating whether Mr Chidambaram and Mr Mukherjee should address the press together later today to prove that the BJP is wrong when it suggests the government is caught in a civil war between two of its most senior ministers. While the PM has said "there are no dissensions in my cabinet," sources in the Congress said that when the 2G note landed in court, Mr Chidambaram complained to the Prime Minister that it was part of a campaign orchestrated within the government against him.

The Prime Minister and Mr Mukherjee were both away last week to the US. A series of meetings were expected soon after their return to finalise the government's plan for countering the perception that it is fighting a civil war. But so far, neither Mr Chidambaram nor Mr Mukherjee have met with the PM. Mr Mukherjee has spoken twice on the phone to Mr Chidambaram since the letter-bomb exploded. On record, he has described the Home Minister as "a valued colleague" and "a pillar of strength" to the government.

The Opposition says that the 2G note cannot be dismissed as a matter of internal dissent within the government. The party says it exposes that Mr Raja did not act alone when he chose to skip an auction for 2G spectrum. Mr Raja has been arrested for conspiring with firms who he allegedly helped by giving them out-of-turn licenses for mobile networks at massive bargains.

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