Governments should govern. When misgovernance is exposed, as in the 2G spectrum scam, remedial action should follow. Yet we are seeing theatre parading as principle.
A rowdy opposition has paralyzed the current Lok Sabha session. Opposition parties insist that they will let the Lok Sabha function only if a joint parliamentary committee is appointed to probe the telecom 2G licences scam. The government has refused, and instead appointed a one-man inquiry committee. Because of the deadlock, Parliament has not functioned at all for 21 days.
The Times of India has calculated that the cost of a Parliament session is Rs 7.8 crore per day. In that case, the non-functioning of Parliament this session has already amounted to a Rs 164-crore scam. Whether or not former telecom minister A Raja will be found guilty in the telecom scam remains to be seen. But all political parties are dead guilty of the Rs 164-crore scam of paralyzing Parliament—this is a scandalous misuse of taxpayer’s money.
Congress worthies sanctimoniously blame opposition rowdies for sabotaging Parliament. Yet the Congress, no less than the opposition, is engaged in political theatre. If the Congress were serious, it would simply ask Speaker Meira Kumar – an old Congress hand – to suspend the rowdies and let the others continue with normal legislative business. This is indeed what used to happen in the Nehruvian era.
But not anymore. The Congress itself resorts to the same disruptive tactics when it is in opposition. So, all parties have come to a disgraceful, unwritten agreement that the right to paralyze Parliament is a fundamental political right of MPs, taking precedence over established norms of democratic functioning. All else is political theatre.
The comptroller and auditor general’s report on the 2G scam turns up little that was not known before. It was well known in 2008 at the time of licence allocation that Raja had subverted the process by first decreeing that licences would be given on a first-come first-served basis, and then tipping off favoured parties so that they could be first in line. When some of those licences were later sold at astronomical prices, many journalists highlighted the huge sums the government had foregone by not having an auction.
In no well-governed country are scarce licences handed out in such a manner. How on earth can a queuing system reward the most deserving? In any case, the licences were won, not by those who applied first but by those who first submitted the required documentation, and these were the ones tipped off through insider information. What did they pay for this inside information? Nobody knows, but everybody can guess.
It is easy to point fingers at Raja, but Manmohan Singh and his cabinet went along with this disgraceful licensing formula, and so are fully culpable. Even the Marxists, who are now waxing eloquent with rage, are culpable. They had the ability to topple the government in 2008 when the 2G licences were awarded, and actually tried to use this ability in regard to the Indo-US nuclear deal. But they never even tried to stop the 2G licensing formula that was obviously tailored for corruption.
Not even the BJP made a really big fuss. The truth is that all parties made so much money through dubious distributions of permits and licences in various states that they could not summon enough outrage in 2008 at the 2G money-making formula.
For the future, we need a law that prohibits the discretionary misuse of power apparent in so many allocations of land, mines, and licences of all sorts. We need a law that lays down that no government permit or licence shall be granted save on the basis of an auction, of which the full details and documentation are available to all, at least three weeks in advance. One exception will have to be made. An auction raises costs, and can mean that the winner has to charge high rates to recover his auction bid. In cases where the aim is to keep public prices low, licences can be distributed free of charge by lottery to pre-qualified candidates that will also be corruption-free. Any government allocation without such transparency should be legally null and void.
Of course, politicians will resist any such law. It will end the very lucrative games they have been up to all their lives. Yet politicians are sensitive to public outrage, and will give way when politically necessary. If this reform happens after the 2G scam, it will yield a public dividend several times the size of the scam itself.