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    South Asia
     Jun 16, 2011


Maran hangs on amid expanding 2G scam
By Raja Murthy

MUMBAI - Like a monster growing more heads even as they are severed, India's US$40 billion 2G spectrum scam is continuing to deliver lessons the hard way on how not to run the business of governance.

The latest character to be caught up in the scandal is Dayanidhi Maran, former telecommunications minister and current minister of textiles.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is under pressure to sack Maran, 44, who is fighting off allegations that as telecom minister he took decisions favoring his billionaire elder brother Kalanidhi, owner of Sun TV and majority stake holder in leading private airlines SpiceJet.

The 2G scam monster has already swallowed Andimuthu Raja, Maran's successor as telecommunications minister and alleged

 
executor of the scam, who undersold spectrum licenses instead of auctioning them as Manmohan had advised. The sale cost the exchequer an estimated $40 billion in lost revenues. [1] A Raja is at present in New Delhi's Tihar Jail.

The jail, Asia's largest prison, with over 13,000 inmates, is also home home to other leading lights in the 2G scam awaiting trial: Kanimozhi, cousin of Maran and daughter of Karunanidhi, patriarch of the Dravidian Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a key ally of the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition government that Manmohan leads; Gautam Doshi, managing director of the $14 billion Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group; Sanjay Chandra, former managing director of Unitech Wireless; Shahid Balwa, promoter of DB Realty and the youngest in the Forbes 100 billionaires list of 2010.

As they take a break from dining on five-star gourmet fare with a switch to eating the wholesome Tihar Jail lunch of dry rotis (leavened bread), lentils and simple vegetable dishes, the imprisoned billionaires have time to digest the wisdom that after every feast, legal or illegal, comes the reckoning.

Under pressure from a growing anti-corruption movement in India and presenting the bill with unusual vigor, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is probing Maran's role in the 2G affair that supposedly earned his elder brother Kalanidhi Maran's Sun TV a $132 million investment feast from the Malaysian Maxis Group.

Maxis bought a 20% stake in Sun Direct TV soon after the Telecommunications Ministry issued long-delayed licenses to Aircel, a leading cell-phone service provider in south India.

Former Aircel owner C Sivasankaran says his spectrum applications were arbitrarily delayed when Maran was the telecom minister in 2006. He was then "forced" to sell 74% of Aircel stake to Maxis Group in May 2006. Aircel received the new telecom licenses soon after he sold the company. The new owner, Maxis, then invested over $130 million in Kalanidhi Maran's Chennai-based Sun TV.

The Press Trust of India news agency on June 7 reported that Sivasankaran complaining to the CBI that the Maran brothers had threatened to kill him if he did not sell his company to Maxis.

Such allegations don't quite fit into Dayanidhi Maran's biography from when we were classmates for over a decade in Don Bosco School, Egmore, Chennai. His character, even allowing for vast changes from boy to man, looks unlikely to include a willingness to mastermind India's biggest corruption scandal, let alone threatening folks with murder.

From what I remember as Dayanidhi's classmate from 1974 to 1985 in Don Bosco, this could be a Cain and Abel episode in the 2G scam drama.

To more accurately serve the cause of justice, the CBI probing Dayanidhi Maran can also seek answers to the questions: did anyone else deliberately remain in the background, pulling well-connected strings, raking in the loot and leaving the younger Maran sibling out to hang? Was Dayanidhi Maran more a victim of cunning manipulation, rather than being the master manipulator?

Daya, as we called him in school, was as affable, straightforward and harmless a fellow as one could hope to meet. He played a bit of cricket, liked participating in school theatricals, and almost always wore a big grin when one talked to him, as if a Charlie Chaplin movie was perpetually playing inside his head.

Dayanidhi and I have not met or communicated in 20 years, but it was no surprise to know that he got along well with political leaders cutting across party lines, including United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi.

It's not so easy to recognize a similar harmless disposition in his elder brother Kalanidhi, two years my senior in school, and now one of India's fastest-growing billionaires.

Kalanidhi's low profile in the media has more of a sinister, shadowy air to it, rather than appearing a reclusive billionaire shy of the limelight. The old school boy news network says Dayanidhi is still the same unassuming friendly fellow, but it is not too flattering of the elder brother.

Since every issue has subtler layers and multiple angles beyond the obvious, there could be numerous shades of grey in the details of the 2G scam.

The CBI and other enforcement agencies may find interesting revelations if they penetrate the micro details of decision-making during Dayanidhi's days as telecommunications minister, scrutinize the exact source of instructions to senior bureaucrats, and investigate if anyone was exerting pressure in a minister's name. The CBI is better off making sure Abel is not hanged for any crimes, if any, of Cain.

Dayanidhi is adamant he is not a corrupt minister, and has sued three leading publications for suggesting he did.

Whether guilty as accused or not, the Maran brothers episode is the starkest appearance yet of vested business interests not merely influencing but perhaps controlling governance at the highest levels in India.

The Manmohan government has already earned a reputation of being far too business friendly. It's a coziness confirmed by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her WikiLeaked cable to the US Embassy on September 14, 2009. Clinton questioned her staff about Pranab Mukherjee being current finance minister: "To which business groups is Mukherjee beholden?; Why was [he] chosen over Montek [Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, India's top economic think-tank]?"

On June 7, Manmohan reminded his cabinet colleagues of their responsibility to declare their business interests, assets and liabilities, including that of their spouses and dependents.

But Manmohan should have heard loud warning bells when Maran's DMK party insisted on cornering the telecommunications portfolio, and did so even after Dayanidhi resigned as telecom minister in May 2007 following an internal squabble within the DMK. The 2G scam broke out in 2009 after another DMK man, A Raja, succeeded Maran as telecommunications minister.

Maran has now been abandoned by his ministerial colleagues and his political "family", with both the central government and the DMK shrugging their shoulders and declaring it's up to Maran to defend himself.

But the fact Manmohan has not yet sacked Maran, over 10 days since investigative journal Tehelka on June 4 published the allegations, shows there could be more to this than meets any hasty judgmental eye.

Dayanidhi can actually consider himself lucky. With his back to the wall and fighting on alone, he is in a better position realize his true friend is our Don Bosco school motto Virtuis in Arduis' - or "strength through hardships" - and that life's most valuable lessons are learned in the school of hard knocks. He has nothing to fear from the 2G scam if he is as innocent as he says he is.

Note
1. "The entire process of allocation of Universal Access Spectrum licenses lacked transparency and was undertaken in an arbitrary, unfair and inequitable manner," the Comptroller and Auditor General said in the concluding Chapter Six of its report dated November 8, 2010. "The Department of Telecommunications, in 2008, proceeded to issue 122 new licenses for 2G spectrum at 2001 prices, by flouting every cannon of financial propriety, rules and procedures."

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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