Who leaked the Niira Radia tapes? Suspicion has split the UPA Government.
The truth could destroy it. The leaks have inflicted more damage on the Government than two years of Opposition accusations about the length and breadth of corruption in the spectrum allocations of 2007. They prove the perpetuation of a systematic and systemic fraud with the DMK at its vortex.
The leaks could have come from two possible sources: the home or finance ministry. Since the highly selective leaks are Tamil-centric, the finger of suspicion moves towards the home ministry. The revelations could ensure the defeat of a once-impregnable DMK in the Assembly elections of 2011.
The Congress stands to gain from the DMK’s decline. The Congress vote-share has been steadily increasing in Tamil Nadu as voters get fed up with both the DMK and AIADMK. If the Congress is able to increase its vote-share from around 15 per cent of the last election to about 20 per cent in the next Assembly polls, it will become a major player in a non-Dravidian, "third force" coalition.
The persons who stand to gain the most from such an outcome are Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and his son Karti Chidambaram who control the party in Tamil Nadu. Karti’s posters are already pasted all over Chennai.
The Rs 1,76,000-crore scam has become a national issue, just like the Bofors scandal which decimated a Congress with over 400 seats two decades ago.
Home Secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai, in the now infamous "tip of the iceberg" interview to the Wall Street Journal, dropped the first hint that his ministry may be the source of the leaks. In that interview, he reportedly claimed full knowledge of the contents of all the tapes. Until Pillai’s interview, it was believed that only the Income Tax Department, which reports to the finance ministry, and which had actually conducted the phone tapping, had full access to the tapes.
However, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), in a Supreme Court affidavit in the Ratan Tata case, has claimed that it shared information from the Radia tapes with the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the CBI. The IB reports to the home ministry and the CBI to the PMO. On December 13, the home secretary, put on the defensive by the India Today article ’The Chikileaks’, issued a rushed clarification. "Since I have neither heard nor seen the tapes, the allegations that I am leaking these tapes, at the behest of the Union home minister, are totally unfounded and false," he said. He went on to make a reference to the CBDT affidavit in the Supreme Court, saying that "some portion of the tapes had been given to the CBI for investigation", once again dragging the PMO into the centre of the controversy.
Incidentally, it was Chidambaram as union finance minister who authorised the phone taps on Niira Radia. The finance ministry had received a complaint against Radia on November 16, 2007, and Chidambaram is believed to have put a note on the file asking his officials to investigate whether there was any tax evasion.
The home secretary gave sanction to tap Radia’s phones on August 20, 2008, when Chidambaram was still the finance minister. The taps continued until July 9, 2009, with new approvals from the home ministry. By this time, Chidambaram was more than seven months into his new job as home minister. He defended the surveillance of phones for tax evasion in the Rajya Sabha on April 29 this year, saying "it directly threatened the country’s economy and is a threat to the nation".
The political epicentre of the 2G scam and the leaks, of course, continues to be the DMK. New revelations from the Radia tapes published in this issue of India Today (see next story) expose details about the strategies deployed by Kanimozhi, Radia and A. Raja, both within the DMK and with the Congress, to get the latter back into the telecom ministry in May 2009. There are references to land deals involving Karunanidhi’s family. The scandal has become a malignant stink.
Now the aftershocks of the leaks are spreading beyond the DMK to the rest of the UPA - in Delhi, West Bengal and Maharashtra. The UPA coalition emerges out of a deal, and if that breaks down, it will disintegrate and the Government will collapse.
The DMK has, of course, been the UPA’s most loyal and crucial component right from the inception of the alliance during the general elections of 2004. Sonia Gandhi, in a masterful coup, weaned the DMK away from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA. In the final result of 2004, the Congress and the BJP were separated by only eight Lok Sabha seats. The DMK-led alliance’s clean sweep of Tamil Nadu’s 39 seats was a decisive factor in helping the UPA go past the majority line.
The DMK’s brazen corruption cannot be brushed under the carpet. Raja can dispute the CAG’s numbers on how much the exchequer has lost on account of the 2G scam, but the Rs 1,76,000-crore figure has got embedded in public perception. It has become a national issue, just like the Bofors scandal which decimated a Congress with over 400 seats two decades ago.
Many in the DMK believe that someone in the Congress leaked the tapes to harm the DMK in the run-up to the Assembly polls in May 2011. The party is seriously worried about losing Congress support before the elections. That has prompted DMK patriarch Karunanidhi, who was otherwise defending Raja, to say, "The party will not hesitate to throw him out if he is found guilty."
Shaken and Stirred
The aftershocks of the leaks have spread beyond the DMK to West Bengal and Maharashtra
M. Karunanidhi, DMK Tamil Nadu goes to polls in May 2011.
2G IMPACT: The Congress stands to gain from a DMK decline. The Congress vote-share has been steadily increasing in Tamil Nadu as voters get fed up with both the DMK and AIADMK.
Mamata Banerjee, TMC The TMC hopes to end the Left Front’s 33-year-old rule in West Bengal.
2G IMPACT: Banerjee is torn between her own support for a JPC and the prime minister’s position against it. The Left Front sniffs an opportunity.
