2G spectrum scam verdict: Political victory for Congress, DMK but long-term threats far from over; case still stinks

For those scratching their heads over how the 2G spectrum corruption scandal that held parliament of the world's largest democracy to a cocktail of pandemoniums could end in a damp squib court verdict that acquits all the key accused in the core case, this is the moment to call a memorable line from the Bollywood hit, "Jolly, LLB". As the judge played by Saurabh Shukla says, "Courts don't act on truth but on evidence."

Between the truth and the evidence falls the shadow of acquittals -- and we can say that as much of the 2G scam verdict by the special court as on rulings connected with some riot cases connected with the communal violence that shook Gujarat in 2002. Politicians are happy when their own kind are acquitted in courts but point to inadequacies in law enforcement when their rivals win in other cases.

 2G spectrum scam verdict: Political victory for Congress, DMK but long-term threats far from over; case still stinks

Manjul toon

From that point of view, the day belongs to the Congress party and the DMK, allies in the UPA 2 government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. News of the prosecution led by the NDA going in for an appeal against the special court verdict will be drowned out in the blowing conches of prime-time spokespersons of Opposition parties. Coming days after the Gujarat election verdict in which the BJP won an uncomfortable victory, politics is now in a new phase.

Are common people any smarter in the 21st Century?

The simple fact is that corruption cases typically drown in technicalities that the common man or woman cannot understand, while clever lawyers and smart politicians rely on these very technicalities to wriggle out of difficult situations. It does not help that the judicial machinery has several layers -- from trial courts to high courts and then on to the Supreme Court, the files get bigger while time stretches on. Intervening years alter the political landscape that in turn affects the prosecution in many cases.

Let us look at the 2G scam a bit more in detail. One aspect is the lack of transparency, frequent changes in rules and the abominable business of allocating precious spectrum on a "first-come-first-served" basis that stank so much that a sea of Chanel or Christian Dior perfumes could not drown out the bad smell that woke up the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

The government's constitutional auditor spoke purely in terms of imputed revenue losses, giving the scam a Rs 176,000 crore figure that certainly misled the public -- but was exploited to the hilt by the BJP and its successful prime ministerial aspirant, Narendra Modi.

In truth, the 2G scam was partly about subsidising spectrum to help boost telephony in the country and partly about doing it through a bizarre, dubious process that smelt of corruption. As Shalini Singh, a reporter who chronicled the scam in its key years records in detail, DMK's Andimuthu Raja changed rules every now and then in a manner that violated commonsensical ideas of fairplay. And then as she argues, the UPA vaguely but falsely linked its policy decisions to a regime set by the earlier NDA government to fend off accusations of corruption.

Both Raja and party mate Kanimozhi are now heaving a sigh of relief but grey areas in the 2G spectrum allocation, which were extensively criticised by the Supreme Court, remain on the table.

Consider the idea that fertlisers have been subsidised by successive governments to help farmers. But no one really offered subsidies to fertiliser companies on a "first-come, first-served" basis. Spectrum, a resource that ushered in a technological revolution that touched a billion people, was given off in a cavalier way that was bound to raise questions -- which it did. The BJP, with its own preference for rhetoric, turned it into a political advantage -- just like Congress linked the Gujarat riots of 2002 to Modi's administration as state chief minister.

In both instances, specific cases involved technicalities beyond the pale of easy understanding -- because errors of omission or commission involving half-spoken and unspoken words have been used to argue cases.

Clarity, in such a context, involves how vagueness works in the judicial system.

As this is written, the details of the special court ruling are not out, but it is clear that the clinching element of a corruption case -- the establishment of a "quid pro quo" linking licences and spectrum to payoffs and loans -- may have been lacking.

But we may point to the conviction of former chief ministers Lalu Prasad Yadav, Om Prakash Chautala and J Jayalalithaa to show how judicial processes and political processes move in different ways. Yadav went to jail, Chautala is still there and Jayalalithaa died months before a verdict that might have sent her to one.

The wheels of justice grind slowly but well, as the cliche goes. But politics has its own dynamic, and popular leaders and powerful parties use half-time scores in a long game to claim victory. From that point of view, this is indeed a moment of relief for Congress and DMK. Tomorrow is another day.

The author is a senior journalist. He tweets as @madversity

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Updated Date: Dec 21, 2017 14:31:28 IST