The Indian Parliament’s budget session, which starts Monday, looks set to make life even more difficult for embattled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. His 21-month-old coalition government has been tainted by one scandal after another, sullying the image of the man once known as ‘Mr Clean.’ Congress President Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, must also be worried by the fact that virtually the entire opposition appears to be rounding on her premier and the alliance that she chairs.
The opposition is currently busy sharpening its knives over the $39 billion 2G spectrum scandal, and is almost certain to force the government to set up a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the issue, possibly as early as next week. But what should worry the government more is the S-band spectrum scam, which may be even bigger than the 2G irregularities. The S-band scandal, involving the suspiciously low cost of bandwidth charged in a deal between the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and multimedia firm Devas back in 2005, is particularly serious because ISRO comes directly under the prime minister’s supervision.
On February 17, the country’s apex decision-making body on issues concerning national security, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), met under the chairmanship of the prime minister and decided to scrap the ISRO-Devas deal. A day before that, Singh met editors of the electronic media at his residence. He came ready to address the S-band scam, apparently reading from pre-prepared text when answering questions on the subject (on all other issues, in contrast, he is said to have spoken without consulting any notes). He informed the media that in view of the country’s strategic requirements, the CCS would soon be taking a sovereign policy decision regarding the utilization of band capacity that utilizes the rare S-band spectrum.
Singh flatly denied any backroom discussions had taken place between the Prime Minister’s Office and anyone involved with the Devas deal, going on to offer an elaborate explanation of why it had taken more than five years for the government to annul the ISRO-Devas deal. He said the Space Commission had decided on July 2, 2010, to annul the deal, but that the question of how to annul the contract had still required consideration by legal experts and the Law Ministry.
‘Eventually it (was) decided that the Government should take a sovereign policy decision regarding the utilization of space band capacity which uses S-band spectrum…(in keeping with) the country’s strategic requirements,’ Singh said.
He also made some other interesting observations on the subject. He said: ‘It’s certainly true that a number of letters were received by members of Space Commission, including officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) from Devas after August 2010, including as late as a few days ago. Letters were also received in the PMO from the US Chamber of Commerce, but no action was taken on any of these letters, which were merely filed.
'At no stage was the Department of Space asked by the PMO to comment on the points made in the letters. They have no impact whatsoever on the processing of the case. On the contrary, the PMO followed up its verbal reminders to the Department of Space by sending a letter to it in October 2010 seeking…(a status report on the) decision taken by the Space Commission in its July 2010 meeting.’
The prime minister also said that no assurances had been given that were contrary to the recommendations of the Space Commission, although there had been some procedural delays in the processing of the decision.
There will undoubtedly be more trouble to come over the S-band controversy now that Devas has threatened legal action. The opposition parties, meanwhile, have been moving to make things as difficult as possible for the Congress, with the main opposition BJP demanding the setting up of separate JPCs to probe the Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Housing Society and S-band scandals.