King with the Midas touch
By Aditya Sinha
08 May 2010 12:45:00 AM IST
Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister, Mr Kalaignar, claimed everyone was picking on Union communications minister A Raja because Raja was a Dalit. "That is why dominant forces are levelling malicious charges against him," he mumbled.
Actually, the controversy arose when Raja fixed the allocation of second generation (2G) services of spectrum for mobile and other wireless services; Raja was alleged to have favoured two unknowns in the telecom field, Swan telecom and Unitech, by fixing the auction in such a way that no one else could hope to properly participate. The two companies — which had backgrounds in real estate, a field without obvious connections to telecom — obtained the 2G licences at throwaway prices, which they subsequently sold at hefty premiums; the government lost an estimated Rs 60,000 crore, say experts. Politically influential persons may have personally earned Rs 5,000 to 10,000 crore.
When such sums of money are involved, controversy is usually stirred up by business rivals. It could be that one or more of the big boys in telecom — Bharti Airtel, Reliance Communications or Tata Tele services — might be interested in seeing the 2G scam roil Parliament so that, at the very least, they don't get hoodwinked when the 3G spectrum auction happens. Incidentally, the 3G auction has been postponed on several occasions; the Union Budget for 2009-'10 had counted on about Rs 40,000 crore accruing from this auction, and if Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee allowed the postponement of an auction that was going to make his job easier by Rs 40,000 crore then you can imagine how seriously Prime Minister Manmohan Singh views the controversy. (By Mr Kalaignar's logic, though, the postponement would have been anti-Dalit).
If a leading telecom is interested in exposing the 2G scam, it is not because it is interested in seeing Raja resign or go to jail. In fact, business houses prefer corrupt politicians to remain because they are easier to manipulate, and if something lucrative is around the corner, the business houses would rather have the same corrupt minister in the seat, but now at their mercy, rather than an unknown or inimical person take his place. For instance, the UPA-2 desperately needs Mr Kalaignar, having alienated the Yadavs with the Women's Reservation Bill and Sharad Pawar with allegations of food inflation and IPL tomfoolery; so if the question of replacing Raja arises then it would have to be with another DMK MP. At least one company, Tata Teleservices, would not want Raja replaced with textiles minister Dayanidhi Maran, as his brother Kalanithi runs a rival business.
Recently there was speculation that Nira Radia, the lobbyist figuring in Raja's tapped telephone conversations, is linked to Tata, but the Tatas have denied this. There has also been speculation that some telecom players would rather have Kanimozhi than Maran as communications minister. But in the murky politics of Mr Kalaignar's family, she's aligned with fertiliser minister M K Alagiri. Alagiri does not want younger brother M K Stalin, now the deputy chief minister, to become boss once Mr Kalaignar passes away, and had recently made a series of discordant noises (in between trips to Australia and the Maldives). For the time being, Mr Kalaignar seems to have pacified Alagiri; he was at Alagiri's bungalow during his recent visit to Delhi, and suddenly Alagiri is taking language lessons and attending to files. (Probably Mr Kalaignar & Son realised they could not accuse Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar of being anti-Dalit, even though she has loudly voiced her exasperation with Alagiri's behaviour, seeing that she is the daughter of Babu Jagjivan Ram).
One wonders, though, that whatever arrangement Mr Kalaignar has proposed to Alagiri, the chief minister perhaps would not want to upset the balance within his family; and the best way to do that is to keep Raja as a minister. (It could also be that Mr Kalaignar doesn't think his daughter has the intellectual wherewithal to handle such a lucrative ministry). The word from Delhi is that during his trip Mr Kalaignar met Congress boss Sonia Gandhi, and knowing that she wanted two of the six Rajya Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu that are up for election, he told her she would have the seats if Raja stayed.
This is admittedly a complex situation; which is why a simplistic explanation like saying that all of this happened because Raja is a Dalit is not only incorrect but also absurd. Telecom companies are pro-profit and not pro-Dalit, so their rivals cannot be anti-Dalit. The telephone-tapping agencies are not anti-Dalit. Nira Radia is not a Dalit.
However, if Mr Kalaignar really wants to call a spade a spade, then he ought to be courageous and question the Congress party's pro-Dalit credentials. The UPA-2 only under great pressure agreed to enumerate castes in the current census, the first time this is being done since 1931. One of the people against caste enumeration was Mr Kalaignar's great chum, Union home minister P Chidambaram, who argued that census-takers are not sociologically-sensitive enough to enumerate caste. (This was actually not a reason but an excuse). Enumerating caste is unlikely to benefit the upper castes; the gainers will be the backward castes and the Dalit populace. If you are a Dalit, the resistance to caste enumeration by Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram can only look anti-Dalit; yet Mr Kalaignar kept his mouth shut. (The Congress is fortunate to have a politically savvy decision-taker in Pranab Mukherjee).
Mr Kalaignar will get other opportunities in the coming days. Events in the recent weeks indicate Rahul Gandhi has given up on the Dalit vote in UP. Mayawati proved she is a better politician when she pulled out her garland of notes; she outsmarted Rahul on Dr Ambedkar's birthday when he flagged off several rath yatras by subverting his rallies; and she showed her indispensability to the UPA-2's survival during the Opposition's two failed cut motions in Parliament. She has the Dalit vote sewn up. The only way Rahul can hope to put on a good Congress showing in UP in next year's municipal elections and then in the assembly elections due in 2012 is to put together a non-Dalit coalition. He needs to do well in UP if he's going to be credibly projected as the prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 parliamentary elections. But to successfully put together a coalition in UP, he will have to woo backward caste voters and Dalit Muslim voters who are bitterly opposed to Dalits. To successfully woo them, he will have to make some symbolic anti-Dalit gesture at some point.
At that juncture, will Mr Kalaignar call him anti-Dalit? Probably not. He perhaps uses this tactic only when there's a threat to the goose that lays the golden egg, principled leader that he is.
About The Author;
Aditya Sinha is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The New Indian Express' and is based in Chennai.