Can the paragon of integrity hear his conscience?

A South Indian view of national politics is largely, if not completely, missing from Indian media, including and especially South Indian media. It is almost as if all wisdom on what’s happening in the national capital has to flow, aided by the inevitable force of gravity, southwards from Delhi.

While reporting and analysing Delhi from Delhi makes geographical sense, the truth is it also makes it easy for news and views to be susceptible to the inevitable forces of lubrication. Additionally, there is the danger of the news atmosphere being congested by a set of usual suspects.

Deccan Herald senior editor Ramakrishna Upadhya, who writes a weekly column on topics not always concerning Karnataka, is one of the rare exceptions.

RKU, as the veteran journo who has also served at the Indian Express, Sunday Mid-Day, ETV, Vijay Times and The Telegraph is known, has now put together a collection of 112 columns over an eight-year period columns in a book titled ‘Natak Karnatak‘ (Prarthana Books, 343 pages, Rs 290). Below is an excerpt, first published in November 2010.

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By RAMAKRISHNA UPADHYA

It is a strange paradox that Independent India’s two biggest scandals —the stock market scam of the mid-1990s, and the current telecom scam—have occurred under the benign superintendence of the man who is universally hailed as “one of the most sincere and honest” leaders that this country has seen.

As the mind-boggling, head-reeling telecom saga continues to unfold, the nation will await to see whether this turbaned paragon of integrity is also capable of listening to his conscience and acting decisively to uphold the faith of a billion people.

We are living in difficult times. Constitutionally-mandated personalities, who are expected to work as trustees and uphold public interest at all time, compromise with principles and bare themselves as men with feet of clay, completely unmindful of the exposure.

Here in Karnataka, we have a chief minister brazen enough to justify corruption and nepotism as part of his ‘power package’ and, at the Centre, we have a prime minister who willingly turns a blind eye to all the muck around him, wallowing in the belief that as long as his personal reputation is white as a lily, he doesn’t have to care a damn.

It was the same Dr Manmohan Singh as finance minister in the Narasimha Rao cabinet, who, when the Harshad Mehta-engineered scam broke out, remarked that he “would not lose sleep” over it.

After the Joint Parliamentary Committee investigated into and exposed the dubious activities of a handful of share brokers who milked the economy of crores of rupees illegally, Dr Singh’s diagnosis was that it was “a systemic failure.”

Dr Singh is now the prime minister of the country and considering the magnitude of the scam, he simply can’t get away with vague and wholly excuses. As the comptroller and auditor general of India’s report has revealed, the former telecommunications and information technology minister Andimuthu Raja arrogantly discarded the advice of several ministries and the prime minister’s own counsel in arbitrarily awarding the 2G Spectrum in January 2008 and yet Dr Singh maintained ‘silence’ till it exploded in his face.

In a stunning disclosure, the CAG has confirmed that 85 of the 122 applicants for 2G licence were ineligible, that they suppressed facts or gave fictitious information, that the cut-off date for licence letters were advanced arbitrarily, that most of these companies were created barely months before they were issued licences and that the owners of these licences after obtaining them at throw-away prices, in turn, sold significant stakes to Indian/foreign firms at high premium within a short time.

The CAG has estimated that the presumptive loss to the exchequer is of the order of Rs 1.76 lakh crore and of that, two dubious entities, Unitech and Swan alone made Rs 1,27,292 crore from the sale of equity to other players. Even major telecom players happily participated in the loot as Raja appeared to be the king of all that he purveyed, with the prime minister being a mute, disinterested spectator.

The scam had surfaced in January 2008 itself and the Left parties, to their credit, had raised a stink before the May general elections that year, but the UPA’s “resounding” victory in the polls and the principal opposition BJP’s intra-party troubles ensured that the Manmohan Singh government was able to sit tight over the mega scam.

After the elections, Dr Singh made only a feeble attempt to take away the telecom ministry from the DMK and no more than that: After all, he was only a ‘mukhota’ for Sonia Gandhi and her parivar who conducted negotiations with the DMK patriarch, M. Karunanidhi on ministry formation. With the lid on the scam still firmly in place, Raja came back with a bigger smirk on his face.

What is mystifying is that Dr Singh, who seems to love the label of ‘Mr Clean,’ never bothered to take a second look at 2G Spectrum allocation nor ordered an investigation. Is it possible then, that the amount involved in the scam being so huge that the DMK was only one of the players and the other hidden ‘hands’ must have been too hot for the prime minister even to contemplate taking any action?

But the truth could not be supressed for too long and here, the officers of the CAG must be complimented for a job thorough and meticulous. When some portions of the report inadvertently leaked out, a cocky Raja kept insisting that he had done no wrong and whatever he had done was with the ‘“knowledge” of the prime minister.

For the image-makers of the prime minister and the UPA, Raja had now become a hot potato and he had to be dispensed with. The Congress head honchos conveyed their ‘decision’ to Karunanidhi, who had no option but to accept it with the elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly only months away and his bete noire, Jayalalitha always lurking in the corner.

If the Congress thought that the Opposition would be satisfied with Raja’s ‘head’ and Parliament would return to normal business, the supreme court’s embarrassing questions to the prime minister and the full disclosure of the CAG report have put paid to any such illusions.

Just as the land scandals involving B.S. Yediyurappa, his family members and cabinet colleagues, have reached a stage where the BJP Central leadership will perforce have to step in to lend credibility to their campaign against corruption at the national level, Dr Manmohan Singh will have to step out of his facade and initiate credible action to show that in the evening of his life and career, he has no reason to be “used” by anyone, any more.

(Copies of the book are available at Gangaram book depot, and Sapna book stall)

Read a review of the book: An insightful look at Karnataka