Telecom sits on the top of the
incredible India story. But the mess, evident in the award of
second generation (2G) licences, shows how at least six principal
characters worked overtime to deface it. To borrow from the
cricketing cliche, and but for the Supreme Court (SC), this team
of public functionaries snatched defeat from the jaws of global
They are guilty of blinding by the glint of nickels and a varying
spectrum of complicity. The team includes:
- A. Raja, the former communications minister enjoined with public
responsibility to allot the spectrum without making it a conduit
for his party and person.
- The Department of Telecom (DoT), which isn't supposed to be a
backroom den for crony capitalism, but reduced itself to dhobi
marking a rapacious minister's decisions.
- The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) which has made
amnesia a habit, forgetting that it has the mandate to confront
the DoT and behave less and less like an organ of the executive.
- The Prime Minister's Office and the finance ministry who had a
Kiplingesque duty to keep their head when all about them are
- The raft of applicants, licensees, traders (those who replaced
the original licensees), lawyers, and lenders.
- One could include here another actor, the Competition Commission
of India, which in its wisdom neither intervened nor was asked to.
It is sad therefore that these honourable men and institutions had
to be castigated like children by the apex court, the reluctant
mahout of our story. It is sadder still that there seemed no
alternative to all the 122 licences being cancelled, leaving open
the primary question of mixing the wheat with the chaff, and
consequent injustice to those who invested their money (and their
bankers!) into India.
Let us also not forget the sad fate of consumers who subscribed to
these new licensees in the hope of better service and lower rates
and are now being seduced by irritating advertisements from
incumbent players promising portability, the dubious nirvana.
This avoidable situation has led to predictable split. The cheer
leaders for good governance are rejoicing, as they should. But
more nuanced commentaries are right in pointing to the publicity
nightmare that confronts India regarding predictability of our
investment environment. Can the Indian sovereign be trusted?
The "mahout" has done his bit, which is to put a stop to a patent
wrong-doing and then leaving it to the sectoral sherpa to draw a
fresh auction within four months. This is a laudable deadline. The
world will expect India to clean up years of mess within that
The telecom regulator is already busy dropping hints it will need
more time. Surely, it needs to build things from scratch. This
includes rebuilding its own organization! But rather than whine,
the regulator must see this as a god-sent opportunity to redeem
This comment points them to draw inspiration from an unlikely
candidate, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and its
chief rebuilder Robert Mueller. He had taken over as then
president George W. Bush's man for FBI just seven days before Sept
11, 2001. On 9/11, his agency found itself staring at perhaps the
biggest conceivable systemic failure in US history.
But Mueller re-built, indeed redefined his agency, brick by brick.
He redefined the FBI from a guns (remember J. Edgar Hoover!) to
geeks organization, where the enemy could be in a Somalia or Tora
Bora. One of us sat over several hours in Mueller's Harvard class,
and the celebrated business case that has documented the
rebuilding of FBI. Surely, the TRAI, the DoT, the finance ministry
and the PMO don't face a bigger disaster than FBI and the
India Inc., including the financial institutions and our legal
eagles, has an equal responsibility in co-creating a public
consultation on the telecom charter. Rather than sit on the
sidelines and then lobby for their interests, all the blind men
open the third eye within. The world expects no less. At stake is
whether India can rebuild its telecom narrative.
Moot points include:
- For the telecom companies in question, is a mere Rs.5-crore fine
sufficient, instead of blacklisting or barring them from
participating in new auction?
- How fast can India tell the world what it did to officials who
are guilty, including those who are hiding behind the cover of not
having been consulted?
- How can we demonstrate respect for guarantees of the
constitution in general and the principles of natural justice and
promissory estoppel in particular?
In the face of a clear impropriety of a few, should they be let
off so lightly and other bona fide stakeholders allowed to suffer?
commentators are associates with a leading legal and business
advisory. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and