Hawala to Spectrum Tectonic Shift
Ever since Supreme Court (SC) took charge of overseeing the investigation into the 2G spectrum scam and began cranking the inertia-ridden Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into furious action, a section of the country's corporate sector, for the first time, seems very uncertain about staying away from jail. This is perhaps for the first time since independence that top honchos of the corporate sector have had to present themselves at the CBI office for questioning. Save for Ratan Tata, nearly all the businessmen who had exposure to the telecom sector have made an appearance at the non-descript office at Delhi's Scope complex. It would have been unimaginable some years ago that high-profile businessmen like Anil Ambani, Ruias, Sanjay Chandra and Dhoots would be questioned like commoners. Some of them were later arrested and sent to Delhi's Tihar Jail. Sanjay Chandra of Unitech, Shahid Balwa and Goenka of DB Realty - all billionaires - have followed the former telecom minister A Raja to jail.
The Supreme Court has not only supervised the investigation, but also insisted on seeing the draft chargesheet, besides selecting the public prosecutor who will represent the CBI in the trial court. This is unprecedented in the annals of Indian judiciary, which does not have the practice of judges supervising a probe in such a manner. It is apparent that SC does not want its painstaking efforts at getting to the crooks in the Rs 1.79 lakh crore telecom scam become a casualty to corruption.
After all, there are precedents where cases supervised by the apex court have meandered into nothing. The most celebrated case was the Jain hawala scandal, which SC chose to oversee in response to a public interest litigation (PIL). The gravamen of the PIL was that the investigating agencies had failed to adequately probe the case due to the involvement of people in high places. To bring our readers to speed on the infamous hawala scandal: the case involved a seized diary that contained details of pay-offs to politicians, bureaucrats and contractors. Some of the worthies mentioned in the diary included late Giani Zail Singh, late Rajiv Gandhi, BJP leader LK Advani, Yashwant Sinha, late Devi Lal and Rajesh Pilot, among many others.
The scandal was first exposed by me when I was writing for a Mumbai-based tabloid, Blitz. Some of those whose names figured in the diary like Devi Lal, Rajesh Pilot and Sharad Yadav owned up to receiving money from the businessman, Jain, or his minions. Under Chief Justice JS Verma, the apex court then decided to supervise and 'guide' the case. The SC bench used to have in-camera hearings of enforcement officials from whom they sought to know the progress of the probe.
All this worked quite well as long as PV Narasimha Rao was the PM. There were allegations that he used the hawala probe to target his opponents like ND Tewari, Arjun Singh and Madhav Rao Scindia. After he lost the elections, the SC bench supervising the case began to lose its way. So much so, it made a bizarre public admission that it was coming under mysterious pressure. It became apparent that the political protection that the court enjoyed to take the hawala scandal to its logical conclusion had disappeared. First, a high court judge refused to acknowledge the very basis of the case diaries as account books. His order allowed the discharge of people like LK Advani and VC Shukla from the case. Later, all the other accused got away. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that if the SC had initiated action on the case in the early part of Rao's term, then, surely, it would have been a different story altogether.
The lesson from the Hawala probe seems to have been absorbed by the new inquisitors. First, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), perhaps at the behest of the PM, investigated the 2G case and discovered that Rs 1.79 lakh crore was lost in the sale of valuable spectrum. Later, SC picked up the case for supervision and, since, then no one has been spared. Certainly, the aggression with which SC has gone about cracking the whip on enforcement agencies in the 2G probe would not have been possible without the support of the ruling political establishment. With the 2G and other scams turning into a monster, it would be interesting to see how this crusade of the courts against corruption impacts India's politics and the government in the turbulent days to come.