CHENNAI: SC smells “political vendetta” against Maran, stays arrest, scream media headlines on the Dayanidhi Maran bail case. According to media reports, the court asked, when the FIR was registered in 2013 and the investigation was hanging for two years, “Why did you not arrest him for all this time.” Media also reported the court telling the CBI, “Your assessment of the loss is `1.2 crore. Maran is ready to pay that money to BSNL. We are not saying that there is no misuse of power. But it is not that kind of corruption which requires arrest.”
Saying so, the court stayed Maran’s arrest till September 14 and asked the CBI to file an affidavit detailing the investigation so far. The media did not say much about what the Attorney General argued. The full facts of the case have been in the public domain through this newspaper for four years — but not where the Supreme Court is. The critical facts that ought to be told to the court are not too many.
Maran, who was Telecom Minister from 2004 to 2007, smuggled out a telephone exchange with 341 high speed telephone lines from BSNL to his Chennai home in Gopalapuram. This was kept out of the system and held as secret. The rent for each of these lines for a normal client of BSNL is `10 lakh per year, which alone would work out to `136 crore for four years from 2004-05 to 2007-08 [the lines ran till June 2007]. Maran added another 323 high speed lines in his newly built mansion in the posh Boat Club area in January 2007 and they functioned till June 2007.
For the years 2006-07 and 2007-08 the rent for the 323 lines would be an additional `65 cr. In sum, rent alone tops over `200 crore for 764 lines. The `1.2 crore Maran generously agreed to pay and which seemed to have impressed the court is just the cash-cost incurred by BSNL for laying cables to Maran’s home. Will the CBI tell the court that the loss is minimum `200 crore, not counting the immeasurable user charges. Will the CBI also tell the court that a bribe of `265 — yes just `265 in 1974 — entailed imprisonment of one-and-a-half years and fine of `50,000 in 2014 when the accused was 76 years old and the case 30 years old. [See Criminal Appeal No 404 of 2014 decided by the Supreme Court in February 2014] It is judgments like this that will deter one from corruption.
Not accepting generous offers to pay the bribes back. It is not known whether the Attorney General, who argued the case, told the court with what intent and purpose the two 764-line capacity high speed fraudulent telephone exchanges were installed. Was the court informed that Marans had surreptitiously connected the illicit high speed lines from their homes to the Sun TV network miles away and to homes of its staff all around Chennai through optic fibre cables for its business?
The AG should ask why the telephone exchanges were installed in the official name of the Chief General Manager, Chennai Telephones in Maran’s homes. It does not need a seer to say that Marans did it only lend the colour of genuine official use to mask the fraudulent misuse. Should the AG not ask whether it was to conceal the real, fraudulent intent? If he has not, the AG should ask the court when the case comes up on Sept 14: “Is this just misuse of power, my lord? Or is it a deeper and highly meditated conspiracy and fraud?” He ought to tell the court that the actual user fee of the 764 lines is not measurable because they were intentionally kept out of the monitoring system by deceptively designating the use as official.
The CBI letter to the Ministry of Telecom [Sept 2007] says that in just one line and in just one month over 48 lakh units of calls have emanated, showing massive multi-media use. This was when the UPA I government was in power.
On this basis, the charge for 764 lines for over 40 months could be several hundred crores. Should the AG not tell the court the very fact that 764 lines have been kept out of the system betrays the conspiracy to conceal the actual use and amount chargeable? Hope the CBI affidavit will contain all basic facts and the AG will ask the right questions.
