2G spectrum case: Bureaucrats 'suppressing facts' from Manmohan Singh, his own silence led to ex-PM's downfall

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh once famously said his silence was better than a thousand answers because it kept the aabroo (honour) of many questions.

That poetic riposte was to allegations of corruption in allocation of 2G spectrum and coal blocks. It seems the prime minister'words were indeed prophetic. For Manmohan indeed maintained silence when his advice was sought on a controversial change in the procedure for allotment of licences that were later scrapped by the Supreme Court.

Though the Congress has been celebrating the special CBI court verdict on allegations of corruption in allocation of 2G licences, a careful reading of the judgment hints at the atmosphere of permissiveness and pliability in the PMO under Manmohan. The verdict suggests Manmohan could be easily kept in the dark on key policy issues by his own team, thus, proving the charge that he was a puppet prime minister.

 2G spectrum case: Bureaucrats suppressing facts from Manmohan Singh, his own silence led to ex-PMs downfall

A file image of former prime minister Manmohan Singh. PTI

At the core of the 2G controversy, apart from the low prices charged from buyers, is the then telecom minister A Raja's decision to overnight change the first-come-first-served policy to first-pay-first-served. This somersault denied bidders a level-playing field and allegedly helped those who had inside information on the decision to walk away with licences.

In his judgment, special CBI judge OP Saini observed that Raja had conveyed to Manmohan what he intended to do but PMO officials presented a partial view to the then prime minister, keeping him in the dark about the decision to change the policy to first-pay-first-served. Saini also pointed out that Raja wrote a letter on 2 November, 2007, to Manmohan informing him of the large number of applications and scarce spectrum. He also talked about other issues, including the fact that auction was not recommended either by the telecom regulator or the Telecom Commission headed by the telecom secretary. But, the court observed, there was no evidence to suggest the letter was examined by South Block.

Instead, in response to Raja's note, Manmohan's principal secretary Pulok Chatterjee put up another note that did not talk about the controversial aspects at all. "This note discussed only the spectrum related issues as to how much spectrum was available in the country (and related matters)... This note did not consider at all the issue of new licences, which were to be issued as per changed criteria from date of application to date of payment and was also the most controversial one. Thus, this note gave only a partial view of the whole issue and ignored the most important and controversial issue of new licences." the court said.

Now, this is a stunning indictment of the work ethics of the PMO under Manmohan. First, it shows that it could be manipulated by bureaucrats by withholding important information from the prime minister. Two, important decisions could be taken by his principal secretary Chatterjee, who, according to Saini, not only withheld controversial aspects of Raja's letter to Manmohan but also gave a go-ahead to the changes himself after consulting the telecom secretary. And three, it shows, even when the prime minister came to know of these lapses, he did not take any action against the guilty officers.

Chatterjee's clout in the UPA government was well known. He was considered close to 10 Janpath and, thus, had access to a parallel power centre. That he got away by keeping the prime minister in the dark about controversial policy changes and then continued to remain in a position of power certainly give credence to the theory that Manmohan was just the face of the government.

It also reinforces the belief that led to Manmohan's eventual downfall. By the end of his tenure, Manmohan had acquired the reputation of a prime minister who was perennially silent and ran a government that allowed ministers and bureaucrats to run their departments like independent jaagirs. Saini's verdict only vindicates those who derided him as Maun Mohan Singh.

The Congress, now, rues that the prime minister's reputation was tarnished by lies, rumours and conspiracies. But, Manmohan himself is to blame for the denouement. His own silence, ultimately, contributed to the fall in the aabroo of the prime minister's office.

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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2017 15:12:13 IST