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Intriguing spectrum letters

Intriguing spectrum letters

Author: T S R Subramanian
Publication: The New Indian Express
Date: January 3, 2011
URL: http://expressbuzz.com/opinion/op-ed/intriguing-spectrum-letters/236531.html

At least one national newspaper recently published the transcript, purportedly complete, of the exchange of correspondence between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the then telecom minister A Raja, in the period November-December 2007. This was the time when critical decisions relating to the controversial 2G Spectrum were taken.

It is interesting to note that the first missive was fired by A Raja on November 2, 2007. Raja's letter crossed the PM's own letter to him of the same date. The PM had raised a number of concerns relating to the proposed allotment of 2G Spectrum with two clear injunctions: no 'short cuts' and that no decision may be taken without 'our' (PMs) concurrence. The PM's letter to Raja also suggests the auction method and the direction to ensure 'fairness and transparency'. The telecom minister was either clairvoyant to expect such a letter from the PM, or had advance intimation - either way this shows that both Raja and the PM were aware of the potential for controversy. Though his first letter does not appear to be a direct response to the PM, Raja refers to issues of policy vs procedure (conveniently forgetting that many times these are intertwined and embedded in each other). Significantly the minister adds that the 'decision' already had been taken for the September 25 cut-off. The law ministry's advice, presumably contrary to this decision, has been termed 'out of context' by Raja. It appears fairly clear that Raja's letter was to preempt the possibility of his decision being altered; in North Indian court parlance, it would be called a peshbandi letter, to indirectly bring the PM into the picture as an ex post facto participant, of the decision already taken.

The third letter of that day (November 2) was Raja's formal reply to the PM, clearly indicating the high level of preparedness and awareness of the issues being addressed. While this letter contains a large number of technical statements, its main thrust appears to be to provide a self-certification by the telecom minister about the transparency and openness being followed by his ministry, that they are 'honestly' aimed at the development of the telecom sector. It is curious to note here that the telecom minister, while addressing the PM, refers to 'my' decisions - implying that all issues in this regard are exclusively in the province of the telecom ministry: none need to intrude into his decision-making sphere, including the prime minister! It is also noteworthy that usually inter-ministerial correspondence is at official level - the flurry of letters at political executive level is rare, and clearly indicates high level of concern, awareness of issues and that the decisions were driven directly at ministerial level.

There is then a short hiatus in the samwada. The next missive from A Raja to the PM is dated December 26, 2007. While the substantive decisions were taken before November 2007, it is in public record that the then telecom secretary refused to endorse these decisions and play ball. Presumably, by December end these issues had been sorted out by those in power. Raja's letter also refers to his discussions on the subject with the external affairs minister and the solicitor general - it will be of interest to know if the summary of these discussions were indeed recorded and will be made public.

The sum and substance of this December 26 letter is basically to 'inform' the PM that the decision has been taken, and that it will be announced shortly; implying that the PM has no business to meddle in these decision-making processes. The formal reply of the prime minister to the telecom minister dated January 3, 2008 confirms that he accepts the position and has nothing further to say. In effect, the PM concedes that everything had been sorted out elsewhere. Raja's letter of December 26 ends with 'this is for your information' - astonishing language from a minister addressing his Cabinet chief who had asked earlier that no decision be taken without his prior concurrence. The conclusion in these five words is not only insolent in tone; it is also the unkindest cut of all - one that could have felled at one stroke Caesar along with Calpurnia.

The exchange of letters raises interesting questions of the inter-relations between Cabinet colleagues and issues relating to collective Cabinet responsibility. Was the decision taken a telecom ministry decision or a government of India decision? If the latter, will the full Cabinet stand by it, as is the requirement in any Cabinet form of government? If indeed it turns out that the telecom ministry's decisions were highly coloured, and if the actual magnitude of the scam is anywhere close to the estimates made by the CAG will it still continue to be a telecom ministry decision, or one of the government of India? The other relevant question relates to whether the PM knew in advance of the decisions of the telecom ministry, and he implicitly concurred with them; or he was not privy to the decision. Either way the implications are appalling. If the PM or PMO did not know of the details, then the correspondence published is a mockery of inter-ministerial dialogue. If the PM indeed knew, the presumption is that he acquiesced - implying full responsibility.

There is an obscure provision in the conduct of government business that the PM is notionally the minister for all departments, and the cabinet secretary is the secretary to all departments. I recall at least two occasions when I called for the relevant files from the department concerned, wrote my own note contradicting that of the minister concerned, and the then PM approved my line of thinking, overruling the minister concerned. One can speculate as to why such a practice was not resorted to, if the minister remained intractable or intransigent. One would normally have expected the PM to reply to the December 26 letter of the telecom minister, demanding that the matter be brought up before a Group of Ministers or the Cabinet itself. Disturbing questions are natural as to whether the failure to take appropriate action was through ignorance or deliberate.

It is well recorded that from the Indira Gandhi regime onwards, the functioning of the basic parliamentary institutions has been substantially altered; decision-making powers have been moving slowly but inexorably to the PM and the PMO. The popular perception has been that India indirectly, without due deliberation or formal acquiescence of the people, has moved from a parliamentary democracy system to a presidential system, with the prime minister exercising undue powers. Suddenly, we see the spectacle of the situation being completely reversed - much as towards the end of the Mughal period when the local satraps dared to challenge the central leadership. Is this the much talked about 'coalition dharma'? Who has codified it? There is no reference to it in Walter Bagehot or Ivor Jennings. In any case, no coalition dharma can dilute the concept of the collective responsibility of the Cabinet in a parliamentary system

- About the author: T S R Subramanian is former Cabinet Secretary, Government of India

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