Indian police arrest ex-telecom minister

By Adam Plowright (AFP)

NEW DELHI – Indian police arrested former telecom minister A. Raja and other senior officials on Wednesday as part of a probe into one of the country’s biggest corruption cases.

Raja, a low-caste politician from a regional party in south India, was forced out of government in November as public outrage mounted over the sale of second-generation (2G) telecom licences in 2008 at knock-down prices.

A. Raja is accused of losing the Indian treasury up to $40 billion with his cut-price sale of 2G licences in 2008

The licences were sold on a first-come, first-serve basis instead of via an auction and the ministry is suspected of changing the rules to favour certain companies, many of which were ineligible, according to the national auditor.

A study by the auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General, found that losses from the cut-price sales could have cost the national treasury up to $40 billion, though this figure is disputed by the government.

“The CBI has today arrested the then union minister of communication and information technology, the then secretary telecom and the then private secretary of (the) minister,” police spokesman R.K. Gaur told reporters.

Raja had been questioned at police headquarters in the capital since 10:00 am (0430 GMT) on Wednesday.

The so-called 2G scandal has engulfed India’s Congress Party-led coalition government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, causing some of the strongest political headwinds since they came to power six years ago.

The Supreme Court has consistently pressured the government, asking why Singh failed to act against Raja earlier and querying why police had taken until December to question the minister.

The rules for selling the second-generation (2G) telecom licences had been changed “arbitrarily,” said Supreme Court judge A.K. Ganguly in November.

Raja, who denies any wrong-doing, belongs to a small regional party in the national ruling coalition called the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, which draws support from the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

The 2G scandal and widespread graft allegations during the vastly over-budget Delhi Commonwealth Games in October have buffeted the government and led to soul-searching in India about the growing menace of corruption.

In a campaign for a cross-party investigation into the sale, the main opposition parties stalled parliament for the entire winter session, meaning almost no new legislation was passed.

In January, 14 prominent Indians, including business leaders, judges and economists, warned in an open letter to the government that rampant corruption was damaging the country’s social fabric.

They expressed concern that India’s rapid growth was being derailed by corruption, which they called “the biggest issue corroding the fabric of our nation” and one that needed to be tackled “on a war footing”.

Prime Minister Singh and his party chief, Sonia Gandhi, have promised to punish anyone found guilty of wrong-doing in the Commonwealth Games and the 2G licence sales.

In six decades, however, only one senior Indian politician, Rao Shiv Bahadur Singh, has been convicted of graft and served a jail term — for taking a bribe of 25,000 rupees back in 1949.


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