On the shocking “vendetta” word, the CBI needs to tell court that the prosecution against Maran started by the CBI was stifled by the previous government. The facts are: Maran was telecom minister from June 2004 to June 2007 and got the 764 high speed lines surreptitiously installed - 341 lines in his old home in June 2004 and 323 lines in his new home in January 2007; he resigned as telecom minister when the Maran brothers quarreled with their grand uncle Dr Kalaignar Karunanidhi in June 2007; the CBI made initial inquiries and in September 2007 asked the telecom ministry for permission to investigate; after Marans bought peace with the grand uncle in 2008 the matter was put in cold storage till 2011; in June 2011 the media - the New Indian Express - exposed the fraud; till the Supreme Court was moved in 2013 the previous government did not even register an FIR though the CBI had requested for it in 2007; only under court pressure the CBI registered the FIR; the CBI began probing the matter only after the new CBI director took office; other accused were arrested but the lower courts in Chennai where Marans exert huge power did not allow custodial interrogation; the CBI wants custodial interrogation of Maran because he alone would know how the 764 high speed lines that stood installed in his homes and connected to Sun TV were made use of in Sun TV premises. Was Maran running his ministry’s office from Sun TV premises, which was then situated in DMK’s headquarters? Or was Sun TV uplinking its programmes free of cost? Or were the thousands of DMK cadre and leaders making use of the free high speed lines? The AG should ask why should Maran lay optic fibre cables from his home to Sun TV/DMK offices and then drive and work from there as minister? Why could he not do it from his home? For that, he will need just one high speed line. If he were greedy, may be two. But why 764 high speed lines? Unless Marans were kleptomaniacs, who steal without intent of personal use or gain, why smuggle away 764 high speed lines for no purpose? The AG should also ask: if the present government investigates the case that was buried by the previous government, is that vendetta?
The AG must also tell the court that the smuggled telephone lines breach national security. How illegal telephones were a security threat was discussed at a meeting on April 26, 2003 chaired by the Telecom Secretary himself and attended by intelligence agencies and cellular operators. This was before Maran became Telecom Minister and smuggled away from BSNL his 764-line exchanges. In its order of May 24, 2010, the Telecom Appellate Tribunal [TDSAT] ruled: “Operation of clandestine/illegal telecommunications facilities has serious implications from national security point of view. This is a matter of serious concern and all possible steps need to be taken by all concerned to curb such activities.”
The AG should ask the court: Is it a simple case of misuse of telephone lines to be closed by Maran’s generous offer of `1.2 crore? The AG must also say that there is a real security angle to the case [see ‘Mr Attorney, You Got Your Facts, Law Right on Marans?’ NIE dated July 13, 2015] The AG should ask the court whether this did not call for a probe from the national security perspective. Unfortunately the AG cannot put these vital questions to the court because he has given an opinion in another case favouring Maran, unless he says that he was not briefed on these aspects. Will he? God alone knows. If he does not, the court will be unaware of this vital aspect of the case.
Freewheeling observations of a judge without the other side filing its affidavit have no value in law. And yet the entire media prints it as if it were an acquittal of Maran. That is why wise judges resist the temptation to make casual observations. The real issue in corruption cases is who is the wrong doer. Higher the official stricter should be the rule.
But the judicial trend seems to be the other way round, like in imprisonment and fine in the `265 corruption case of petty official mentioned above and being considerate to the strong. Even `1.2 crore may not be a big amount for Maran, but for the nation it is. If a minister is the wrong doer, the punishment must be stricter. In other cases, it is just offence. Not in a minister’s case. As a minister, Maran had taken the oath that he would act in “accordance with the Constitution and the law”. His setting up of a fraudulent telephone exchange in his home as the telecom minister is a fraud on his constitutional oath. Similarly, when assuming office, a judge of the SC solemnly affirms he will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution, perform the duties of his office without fear or favour, affection or ill-will and uphold the Constitution and the laws. A judge’s duty is to punish the offender - doubly punish those who have a constitutional duty.
A caveat: Srimad Bhagawatam says: in Kali Yuga [Dark Age] justice will be done only on the basis of one’s power. Fortunately, Kali Yuga, whose age is 4,32,000 years, is now only 5,116 years old. It is a long way before Dark Age descends fully and people like Maran are let off just because they are powerful.
(The author is a leading political and business commentator)