It was said to be the biggest scam of independent India – the 2G spectrum case – which candidate Narendra Modi, in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, made a by-word for crony capitalism under the United Progressive Alliance.
Remember, the Central Bureau of Investigation’s star asset was billionaire Anil Dhirubhai Ambani (ADA) – who was granted the status of a prosecution witness by the court. The understanding was that he could assist in the prosecution case against his own executives, who are accused in the 2G case of creating a web of shell companies within the ADA group that allegedly aided in transferring money to companies run by Karunanidhi’s family members. Nearly six years after the first 2G scam charge-sheet was filed by the CBI in 2011, the long-drawn trial is in its closing stages. On December 5, special judge O.P. Saini will set a date for the court’s judgment. When the verdict comes, one key question of public interest about the trial proceedings is the extent to which Anil Ambani’s testimony during the trial actually helped the prosecution.
For the CBI, the assistance of Anil Ambani – who denied any knowledge or involvement in the alleged transactions – became critical to solving this aspect of the 2G scam. But a cursory look at his testimony suggests he was of little or no help.
While the broad thrust of Anil Ambani’s testimony in court was reported in 2013, The Wire has obtained the full transcript of what he said in response to questions put to him by prosecutors. The picture it paints is one of almost total memory loss on his part, at least as far as matters relating to 2G-related issues were concerned.
As per his sworn testimony before the special CBI court, Anil Ambani remembers nothing of the companies he owns, the meetings chaired by him and, incredibly enough, whether he is even a promoter in some of the companies he runs.
While Tony Jesudasan, head of ADA group corporate communications and a director in its new defence venture, refused to comment on Anil Ambani’s apparent memory loss as disclosed by his testimony, he did confirm to The Wire that the transcript was authentic after asking for a copy of the document.
The ‘2G scam’ is shorthand for the massive irregularities in the allocation of second generation spectrum licenses for mobile communications and limited data transmission. The Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) quantified the scam loss at Rs 1.76 lakh crore. The CBI filed a charge sheet on April 2011 against Reliance ADA group managing director Gautam Doshi, senior executives Hari Nair and Surendra Pipara, as well as the then telecom minister A. Raja. Also charged was DMK leader Kanimozhi, daughter of party leader M. Karunanidhi, then an important ally of the Congress at the Centre.
Anil Ambani and his wife Tina Ambani appeared as prosecution witnesses. Yet detailed depositions made by him suggest that he does not remember how decisions were taken on crucial transactions linked to obtaining 2G licenses through a web of companies run by top executives of the group.
The CBI told the court that Ambani’s ADA group, had provided the entire funding for Swan Telecom Pvt Limited (STPL) – one of the firms accused of getting 2G spectrum in complete violation of stipulated rules.
The CBI says the company provided the funding through a “circuitous route” when STPL had applied for 2G licenses in 14 telecom circles across the country. In its charge-sheet, the CBI alleged that the Anil Ambani-controlled ADA group, which includes Reliance Telecom, used STPL as a front. Three of his executives were arrested and accused of setting up Swan Telecom to gain 2G licenses and valuable radio spectrum during the sale.
The CBI alleges that the entire funding of STPL was done by Reliance – that the transactions between Reliance ADAG firms, STPL and other companies were not genuine and were done to increase the paid up capital of STPL. According to the agency, payments were made by Reliance, a listed company, to Kalaignar TV director Sharad Kumar, who is also an accused in the case.
Charges were framed against the accused on October 22, 2011 under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code dealing with the offences of criminal conspiracy, cheating, forgery, faking documents, abusing official position, taking bribes by criminal misconduct under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
A ‘hostile witness’?
Anil Ambani was not charged and the CBI declared that it would use him as a prosecution witness who would give evidence of wrongdoing by his own three company officials. Going by his testimony, however, the CBI appears to have gained little by putting him on the stand. Indeed, media reports in August 2013 said that the CBI special prosecutor, U.U. Lalit – who is now a Supreme Court judge – declared Anil Ambani a ‘hostile witness’. However, TV18 quoted his lawyer, Vijay Agarwal, saying that Ambani was not being hostile. “Anil Ambani was not a hostile witness. When he was cross-examined by the prosecution he merely said he doesn’t remember whether it was his statement that had been recorded by the CBI,” he said.
According to senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who has followed the 2G case closely, Anil Ambani should not just have been declared hostile but the public prosecutor should have then questioned him as well. “If he continued saying he does not remember vital financial decisions taken to benefit him he should be prosecuted by the court for perjury. This deposition is a very clear cut case of trying to get away.” – The Wire