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Silence is not an answer

June 18, 2011

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WE need to lay out the sequence if we want to assess the consequence. In the June 12, 2011 issue of The Sunday Guardian our political editor Kota Neelima broke a story that in one of the famous taped conversations A. Raja, the telecom minister, told lobbyist Niira Radia that “Chidambaram has taken a lot of money”.

Her source was a CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) document, part of the written CBI evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, headed by Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, based on an ‘Analysis of calls received from Income Tax Department’. It was submitted by the anti-corruption branch of the CBI. This document is in possession of The Sunday Guardian.

Chidambaram, now home minister but in charge of finance during the substantive part of the telecom scam, has issued a statement that the ‘Raja’ mentioned in the CBI note to parliament was not A. Raja, the minister, but a certain K.R. Raja, an executive working for Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries. K.R. Raja has made a statement apologising for casting such aspersions on Chidambaram.

The case gets more curious at every step. The questions have increased, not disappeared.

1: CBI has been investigating these tapes for a year at least. How could it make a mistake in identifying Raja’s voice in the audio when it must have heard that voice countless number of times? Do the Reliance Raja and the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) Raja have the same voice? Could CBI not have checked the difference, if any, and sent this tape for authentication to a laboratory?

Incidentally, the assumption that it was a private-sector executive who believed that Chidambaram had got “a lot of money” does not make the allegation any less heinous, since it is the private sector which has paid politicians in this scam.

2: This conversation was obviously recorded from Radia’s mobile phone, since Mukesh Ambani Raja’s phone was not, presumably, being tapped. Did CBI question Radia about whether she had any knowledge of this ‘large sum of money’? Or does CBI pursue allegations against a DMK Raja to the hilt, but is totally indifferent to allegations against powerful Congress ministers?

It is the duty of CBI to investigate allegations of all corruption, which is why these phone taps were authorised in the first place.

What efforts did the CBI make to either substantiate corruption by Chidambaram, or absolve him? Or are we to assume that CBI has been ordered not to enquire any further when someone of the political weight of Chidambaram is involved?

Accusing the finance minister of corruption is as high a misdemeanour as we can get. Why did CBI not pursue this lead from the transcript? The matter could have been settled long before this paragraph went to PAC. Did CBI ever check with the telecom minister Raja whether he had made that remark? If yes, what was his answer? If not, then why not?

Raja is still in custody. Has CBI bothered to ask Radia about this since the story broke? And if the voice is that of the Reliance Raja, as Chidambaram avers, then has CBI asked the private-sector executive why he made such a remark? If yes, what was the answer? If not, then why not?

3: In the documents sent to PAC, CBI has consistently referred to principals by their surnames without adding initials before them. Chidambaram, for instance, has been mentioned only by his familiar surname in the relevant paragraph; there is no ‘P.C.’ before the surname.

The context of the document tells us that the text refers to the then finance minister, and not to any of the millions of other Chidambarams who are citizens of India. Similarly, former telecom minister A. Raja is regularly referred to only as ‘Raja’.

Witness, to mention only a few examples, the CBI’s analysis of conversations on Nov 15, 2008, Nov 18, 2008, Nov 19, 2008 or Nov 20, 2008. All these references are in the papers that are with the Public Accounts Committee.

There is no reference to any K.R. Raja in the CBI document. And even if the statement was made by the Reliance Raja, the question will not go away: why was there no follow-up in an investigation about corruption during these many, many months?

Home Minister Chidambaram has not denied that the reference was to him, nor has anyone else.

4: Is CBI so incompetent that it sent a document to the highest authority in a democracy, parliament, without a full check on something as serious as an allegation of corruption against a former finance minister and present home minister? CBI lets this explosive allegation about ‘a lot of money’ going to Chidambaram hang in the air. Why? Which officers of CBI are responsible for this lacuna?

Who will provide the answers? Silence, or even bluster, is not an answer.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.