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Price Pramod paid for a ‘friend’
- PM raised assertion on business house before dropping minister

New Delhi, Feb. 15: A claim that he was a friend of Reliance and that he felt no need to hide it cost high-flier Pramod Mahajan his job in the A.B. Vajpayee Cabinet.

Mahajan, the then information technology and communications minister, boasted about his closeness to the premier business house, which is in the process of becoming a telecom giant, at a meeting of cellular operators on January 20.

When the record of the meeting reached the Prime Minister, he is believed to have drawn Mahajan’s attention to it. It was after this meeting that Vajpayee and deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani took the decision to remove Mahajan. He was made general secretary of the BJP last month, ostensibly to strengthen the party.

Contacted for his reaction, Mahajan refused to comment on the meeting or its record. He said: “I do not want to react to these allegations. I have been assigned to work for the party and I respect that decision. This is a change of job for me. I am not the only minister to go back to party work, Vasundhara Raje and Uma Bharti have also left the government to do party work. The party is more important than an individual.”

However, what is emerging now is that it was the January 20 meeting that finally nailed Mahajan.

The meeting was called by the then minister to sort out problems the telecom industry was facing. The objectives included building a consensus on the interconnect agreement between the cellular, WiLL (wireless in local loop) and terrestrial telephony operators across the country.

Representatives of all big cellular companies were present. The cellular operators had argued that they had paid a higher licence fee of Rs 3,000 crore while basic operators (Reliance and the Tatas) had paid just Rs 495 crore for a nationwide licence.

They also claimed that to offer limited mobility service, the basic operators had not paid any licence fee. However, the basic operators led by Reliance claimed that limited mobility was part of their licence fee.

During the discussion, Mahajan seems to have demonstrated his bias in favour of Reliance. He also did not seem to have taken seriously the complaints of the cellular industry.

Mahajan said at that meeting that he was a friend of Reliance. “I do not want to hide it or need to hide this fact,” he is reported to have said, according to the record of the meeting available with the government.

He claimed that his Reliance phone could work in 15 networks across the country. The business rivals of Reliance immediately pointed out that this was against the rules and a violation of limited mobility. However, Mahajan countered by saying that he had advised Reliance to go ahead with its plans and not worry about anything.

He is reported to have told the cellular operators that he knew that some of them had met the finance minister on the current controversy and that they had received an assurance for the re-examination of the issue. “He (the finance minister) does not understand politics and no one can do anything about this. I will not allow this to be touched,” he reportedly declared at the meeting.

Mahajan also pointed out that the Reliance decision on WLL was taken before he was the minister. At one point, the minister is alleged to have sarcastically suggested that the cellular operators should learn from the ‘Reliance Institute for Dirty Tricks’. Of course, there is no such institute and nor did the minister say what lessons needed to be learnt.

But eventually, the minister’s black humour neither went down well with the cellular operators nor with the Vajpayee-Advani duo.

On interconnection problems, Mahajan reportedly said: “We will request TRAI to finalise equal and fair termination charges for all operators. I will allow this as long as impact on BSNL is only Rs 1000-Rs 2,000 crore. Nothing more.” That the minister was willing to allow the government-owned BSNL to suffer such staggering losses also did not go down well with the government.

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