Pranab Mukherjee copped out. He didn’t want to sully his image in the run-up to the presidential poll by taking a view on spectrum pricing.
Now Sharad Pawar too has cried off. He has recused himself from heading the Empowered Group of Ministers on telecom spectrum for fear of drawing fire from vested interests. He told the PM: “Attempts have been made in the past to unnecessarily drag me into the (2G spectrum) controversy. The allegations were false and motivated and I had refuted them strongly… As such, I thought it would be appropriate for me to recuse myself from the position of the chairman of the eGoM…”.
In 2008, when Andimuthu Raja was running riot, even the PM wanted out. After Raja went ahead and issued the licences on 10 January 2008, the PM, instead of stopping him, withdrew from action. His Principal Secretary wrote to the telecom ministry: “Prime Minister wants this (his views) informally shared with the department. He does not want a formal communication and wants PMO to be at arm’s length“.
Why is everyone treating spectrum-related issues like the Aids virus?
The obvious answer is that any decision will mean favouring some party or the other, either the CDMA (code-division multiple access) or GSM (General System of Mobile Communications) lobbies. The high reserve prices suggested by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) – Rs 3,622 crore per Mhz for all-India spectrum — is steep, and will be opposed by the whole industry. Reducing this price to something acceptable to industry means someone will file a public interest litigation saying that the government bowed to corporate interests.
Since whoever decides the issue will be damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, the only way to defuse the situation is to have someone unimpeachable in terms of integrity to head the eGoM.
In 2001-03, when the New Telecom Policy was being decided, Pramod Mahajan was the telecom minister, and he was widely seen to be favouring some specific business group. In this situation, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee saw that only a person with a reputation for fair-dealing would be able to pull off the transition from the old policy to the new one, and discourage litigation.
Vajpayee found his man in Arun Shourie, who, despite taking controversial decisions like the first-come-first-served policy on spectrum licences, coaxed and cajoled both the incumbents (Bharti, Hutch, et al) and the new entrants (mainly the Ambanis) to swallow the new pill and avoid litigation. While Ambani was penalised for muscling into mobile telephony by paying only basic telephony fees, the others were mollified by allowing them to migrate to a revenue-sharing fee regime.
Shourie pulled it off only because all players saw that he had no axe to grind.
In today’s spectrum debate, who can pull off a Shourie?
Kapil Sibal doesn’t have the credibility. P Chidambaram is already tainted by the previous 2G scam, however unfairly. Ministers like Veerappa Moily and Salman Khurshid either do not have the stature or the ability to inspire confidence.
Only AK Antony is seen high in the probity league, but his knowledge of spectrum issues can probably be written on the back of a postage stamp.
So who does that leave us with?
The answer is Manmohan Singh. Nobody has any doubt that he has no axe to grind. He is completely abreast of telecom issues, having discussed the issues with both Dayanidhi Maran and A Raja — though unsuccessfully.
However, we know that the PM did not assert himself with either Maran or Raja on telecom issues. His reputation took a knock because he looked the other way when both of them hijacked the telecom ministry for their own ends.
So, both for practical reasons and as a form of redemption for letting Raja get away with murder the last time, Manmohan Singh must get directly into the act. He should head the spectrum eGoM and take the right decisions.
The problem is not about how much you should charge for spectrum. Nobody has an answer to that. Auctions are a good way to figure out what the market will pay for a scarce resource. The PM should take the call on the reserve prices — and lower them if it makes sense. An auction will anyway decide the final price, and the Supreme Court will be happy.
Only the PM has the moral authority to pull it off.
Unlike the last time, Manmohan Singh should not seek to be kept “at arm’s length” on spectrum pricing. His effort to rope in Pawar for the job was probably another attempt to keep the decision “at arm’s length.” It won’t work. Whatever is decided will ultimately land at his door.
He should have the courage of his convictions and take the bull by the horns himself.