Sharad Pawar, NCP The NCP has been losing ground in its stronghold of western Maharashtra because of infighting.
2G IMPACT: Jairam Ramesh’s action on Lavasa, Pawar’s dream project, may not be enough to break the alliance.
The Tamil Nadu Congress doesn’t seem ready to dump the DMK at the moment. It is hoping to use the DMK’s weakness to bargain for more seats. "The DMK was dictating terms to us all this while. But now it has to agree to our demands," says a senior leader in the Tamil Nadu Congress.
But AIADMK chief J. Jayalalithaa has upped the ante on the Congress. "The more the UPA government resists, the more it confirms that the buck does not stop with Raja. Raja’s resignation is not enough. The beneficiaries of these kickbacks have to be questioned," she said. Jayalalithaa already has the two Left parties and Vaiko’s MDMK with her. She is in talks with Vijayakanth’s DMDK to form a broader anti-UPA alliance in the state.
Another UPA ally in yet another poll-bound state is getting jittery about the fallout of the 2G scam. The Left Front, which until a few months ago seemed as if it had surrendered the 2011 Assembly polls to a TMC-Congress alliance, is sensing an opportunity in the aftermath of the telecom scam. For once, Mamata Banerjee, torn between her own support for a JPC and the prime minister’s position against it, seems to have no answers for the awkward questions being raised by the Left. "Will your supporters not want to know why their leader (Banerjee) is not saying anything against these irregularities?" says Biman Bose, West Bengal Secretary of the CPI(M). Banerjee’s lifelong ambition has been to capture power in Kolkata. She would not want 2G to trip her at the final hurdle. That is set to make her relationship with the Congress rather prickly in the months ahead.
In the midst of the tensions with the DMK and TMC, the Government could have done without trouble with another ally, the NCP. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who is known to take orders from Rahul Gandhi, fired a salvo at NCP chief Sharad Pawar by ordering a ban on the construction of Lavasa City near Pune for violating environment norms and laws. Ramesh’s decisions are a direct affront to Pawar because he is the person who had conceptualised Lavasa as a tourist township. Ramesh’s antics may not lead to a rupture in the alliance any time soon, partly because the NCP has been losing ground in its stronghold of western Maharashtra due to infighting.
The support of allies still remains crucial for the Congress in Parliament where it has only 206 seats on its own. What complicates things even more for the Congress is the virtual split in the party in its southern stronghold of Andhra Pradesh after the departure of the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s son Jagan Mohan. Andhra Pradesh elected 33 Congress MPs in the general election of 2009. The weakening of the Congress in the state reduces its overall strength in south India. Tamil Nadu will be a dicey proposition in alliance with a tainted DMK. And Karnataka, however controversially, is dominated by the BJP. The Congress is sliding down a deep hole.
Outside the legislature, there is a barrage of action as the BJP and Congress engage in a game of holier-than-thou. L.K. Advani has promised to launch a "relentless campaign on the streets" against the "most corrupt regime in history" beginning December 22. Sonia hit back at the BJP’s record on corruption, saying: "The BJP not only in Karnataka but right from Tehelka, right from so many other scams during the NDA, has consistently overlooked, brushed aside or supported the situation of corruption". It’s high season for the "politics of corruption".
Meanwhile, the bureaucracy has entered a phase of post-Radia logjam, bringing governance to a standstill. Bureaucrats are nervous after the naming of a number of senior officials, some retired and some still serving, who are under investigation for alleged wrongdoing in connection with the 2G scam. Extra-cautious babus are shy of communicating on the phone and bringing pen to paper. "Routine matters are not being cleared on file," says a senior bureaucrat on condition of anonymity.
An official of the sports ministry says, "Even the ongoing re-export of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee material has suddenly stopped. No explanations are being given by the Customs Department." Adds another senior bureaucrat, "The use of the CBI to conduct raids, without any accompanying investigation being launched, is creating a climate of arbitrariness and fear." There is a growing clamour from the bureaucracy asking the prime minister to step in.
The prime minister has simply sought to distance himself through silence and travel. He travelled to Brussels and Berlin even as Parliament was stalled and the bureaucracy paralysed. It was he who took the decision that led to the jam in Parliament by saying that he would never accept a joint parliamentary committee (JPC), viewing it as an insult of the prime ministership. On a flight from Brussels to Berlin, he reaffirmed his stand on not allowing a JPC. "I am very sad that Parliament has not been allowed to function. We have, again and again, told the Opposition that existing institutional mechanisms can take care of whatever a JPC can do. I hope the Opposition will see reason," he said.
On the same flight, answering a question on why he was abroad at a time of crisis, the prime minister said, "These are pre-fixed appointments. If we don’t honour them, then who will take us seriously? In any case, nothing much is happening (in India)." The latter half of his statement displayed an almost callous indifference to a crisis that threatens to sink his Government.
On the issue of phone tapping, Singh offered a non sequitur. "While these powers are needed, they have to be exercised with utmost care and under well-defined rules, procedures and mechanisms so that they are not misused," he said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is going to need more than bland statements of the obvious if this UPA Government wants to sell "Singh is King" one more time.