Special CBI Judge OP Saini’s order acquitting all accused in the 2G case, in which a former minister in the Congress-run United Progressive Alliance was accused of providing spectrum to telecom companies in return for favours, could not have come at a better time for the Congress. The party is just coming off a loss in the Gujarat elections that nevertheless felt like a win because it sufficiently dented the Bharatiya Janata Party’s seemingly unstoppable election machine. Now, with a Special Court saying there was no proof of illegality in the scandal that first gave the UPA its “scam-tainted tag”, the Congress is expected to try and turn this to its advantage.
Its alliance partner at the time, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, whose leaders A Raja and Kanimozhi were accused in the case, is likely to benefit immediately, since the verdict came on a day when elections were being held in the Chennai neighbourhood of RK Nagar. But the Congress too is attempting to turn the acquittal into a platform from which to argue that all the corruption charges against it were propaganda from the other side.
Congress leaders Manish Tewari and Kapil Sibal demanded an apology from Vinod Rai, who was Comptroller and Auditor General at the time when he issued a report saying that the national exchequer had notionally lost Rs 1.76 lakh crore due to the UPA’s telecom policy. The Rs 1.76 lakh crore figure stuck to the Congress at the time and has frequently been used as a byword for the scale of corruption under that government, while 2G also was regularly mentioned in the BJP’s campaign rallies, often alongside CWG, meaning the alleged scam during the Commonwealth Games and “damaad-ji”, a reference to Robert Vadra.
Should Congress celebrate?
Whether the Congress is right to celebrate may be another matter, considering Thursday’s judgment does not change the fact the Supreme Court in 2012 found its telecom policy to be arbitrary and unconstitutional leading to the quashing of 122 licences and a severe hit to the industry. This verdict does not change that order. All it does is suggest that the prosecution did not have enough evidence to prove that A Raja had received kickbacks in order to give specific companies spectrum out of turn.
But the Congress will nevertheless sell the development as proof of its innocence in the face of many attacks, and hope that the decision will plant the seed of doubt regarding the veracity of other alleged scams, like ‘Coal gate,’ in which coal blocks were allegedly allocated in return for bribes. The Congress’ spin might even be buttressed by comments from the Special Judge who said the CBI prosecution, especially under the Modi government’s special prosecutor, was “diffident and directionless” and fell apart towards the end with no one willing to take responsibility.
Will it work?
Will the Congress line work though? The verdict seems like a boost for the party, and the BJP has been trying to push back against that, but it is unlikely that this is enough to take away the corruption tag that has been attached to the UPA ever since 2011. For one, the CBI can be expected to appeal the verdict, which will continue to keep alleged UPA-era indiscretions in the news. Moreover, the Coalgate case appears to be on more solid ground. And finally the general impression of a corrupt Congress government was in some ways only confirmed by these massive scams, not created by them, aided by the fact that the party is anchored by a first family against whom there are much older corruption allegations as well.
What might work, especially for others in the Opposition, is a line closer to the one the Aam Aadmi Party has sought to take in the past: They are all the same. The judge’s lament about the lackadaisical prosecution is likely to raise eyebrows and, almost four years into Modi’s tenure, there has been little action taken against Vadra. Coupled with the growing belief that demonetisation did not really do much to dent black money in the country, the net effect of stories like this may not be to give a clean chit to the Congress. Instead, it might take a toll on Modi and the BJP’s image of being a corruption-free party that is fighting the good fight.