Monday, February 6, 2012

The politics behind the Antrix deal….

As usual, the real story about this “scam” – the Antrix-Devas one – also is very different from what the CAG, opposition and media initially portrayed it to be. There are many questions that these three august institutions need to answer now that more facts have emerged. The two committees set up by the PM to look into the matter have presented their reports. And the findings are very different from what was first touted to be the case. The only complaint against the government is whether it has been too stringent in levying the kind of punishment on the four former scientists that it has. Nowhere is there even an iota of a scam that the government should be worried about….

Let’s work on the CAG’s pronouncement first. I have stated earlier in the context of the 2G matter that the CAG sometimes conducts itself in a highly clerical manner. But unlike an accountant (which it is) the CAG often thinks it is the ultimate finance wiz. The CAG made a mistake in assessing the 2G loss (they were clever enough to call it only a presumptive loss – in reality it was none of their business to even comment on the policy of free spectrum). The CAG has made another huge mistake by saying that the Antrix deal caused a loss of Rs 2 lac crores to the exchequer. The CAG is now looking silly. It appears that without understanding the science behind different types of spectrum, the CAG in an uneducated manner equated S-band spectrum with 3G spectrum. At least in the case of 2G spectrum, there was a TRAI opinion that 2G and 3G spectrum are essentially the same, though they are used for different purposes. In the case of S-band spectrum, it is completely incomparable with either 2G or 3G. But for the CAG, anything that goes by the word spectrum is to be treated identically (isn’t this the exact definition of being clerical?). And the bid value achieved during the 3G auctions should become the benchmark for valuing all types of spectrum. It’s like saying that a flat in Virar is the same as a flat in upscale Malabar Hill since ultimately both are just flats – places to live in; measured in square feet! So both these flats should cost the same!

Scientists have now explained that S-band has limited usage. It is useful only for satellite-to-land communications unlike 2G and 3G spectrum which is used for terrestrial-to-terrestrial communications and is thus far more valuable. Neither the Chaturvedi-Roddam Narasimha report nor the Pratyush Sinha report has indicated that there was any loss to the exchequer. There may have been procedural lapses, but there was no loss to the exchequer. Definitely nothing even remotely close to Rs 2 lac crores. Will the CAG please speak up now and maybe apologize? Or will it take advantage of the fact that it is an independent Constitutional authority and hence it owes no one any explanation?

Let’s now look at the opposition’s rants. The first thing that the opposition alleged was that the PM was responsible for the “scam” and that he should resign since the ISRO reports to the Space Commission which in turn reports to the PMO. Now this has become a predictable pattern with the BJP. It refuses to wait for investigations or assessments to be done. If the CAG published a report, that report would be studied by the PAC in which the BJP would have its members. The PAC may then conclude that the CAG was perhaps wrong. But in a political environment that is so vitiated now, the BJP is more interested in raising political froth from controversies than in reaching to the right conclusions. Its political strategy is based on using media to exploit sensational reports that come out from time to time – even if it is premature to do so.

The other thing the BJP fails to understand is that not everything can be pinned on the government or its ministers. ISRO is an independent organization and Antrix is even further removed from the government. It now appears from the two reports that Antrix failed to keep the cabinet informed. It took decisions that were in violation of its rules of business. It failed to bring up to the cabinet’s or the Space Commission’s notice that it had executed exclusive agreements with Devas when that was explicitly prohibited (satellites were to be leased to private parties only on non-exclusive basis). It took permission from the government to launch two satellites for this deal without pointing out that this agreement (a faulty one) had already been signed by it. As far as the BJP is concerned, the Congress is responsible for everything that happens in India during its watch. It could have demanded a probe into the matter to establish the truth (like the PM did). It could have asked for Dr Madhavan Nair’s investigation. But no, for the BJP, the focus is on ousting the PM from his job. The attack is singularly on the PM. Maybe the BJP should now demand that the PM should resign because the Indian cricket team is performing so badly in Australia!

That brings me to the last of the institutions involved in much of the sham (not scam) that Devas has become – the media. In its urge to be the first to file a story, the media is alright in putting out reports without adequate research/homework – which would help it draw its own independent conclusions. It takes recourse to the excuse that its job is merely to “report” on developments. In my mind, the job of the media is to keep its readers fully informed. It must provide a platform for healthy debates in which all points of view emerge. It must get to the bottom of the facts so that agendas – whether of the government or the opposition or indeed of any constitutional authority – are exposed. Even in the 2G case, the media failed to point out the intricacies of the matter. The political opposition was allowed to get away with sheer propaganda. In the Antrix case also, media could have tried to understand the difference between S-band and 3G – but it chose not to.

What about the government. It’s clear now that this government is an extremely nervous government. It reacts strangely and at times in a cowardly manner – showing no guts in dealing with the truth as it stands. It bowed down to minority politics in denying Salman Rushdie a chance to attend the Jaipur literature fest. It refused to acknowledge that the decision to give spectrum free was a conscious cabinet decision and not just Raja’s. It has now decided to blacklist the prominent scientists of ISRO and Antrix from all future government assignments – just to prove that its hands are clean. Now the two reports prove that none of the scientists made money – there was no quid pro quo. There may have been procedural lapses; there may even have been an attempt to commercially favor Devas, but the reports stop short of alleging corruption. The government should now be mature in handling the scientists….a mild rebuke is one thing. A severe censure is just another panic reaction.

The real truth is that it is now proven that there was no scam at all in the Antrix-Devas deal. It may not have been the best commercial deal, but there was no corruption. At least not on the government’s part. And yet when the story broke, all fingers were pointed at the government in an almost routine manner. This is a peculiar situation we are seeing in the country now in which the government of the day is being witch hunted – usually it’s the other way around!

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