Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was wheeled out today (27 May) to combat the high-decibel campaign by the Modi government to list its achievements in the last one year.

Given that Rahul Gandhi and the rest of the Congress party are already out there punching holes in the claims made by the “suit-boot ki sarkar”, the chances are Singh’s cameo appearance had more to do with clearing his own name in the 2G scam, which he presided over by adopting the strategy of “hear-no-evil, see-no-evil.”

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. PTIFormer Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. PTI

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. PTI

Singh’s reputation, already mauled in two books, one by his former media advisor Sanjaya Baru, and another by former coal secretary PC Parakh, has received a further battering from the allegations made in Pradip Baijal’s book titled: The Complete Story of Indian Reforms: 2G, Power and Private Enterprise – A Practitioner’s Diary.

Baijal, who was Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) Chairman during the final years of the earlier NDA regime and the initial years of UPA-1, had a ringside view of how telecom affairs were being conducted under Singh. In his book, Baijal says he had warned Manmohan Singh that inducting Dayanidhi Maran as telecom minister was a clear case of conflict of interest (Maran’s brother runs Sun TV, and Trai had just been given the mandate to regulate broadcast policies), but Singh allegedly ignored him.

Baijal also alleges that Maran threatened him with “serious consequences” if Trai recommended the creation of unified licences for telcos. His allegation against Manmohan Singh is that the latter told him to “cooperate with my minister… since non-cooperation would compromise his government.” He added that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which was investigating another case against involving the disinvestment process (Baijal was earlier disinvestment secretary in NDA-1), had “warned” him that he may be harmed if he did not cooperate. He wrote: “Incidentally, this was exactly what the eminent economist Prime Minister had told me would happen if I did not cooperate in their scheme of things in the 2G case.”

Manmohan Singh’s presser on Wednesday, though ostensibly intended to rubbish the NDA’s economic performance (which P Chidambaram had already attacked efficiently the other day), was probably occasioned more by his need to rebut Baijal indirectly.

But he made a poor job of it.

What he said went something like this, according to Mint: “As far as I am concerned, I can say in all humility that I have not used my public office to enrich myself, to enrich my family or my friends. And still the BJP government keeps on harping on this theme of corruption because it wants to distract the attention of the people to non-issues.”

This is an astonishing statement, and does Singh no credit.

First, no one – not even the BJP – has claimed that Singh used his office to make money for himself or his pals. Rather, the allegation is that he allowed coalition partners and other people connected to the Congress party and Sonia Gandhi to indulge in corruption, whether in 2G, the allocation of coal blocks, or the Commonwealth Games.

Second, his anxiety shows up when he talks about the BJP “harping on this theme of corruption because it wants to distract the attention of the people to non-issues”. Clearly, the BJP is scoring over UPA on corruption. It is the Congress that seems keen on diverting attention away from its scams by making up general allegations about Modi’s allegedly close links to ‘crony capitalists”. With the NDA successfully auctioning coal blocks for huge sums, the UPA has no way to defend its own misallocation of coal blocks, and this scam happened right under Manmohan Singh’s watch. He was the coal minister for much of the time when coal blocks were allotted non-transparently.

Third, Singh made no reference whatsoever to all the evidence now piling up that he knew about the 2G and coal scams, but did not act.

Baijal’s accusations against Singh appear prima facie valid given what happened during UPA-1, when Manmohan Singh willy-nilly gave Maran a free hand to run telecom his way.

Here’s a recap of how Maran hijacked telecom policy from under Manmohan Singh’s nose.

On 23 February 2006, Manmohan Singh created a group of ministers (defence, finance, home, parliamentary affairs and telecom) to look into issues relating to spectrum, including its pricing (read here).

But just five days later, Maran forced Singh to back off. The telecom minister who Baijal now says he warned against, told the Prime Minister he will decide spectrum pricing all by himself. Maran wrote to the PM: “You may recall my meeting with you on 1st February 2006 when we had inter-alia discussed the issue of the Group of Ministers relating to the vacation of spectrum by defence. You had kindly assured me that the Terms of Reference of the GoM would be drawn up exactly the way we wanted, which was to focus only on the issue of vacation of spectrum. I am, however, surprised to note that the GoM as constituted has much wider Terms of Reference, some of which I feel impinge upon the work normally to be carried out by the ministry itself. I shall be grateful if you could kindly instruct the concerned to modify the Terms of References suggested by us which are enclosed.”

Note the words in italics – exactly the way we wanted. The PM had apparently agreed that Maran will decide pricing, but later seems to have decided that he would involve a group of ministers to manage Maran, but Maran forced him to rescind that decision.

Manmohan Singh may not have enriched himself, but he certainly kowtowed to his alliance partner in this case. The only question is at whose urgings did he give Maran a blank cheque to do what he wanted to with spectrum pricing.

Later, when Maran’s successor A Raja again allotted spectrum in January 2008 in an arbitrary manner without changing the 2001 price to even adjust for inflation, Singh, now outwitted, wrote to the telecom ministry to keep his office “at arm’s length” from Raja’s decisions. As Arun Shourie, telecom minister in the NDA government, told The Economic Times, file notings indicated that “the PM was quite alarmed at what was happening. These licences were given on 10 January, 2008. On 11 January, the Principal Secretary notes that the PM desires to take into account the developments concerning the issue of licences. The file is submitted back to the PMO on 15 January”, but the Principal Secretary then says “the Prime Minister wants this informally shared with the (telecom) department. He does not want a formal communication and wants PMO to be at arm’s length”.

Manmohan Singh abdicated his responsibility, and later tried to distance himself from Raja’s scam which he was completely aware of.

Baijal’s allegations, even if partially self-serving, ring true precisely because of this background. Manmohan Singh failed to address the core of the allegation, and instead tried to deflect it by saying he did not make a personal gain from it. That was not the allegation.

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Manmohan’s 2G defence: Sorry, but ex-Trai chief Baijal’s allegation rings more true