New Delhi: In a show of unity, Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram, both principals in a blockbuster political drama , appeared together to make a brief statement today on the infamous "2G note." Mr Mukherjee said that the document, attributed to his ministry, was in fact "an inter-ministerial background paper" and that it contains "certain interferences and interpretations" that he said do not reflect his view. (Read Pranab Mukherjee's statement)
Mr Chidambaram then stepped forward to say, "I am happy with the statement read by my senior and distinguished colleague Mr Pranab Mukherjee. I accept the statement. As far as all of us in the government are concerned, the matter is closed."
The double-bill appearance was followed by Sonia Gandhi driving to the Prime Minister's house. They met for 30 minutes, reportedly to take stock of the truce that was declared in public by their ministers. It's unlikely to provide the government the respite that's needed.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal, Minister in the PMO V Narayanasamy and senior Congress leader Rajiv Shukla met Pranab Mukherjee late in the evening. "The Finance Minister and the Home Minister spoke before the media. They said issue has been resolved, so it is a closed chapter," Mr Narayanasamy said after the meeting.
The note in question has been requested by two parliamentary committees that are studying the telecom scam. And within minutes of Mr Chidambaram's short statement this evening, the Opposition, for who the 2G note has been an unexpected bonanza, leapt to respond. "This is not an ego battle for ministers," said the BJP's Ravi Shankar Prasad, making the point that the 2G note is not a private matter of dissent for the Congress to settle." Mr Chidambaram, who has given you the authority to accept Pranab Mukherjee's statement," he asked, adding dramatically, "you are the accused." The BJP also leapt to embrace Mr Mukherjee's declaration that several ministries had contributed to the note - evidence, the BJP says, that many sections of the government agree that Mr Chidambaram didn't act appropriately in 2008. (Watch: Who is Chidambaram to accept Pranab's statement, asks BJP)
The note, sent in March this year by Mr Mukherjee's Finance Ministry to the Prime Minister's Office, faults Mr Chidambaram for his actions as Finance Minister in 2008 in the context of the telecom scam. The most damaging part of the note states that the Ministry of Finance under Mr Chidambaram could have "stuck to its stand" to ensure that valuable spectrum was auctioned by then Telecom Minister A Raja. Instead, Mr Raja freely distributed mobile network licences and second-generation or 2G spectrum at throwaway prices to companies he allegedly favoured. For this, Mr Raja was arrested in February.
The show of solidarity by Mr Mukherjee and Mr Chidambaram may have come too late. It has been held up in the media and by the BJP to exemplify what's believed to be a long-standing rivalry between two of the government's most senior ministers. "A civil war" has been the BJP's refrain.
It took a day of frenetic activity to prod both ministers into their evening appearance. The Prime Minister met with them this evening. Before that, Mr Mukherjee met with party president Sonia Gandhi - his second session with her this week devoted to the 2G note. Mrs Gandhi reportedly urged Mr Mukherjee, acknowledged as the government's main trouble-shooter, to end the stand-off with Mr Chidambaram. Mrs Gandhi reportedly stressed that the government and Mr Mukherjee need to attend to urgent issues like the growing agitation in Andhra Pradesh for a new state of Telangana.
The UPA chairperson also called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh immediately after the joint statement was issued this evening.
The note that has scripted this latest episode in the epic telecom scam 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.
Privately, Mr Mukherjee is believed to be angry about being blamed for the controversy. He holds the Prime Minister's Office responsible for placing the 2G note in the public domain through the RTI application that it answered. Mr Mukherjee has also stressed - both in his public statement today and in a private letter to the PM and Mrs Gandhi - that different ministries and officials provided inputs for the 2G note, including the Prime Minister's Office and KM Chandrasekhar who was Cabinet Secretary in March.
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 suggests 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.
The CBI made the same point in the Supreme Court today, where it is arguing that there is no need for an investigation against Mr Chidambaram based on the 2G note that has surfaced this month. CBI told the court that the Home Minister is a "soft target as it is fruitful politically".
The telecom scam unfolded in 2008 but has taken centre-stage in the last few months as its investigation picked up speed. Mr Mukherjee acknowledged today, "A number of stories on 2G spectrum had appeared in the media on Jan 2011. A view was taken that a harmonised note based on facts should be produced for use by various representatives of the government."
Mr Mukherjee also reiterated the government's stand that the telecom policies followed in 2008 were in "continuation of of the policy adopted in 2003" when the BJP-led NDA coalition was in power. The government has said on numerous occasions that the policies followed by Mr Raja ere not problematic; it was his twisted manipulation that allowed him to give out-of turn-licences to companies that were not eligible for them.