x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Indian government set to agree to 2G scandal investigation

Need to have parliament meet to agree next year's budget means opposition demands over alleged sale of mobile telephone licences for $40bn less than they were worth are likely to be accepted.

NEW DELHI // The Indian parliament, deadlocked over opposition demands for an investigation into a telecommunications scandal, may soon be operating again because it appears the government will acquiesce.

Yesterday, the Indian finance minister Pranab Mukherjee called an all-party meeting to negotiate a way out of the impasse.

The scandal, known popularly as the "2G scam", involves allegations that the former telecoms minister Andimuthu Raja sold 2G mobile telephony spectrum licences for prices far below market valuations. A report from India's Comptroller and Auditor General estimated that the potential revenue losses may have been US$40 billion (Dh147bn).

The deadlock paralysed the winter session of the parliament, which ran from November 9 to December 13. Previous efforts by Mr Mukherjee and by the speaker of the lower house, Meira Kumar, to break the deadlock have failed.

The next session of parliament, scheduled to begin on February 21, is the year's most crucial session. Known as the budget session, it features the finance minister's presentation of the government's budget as well as debates on spending.

Neither Mr Mukherjee nor any other member of the Congress party-led government made any statement after the meeting yesterday.

But Sushma Swaraj, a member of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said that all the parties had agreed that "parliament must run at all costs".

Another meeting is likely on February 20. If an investigation by the joint parliamentary committee is to be launched, that motion will be approved once the new session begins.

Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst, regards a parliamentary committee investigation as "largely symbolic". He points out that there have been four in the past, but that "nothing much came of them".

"Technically the government is right," he said, "and this would be a matter for the public accounts committee. But the government's first priority will be to get the budget session going."

The importance of the budget has brought some intransigent opposition leaders to the negotiating table. Gurudas Dasgupta, a Communist Party of India leader, recently told the media: "Holding up parliament on one demand is wrong."

Since the winter session, there also has been progress in the government's efforts to prosecute Mr Raja. He was arrested last week by the Central Bureau of Investigation, and yesterday a Delhi court extended his custody by two days.

But the BJP has not wavered over its demand for the investigation. Arun Jaitley, a BJP leader, has attacked the government's "credibility deficit" and said his party would continue to press for the investigation, despite Mr Raja's arrest.

Just as one telecommunications scam approaches resolution, however, the comptroller and auditor general have begun to probe another one.

The Indian Space Research Organisation, which belongs to a ministry headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself, is being investigated for its allocations in 2005 of S-band spectrum without the regulation bidding processes. It has been alleged that the allocation process may have cost the government up to $44.2bn.

A statement from the prime minister's office denied that any S-band spectrum had been allotted.

Since the case "spotlights an agency directly under the prime minister, it will embolden the opposition further, even though it's not directly related to the 2G scam", Mr Rangarajan said. But he sees the struggle as political shadowboxing.

"The BJP now thinks it has the Congress on the mat and so it won't back down. The Congress, if it agrees to a probe, will want something in return. So what will the terms be? That is what we have to wait and see."