Like Special Judge O.P. Saini, I also followed the much-hyped and so-called 2G spectrum scam case, my first assignment as a cub, “religiously” for seven years. It was a hazy morning on February 8, 2011. I nervously walked into the sessions court in Delhi to cover remand proceedings of the high-profile case of alleged corruption. The main accused, A. Raja, was brought for the remand hearing to the jam-packed Room P-3 on the ground floor of the publishing building in the court complex housed in the historical structure that once was an abode of the Patiala royals. The hearing extended to a couple of hours and the CBI got his custody for the second time.
Raja appeared as relaxed then as he was when Judge Saini finally cleared him of all the charges on Thursday. The former Telecom Minister was quickly rounded up in a CBI van as his supporters shouted slogans. The tainted politician was arrested on February 2, 2011. What baffled almost everyone, including journalists, was that he didn’t move a bail application. It was as mysterious as the notional Rs 1.76 lakh crore loss, his alleged wrongdoing had caused to the country. Nobody in his camp was speaking on why he was not seeking bail. Others accused in the case were already pleading for their release. Most of them had even been set free on bail bonds. Raja had already spent 14 months in Delhi’s Tihar Jail in the case that cost him his ministerial job in November 2010.
On April 21, 2012, Raja was again brought to the court for recording statement of witnesses. I walked inside and surprisingly saw an empty chair next to Raja’s. I grabbed the chance and sat next to him. I nervously asked him why he was not applying for bail. I thought he wouldn’t speak because he had never spoken to the media about the case. To my utter surprise he not only spoke smilingly but patted my back since I had introduced myself as a journalist during an earlier meeting. “I want to come out of jail with clean hands, rather than be released on bail… It will be better to seek acquittal,” he said, maintaining he was innocent and had done nothing wrong.
On May 15, 2012, he was finally given bail on the ground of parity as all the accused were already released. Nearly 6 years later, Judge Saini proved Raja right because the prosecution — the CBI and Enforcement Directorate — failed to prove their charges that the politician had misused his power and accepted bribes to allocate second-generation radio wave spectrum licences to a chosen few. On Thursday, when he was acquitted, Raja was in the same courtroom, appearing as cool as he had been during the tough times of the trial. The seven years of the 2G trial will be remembered by those who followed it closely for many other reasons.
Judge Saini, known for his clock-like punctuality, would always enter the courtroom before 10 a.m. He was not off the mark when he wrote in the judgment that “for the last about seven years, on all working days, summer vacation included, I religiously sat in the open court from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., awaiting for evidence”. As cool as he could be, the judge would always ask the defence and prosecution during their heated arguments to maintain the decorum of the court as the media was watching keenly.
Many faces kept changing in the defence as well as prosecution. Senior Prosecutor K.K. Goel argued the case in its initial days but was replaced by A.K. Singh later. Singh was dropped after he was allegedly heard in a telephonic conversation advising one of the accused how to fight the case. The audio was leaked to the media in 2013. Goel returned. But he was too smart. I would usually find it difficult to read his notes — written in a somewhat coded language — when I had a chance to peep into his notebook.
Some of the defence counsels privately shared with me that they also faced similar problems. The appointment of Special Public Prosecutor U.U. Lalit as Justice in the Supreme Court in July 2014 dealt a blow to the CBI’s case. Senior advocate Anand Grover was appointed as the new Special Public Prosecutor in September 2014. But he had to laboriously go through the hundreds of thousands documents the CBI had collected. By this time, many key witnesses had already been examined.
There were some lighter moments also during the seven years of trial. Senior Advocate Ram Jethmalini, who appeared for Raja and Kanimozhi, asked a witness how he could afford a cell phone that cost Rs 2 to 4.5 lakhs. The witness on the next date of hearing told the court that his London-based brother-in-law had gifted it to his wife and he had found out that the cost was a mere Rs 4,914. Everyone, including the judge, burst in a loud laughter.
The courtroom was almost always overcrowded. One day DMK MP Adi Shankar had come to support Kanimozhi. As the case was being argued, Shankar fainted. Jethmalini quipped about his own age and how he was still fit to argue the case. “I am 87 and more likely to faint but still I can argue my client’s case.”