It's not a scam, it's a thriller

Who would have thought a wall clock in a non-descript government office would be integral to a narrative of a multi-billion scam, that has now been deemed a “non-scam” by a CBI special court for lack of substantial evidence? The lengthy verdict, acquitting all the 17 accused in the 2G spectrum allocation case, has devoted several paragraphs on how and when a wall clock was ordered, procured and installed at the reception of Sanchar Bhawan, the headquarters of the Department of Telecom in New Delhi. Innocuous details in a document running over 1,500 pages, one might argue. But no, that clock fits in as an essential part of the 2G story and like in any thriller that’s hard to put down, the smallest of detail often keeps up the pace.

The judgment that surprised and shocked the world last week has brought alive the tale of a clock that has stood witness to the twists and turns in telecom for almost a decade now. This is how it unfolded. S E Rizvi, then under secretary at DoT, got an offbeat assignment in January 2008. He was asked to arrange a wall clock for the ground floor reception, according to Rizvi’s account when he deposed before the special court hearing the 2G case. On January 9, 2008, he got a wall clock purchased through his subordinate. The latest verdict further said Rizvi deposed that on January 10, 2008, he had set up four counters for compliance on letter of intent (LoI) to be issued to the new telcos and also that he had got the wall clock fixed in the reception area, as per instruction.

Yes that’s right, the brand new clock and the fresh LoIs are to be read together to make sense of what’s going on. Time was of essence when first-come-first-served licences were being issued under the then telecom minister A Raja, who’s now been acquitted in the 2G case along with the other accused. While LoI compliance for applicants in the 2G telecom business was arranged across four counters at a committee room on the second floor of Sanchar Bhawan, the payment of entry fee was to be done at the ground floor reception. Applicants had to watch their time and race down from second to ground floor to be able to make it to the lucrative list in the promising telecom sector — everything on January 10, 2008, as fast as possible.

Through last-minute press releases and notifications, DoT had revised the rule book and the cut-off date/time (though the court has not held it as an evidence to hold the accused guilty). It was alleged that those with prior knowledge were better placed with their demand drafts, but everyone had to “race desperately’’, resulting in “disorder’’ and ‘’chaos’’. Observations in the verdict say “physical fitness of the representatives became the main deciding factor for priority in submission of compliance of LoIs and entry fee...’’ 

And of course, it made sense to have a wall clock installed at the reception, perhaps as a last-minute thought. To comply with the redefined first-come-first-served definition, where the fastest payment of entry fee, rather than those ahead in the applicants’ queue, ensured a 2G licence at a price discovered way back in 2001.

 
But the clock is not the only prop in the 2G thriller. Dak (dealing with postal services) is yet another unusual reference that finds prominent place in the verdict written by special court judge O P Saini. Of the 153 witnesses examined by the prosecution, there were many junior workers at the wireless division of DoT including peons distributing ‘dak’ who figured in the case. These men were supposed to tell exactly how the letters, draft LoIs and press releases passed from one desk to another through Sanchar Bhawan. Raja’s “camp office’’ (part of his residence in the capital), where his then private secretary RK Chandolia would frequently work with him till late in the night on the new 2G licensing process, also is a frequent mention through the pages of the judgment. 

Handwriting experts and photographers too are part of this page-turner, to keep the reader hooked on to the drama that 2G was all about. So what if it may or may not have caused a notional loss of ~1.76 lakh crore to the exchequer? And so what if the term “auction” has suddenly lost the fame it had attained post 2G scam?


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