After 15 months in jail, former telecom minister A Raja is back at home. He was welcomed with the traditional aarti and bursting of crackers; supporters from his DMK party also shouted slogans. Dinner for 200 people was organised at his home in Delhi for a grand welcome for the man accused of crafting and implementing India’s biggest scam.
Minutes before he was granted bail in a Delhi court, Mr Raja told NDTV’s reporters that he didn’t expect a favourable verdict. His wife, standing next to him, whispered prayers in Tamil as the judgement was delivered. Mr Raja was told he could go home, but he will need court permission to visit his home state of Tamil Nadu, or his former office, the Department of Telecom.
Rapturous supporters of Mr Raja cheered at court; the former minister blew kisses at them.
The judge accepted that Mr Raja should be treated at par with 13 others accused of conspiring with him in the telecom scam; they have all been granted bail already. The judge rejected the CBI’s argument that Mr Raja could try to influence witnesses to tamper with evidence. “The case is going on for more than a year and no such incident has been brought to my notice,” Judge OP Saini said. “I’m of the opinion that further detention of the accused would not serve any purpose,” he added.
Mr Raja, a popular and charismatic Dalit leader from the DMK, has been supported through his imprisonment by party president M Karunanidhi. That could be partly because Mr Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, has spent several months in prison for the telecom scam. She has been accused of helping Mr Raja receive a kickback from one of the telecoms that he allegedly favoured. “I am happy. We support Raja. He has been an active member and we will continue to back him,” Mr Karunanidhi said this evening. Another DMK leader, TKS Elangovan, made it clear that Mr Raja remains the Propaganda Secretary of the party.
The charges against Mr Raja are hefty. For allegedly giving away licenses at dirt-cheap rates to companies that were ineligible, he has been accused of breach of trust by a public servant – a charge that could see him getting a life sentence if he is found guilty. He has said he is innocent, and that the Prime Minister and then Finance Minister P Chidambaram were aware of the policies he was implementing in 2008. But earlier this year, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 mobile network licenses issued by Mr Raja in 2008. The judges said that the first-come-first-serve policy followed by Mr Raja had been distorted to help companies he favoured – these allegedly include Reliance Telecom and Unitech Wireless, among the country’s biggest mobile service operators. The court also said that the first-come-first-serve policy cannot be used for national resources- a decision which has led to the government formally seeking more clarity since it would affect how mining licenses, for example, are distributed.
The telecom scam has determinedly dogged the UPA coalition, of which Mr Raja’s party is a member. The government’s auditor controversially said that the swindle has cost the country 1.76 lakh crores. The opposition has alleged that it exposes the voluptuous corruption within the government, and that the Prime Minister and Mr Chidambaram cannot abdicate responsibility for allowing, through non-interference, Mr Raja to execute his conspiracy. “Mr Raja is a small fish. There are bigger names that need to be caught,” said the BJP’s Shahnawaz Husain today.