India’s biggest-ever corruption trial began here this morning at the Supreme Court.
On trial are senior government figures including former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja and member of parliament Kanimozhi Karunanidh, who stand accused of rigging the auction of India’s 2G mobile network spectrum, pocketing millions of dollars in kickbacks and depriving the country of a fortune in lost revenue. Some estimates have put the total as high as $35-billion (U.S.).
Today the prosecution is questioning the first of a planned 168 witnesses, including the chair and vice chair of one of the country’s largest telecom firms. A total of 17 people face charges in the case, including many senior business figures – making this one of the first graft cases to see broad criminal action against industry leaders.
The case has riveted the country and been the spur for many of the critical political developments of the past year: as the extent of the alleged plunder has been revealed through charges laid by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the 2G scam has come to symbolize corruption on the part of politicians and bureaucrats to a weary Indian public.
It has helped to fuel the “Team Anna” phenomenon – the 76-year-old anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare has twice staged fasts in central Delhi demanding a new graft law, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to his camp and eventually forcing the government to adopt his plan for the law. The mishandling of the Hazare affair, and a series of corruption revelations, have hamstrung the once-cocksure government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The Supreme Court took oversight of the case after public interest litigants expressed concern that the Indian National Congress-led government was meddling in the investigation to protect political figures.
These accused are charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act with offences including criminal conspiracy, cheating, forgery, faking documents, accepting bribes and criminal misconduct by public servant.