Sunday, October 2, 2011

Common sense finally prevails in the Congress….

At last, the Law Minster Salman Khursheed dropped his party’s coyness with regard to the decision to give 2G spectrum free. He finally accepted that this was a cabinet decision. So far, the entire party had been distancing itself from the decision and blaming Raja for it. Even when the 2G Finance Ministry note rocked the nation last week, the Congress didn’t know how to respond. Its focus was to protect Chidambaram against opposition attacks that he had irresponsibly agreed with Raja in giving spectrum free. No one had the guts to take joint responsibility for the decision…..

That had prompted me to write my piece titled “Of course Chidambaram is guilty. But of what????” on the 22nd of September, the thrust of which was that Chidambaram was guilty of having sided with the cabinet decision to give spectrum free even though he had himself favored auctions. I had pointed out that such a serious decision could not have been taken by a single minister (Raja) alone; While the NDA cabinet had authorized the Finance Minister and the Communications & IT Minister to take a call on “an appropriate mechanism for the allocation of spectrum and price fixation”, that decision was taken by the entire cabinet in the UPA government. The entire cabinet had found FCFS to be the appropriate mechanism for allocation of spectrum. The entire cabinet had agreed that free spectrum was the appropriate way to price it. Obviously, there were ministers like Chidambaram who disagreed with this decision. But’s what so remarkable about that? In every cabinet meeting, there would be dissenting voices and there should be. Eventualy, a final call is taken which everyone sticks to. It’s the same in this case – which Salman Khursheed has now accepted – that Chidambaram favored auctions, but the cabinet overruled him. Finally, the Congress is willing to accept this.

Our society and media’s ability to understand dissent is also very limited. A view of Chidambaram’s that was different from the final call taken is considered to be a proof of the dissensions within the cabinet. If all ministers had to agree by consensus on every proposal, then what’s the point in having a cabinet meeting at all? In fact, what’s the point in having any meeting at all? But the maturity required to understand what difference of opinion means is sadly missing in all three – our people, our opposition and our media. As a result, every dissenting voice is considered evidence of a discord in the ruling party. This is unfortunate.

Take the entire fiasco about who appointed Kalmadi as the IOA chief. While there were accusations being made that the PM himself had chosen him, the Congress’s interest was only in protecting the PM. Apparently, the PM had no role to play in Kalmadi’s appointment. Frankly, this is a crappy position – how could the PM of a country not be involved in the decision to finalize the organizing body? After all, its not every year that India organizes world-scale sporting events? But if the Congress’s stand was indefensible, so was the stand of our opposition and the media. They were more interested in pointing out that Sunil Dutt – the first Sports Minister in UPA-1 – was not in favor of letting Kalmadi handle the CWG. The fact that Sunil Dutt had disagreed was seized upon by the opposition and media to show that by overruling him, the PM had shown a certain connivance in the scam that followed. The fact is that Kalmadi was the best man to organize the CWG games at that time. The man had been a sports administrator for decades. He had organized several large scale events. He had the support of all political parties including the party that has bayed for his blood ever since the crisis broke – the BJP. He was an MP and a senior Congress leader – so he had the ability to call the shots within the government when required. He had the requisite professional skills and experience to call for international help when required. There was nothing wrong in Kalmadi’s candidature. Had it been the BJP government then, it also would have chosen Kalmadi. The PM should have accepted as much – that yes he chose Kalmadi and overruled Sunil Dutt – but how was he to be blamed for what Kalmadi did later? Kalmadi didn’t show his true colors until much later…..

In fact, we are demonstrating that as a nation, we have very little appetite for failures. If a decision goes right, we celebrate and hugely reward the person who took the decision. But god forbid – if any decision goes wrong – the person who took the call is dumped with the burden of defending it. In our country, the first inference drawn is that the person must be corrupt and his faulty decision had to be because he made money. There is no place in India for genuine mistakes. Maybe our politicians are thought of as being extremely capable and intelligent – they always know what is right or wrong and they never make mistakes – they only fail because they are corrupt. Just wait and see what happens with Dhoni. Till very recently, he was celebrated as the best captain India had had (at least after Ganguly). Everything he touched turned to gold. Now that there is a challenge that the team is facing, he will be shredded to pieces – unless he can recover quickly. Someone will blame him for agreeing to too many games being played – as if that decision was his to make. Some will say that he should have dropped Bhajji long back – as if he knew it then. Some will even say that he is responsible for player injuries – as if the other players are babies and don’t know how to handle themselves. But such is our country. Failures are unacceptable. A leader has to always be perfect. Maybe, we’ve learnt this from our religious scriptures – the gods were always perfect!

Coming back to the 2G matter, the government should be proud of the decision it took to give spectrum free even in 2008. It’s the cheap spectrum which has brought about the telecom revolution. Even in January 2008, the number of mobile phones in the country was just 250-275 million. The teledensity was under 25%. Today, that number has crossed 750-800 million and teledensity has crossed 65%. The poorest people wait the longest to join the revolution – in this case also, they joined in only when telecom rates fell to half paise per minute…..when Rs 10 was all that was required to have a mobile phone. Every single corporate in India knows this truth about it. That’s why Coke tried the Rs 5 bottle so many years back. That’s why we have invented the shampoo and toothpaste-in-a-sachet concept. That is why our cabs and buses are not airconditioned. That’s why our newspaper and TV outlets cannot charge more for subscription than they do. India is a price sensitive country and any decision that helped keep pricing low was a decision that helped spread the revolution. The government had the TRAI’s backing in 2008 against auctions. The government had the blessings of the two telecom policies of 1994 and 1999 as well as the five year plans to support its emphasis on teledensity rather than revenues. And yet, the government had developed cold feet.

The real problem caused by Raja was that he gave spectrum to upstarts who have been unable to grow their networks. As a result, precious spectrum is lying unutilized with these new players, while the older players have no spectrum left for growth. A lot of spectrum has been wasted this way. Giving new licenses to new players, especially when there were so many players already, was bad policy – but giving spectrum free was good policy. Today, in hindsight, we know that our markets simply cannot support 10-12 telcos. This kind of hypercompetition has led to suicidal price drops – good for the public of course – but devastating for the telcos. In reality, the new telcos never had any chance. They were bound to lose money. Both Unitech and DB – which are accused of making huge profits – will infact end up making huge losses (but people don’t understand this). They will waste precious spectrum, thus hurting the country’s cause. And then of course, the very large charge of Raja playing favorites. That’s why he should be nailed. For playing favorites – not for giving spectrum free. Not for even proposing (as the Minister of Communications and IT) that spectrum be given free. Nail him….but for the right reasons.

The real truth is that the one thing that stinks worse than the rampant corruption in our country is the rampant politics. Irresponsible, self-serving, all-encompassing politics. Politics sans truth; politics sans logic. Politics that is unforgiving. Politics not to ensure the ruling party stays on course, but to pull it down before its turn ends. Politics of opportunism. It is this stench that is unbearable……

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