Sunday, December 5, 2010

Where scandals are concerned, Raja, Kalmadi, Chavan, Radia and Yeddyurappa are clear winners this year, but Raja also wins the lifetime award for pulling off the biggest scandal ever in India.

This was clearly the year of scandals. It was also the year of leaks (and not just WikiLeaks). How did scandal after scandal spill out this year? Perhaps something happened somewhere that emboldened whistle-blowers. The Bofors scam in the '80s and fodder scam in the 1990s were considered big when they broke, but they look minuscule and inconsequential when compared to this year's scandals. Here's a quick rewind:

A Raja:
Without question, Raja is the shahenshah of scandals in India. India has seen big scandals, but the scale of Raja's 2G spectrum scandal is so mind-boggling that it took a couple of years for even the whistle-blowers to make sense of it. An intrepid reporter called Gopikrishnan first began digging up how spectrum licences had been undersold. Soon, television channels got hold of the government auditor's report, which said the scandal had cost the nation Rs 1.76 lakh crore. It took some weeks before the opposition could get Raja sacked. So where did the booty go? Raja is a DMK leader from Tamil Nadu, and the talk is that he took a lot of the cash to his leaders back home. Kapil Sibal, the new telecom minister, is talking about cancelling ill-gotten licences. But the original buyers have resold the licences and booked profits, so his action could only penalise those who bought stolen stuff, and not the ones who actually did the stealing. In any case, as Shah Rukh would say, picture abhi baaki hai.

Suresh Kalmadi:
As sports administrator, Kalmadi has been the blue-eyed boy of the Congress for three decades. Roped into politics by Sanjay Gandhi, Kalmadi (54) has enjoyed support from the top, which is why he must have believed he could get away with anything. That wasn't to be. This year, when the Commonwealth Games came to India, he was shamed, first for not getting the stadiums and the games village ready in time, and then for allegedly pocketing millions. He was booed when he rose to make a speech at the Games inauguration. He continues to claim innocence, but his deputies Lalit Bhanot and T S Darbari have reportedly squealed on him. Media investigations have already revealed he bought everything from soap dispensers to airconditioners to sports equipment at astronomically jacked-up prices. His official website says he has a glorious vision for Pune for 2020, but his city is unlikely to stand by him as it has done in the past.

Niira Radia: No one had heard of Niira till November this year. Suddenly, thanks to the leaking of phone transcripts in which she was talking to India's who's who, everyone was talking about her. That, in a less scandalous context, would have been an astounding PR accomplishment. Anyway, Niira is a PR diva who could call up anyone -- Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi -- and discuss anything. India is gaping as it is told that a PR consultant was mediating between the Congress and the DMK, and influencing the choice of telecom minister in the world's fastest growing telecom market. Her conversations are now being examined by the income tax authorities, and two magazines, Open and Outlook, have published call transcripts, embarrassing not just industrialists and politicians but journalists as well. Politician Amar Singh and industrialist Ratan Tata have both said private call transcripts should not be aired in the media. Niira may have helped Raja get the job that allegedly helped him pull off the biggest swindle of all time. She has also brought glamour, spice, and intrigue to this year of scandals.

Ashok Chavan:
Countries get emotional over wars. As Maharashtra's Chief Minister, Chavan didn't realise how volatile things could get if he were caught cheating martyrs' families. Chavan helped his relatives buy flats at Adarsha Housing Society in Mumbai. It appears he and his predecessors allowed the high-rise to come up on defence land because they were getting something in return. The building is in trouble now, and Sonia Gandhi had no choice but to ask Chavan to leave. What damage he has caused to the party will be known when elections are held, but the Congress just couldn't afford to have a chief minister who would be seen as a crook without a heart.

Considered the dumbest of this year's scamsters, Yeddyurappa was caught changing the status of government land to help his sons. Real estate is more precious than gold in Bangalore, and his actions couldn't have escaped the watchful eyes of the Deve Gowda family, also majorly into the land business. Earlier chief ministers like S M Krishna and Dharam Singh have also given away government land cheap to their near and dear ones, but they knew how to cover their tracks. H D Kumaraswamy, Deve Gowda's son and former chief minister, has been at Yeddyurappa's throat, pulling out documents to show how extensively Yeddyurappa and his men have grabbed land. By Kumaraswamy's estimate, the scandal amounts to Rs 5,000 crore. The BJP's central leadership was demanding action against the UPA and stalling parliament to demand a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the spectrum scandal, and was clearly embarrassed by Yeddyurappa's brazen ways. Many factions are active in the Karnataka BJP. The Reddy brothers, children of a police constable, have earned enough money from mining (many say illegal) to be able to compete with the Mittals of the world. They have their own agenda, and have been inconsistent in their likes and dislikes. Yeddyurappa turned all of this to his advantage, and defied his party's leaders, who wanted him to go. He wasn't so dumb, after all. He also allegedly paid off whoever was against him in Delhi, but significantly, his party's supreme leader L K Advani refused to see him. He has returned to Bangalore victorious, but his enemies aren't going to keep quiet for long.


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