New Delhi: The man who allegedly designed and implemented India's biggest scam, A Raja, has been granted bail. The former telecom minister has spent 15 months in jail for the telecom swindle, also referred to as the 2G scam for the sort of airwaves that are at the heart of the controversy.
Mr Raja was reciting prayers under his breath as the judge began reading out his order. Minutes before that, he told NDTV's A Vaidyanathan that he did not expect a favourable verdict. A loud cheer went up among nearly 150 supporters of Mr Raja's party, the DMK, as the order was read out. Mr Raja then blew kisses to his supporters. His wife, MA Parmesweri, was seen with tears in her eyes. "We are very happy...the family will get together. But a long battle lies ahead," she said, referring to the trial that will continue for her husband.
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.
The conditions for his bail make it necessary for Mr Raja to get the court's permission to visit both his home state of Tamil Nadu and his former office at the Department of Telecommunications. He has been asked to surrender his passport.
DMK leader TR Baalu told the media, "We are very happy." The party chief, M Karunanidhi, has since Mr Raja's arrest stood firmly by the former minister, who is one of the party's most charismatic and popular Dalit leaders. He has yet to comment on Mr Raja's bail. Mr Raja was seen joking in court an hour before the order was announced with Mr Karunanidhi's daughter, Kanimozhi, also a leader from the DMK party, and co-accused in the telecom scam. She had also spent several months in prison till she was granted bail in November.
The charges against Mr Raja are hefty. For 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.
Mr Raja applied for bail last week. His lawyers said that he has cooperated with the CBI investigation into the scam, and that he expects to be acquitted. The CBI had opposed his bail, arguing that as a former minister, Mr Raja is in a position to influence witnesses.
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.