Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Nair Affair: The System's Counterattack

Perhaps in response to Dr. Madhavan Nair's demands, ISRO has posted online the Main Report of the Chaturvedi-Narasimha Committee (or HPRC, the High-Powered Review Committee), and Conclusions and Recommendations of the High Level Team (HLT) headed by Mr. Pratyush Sinha. With its scathing tone and language, and blunt naming of names, the HLT excerpts are especially revealing.

To get a quick sense of why the deal fails the smell test, see the news summaries here, here, or here.

Though the government sounded conciliatory last week (following Dr. Nair's loud, indignant protests), it appears ready to play hardball now. First came the release of two reports, along with a note on follow-up actions taken by ISRO in light of the findings of HPRC and HLT. It now says the ban on Nair and three others will stay even while floating a whisper balloon about keeping open the option of a criminal investigation.

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As I said earlier, the allegations against Nair and his associates are entirely about commercial, financial, strategic, procedural aspects of the Devas deal -- in short, its about the administrative actions of ISRO leadership. Nair needs to stop using "oh no, Indian science is under attack" as a shield, not only because it is wrong, but also because his outbursts are now being countered with something that's even more obnoxious: the patriotism bomb:

The central government cancelled the Antrix Corporation-Devas Multimedia deal for reasons of national security and not for purported loss of revenue in sale of spectrum, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office V. Narayanasamy has said.

Nair's indignant stance early on may have won him some supporters. In addition to David and Goliath, there's also Kafka lurking in the story when Nair said he did not even know what The System was punishing him for! In such a battle, it is difficult to take the side of The System.

But Nair's later utterances have undermined his case. For example, Nair's original claim that he never met the Sinha panel (HLT) has now been countered, forcing him to change his story. And his personal attacks on his successor at ISRO are so unwittingly self-incriminatory that Nair himself has now become the butt of jokes about his "management style." [What good does it do to your credibility when you claim that you handpicked an incompetent to the throne?]

Nair appears to be admitting that there might have been some errors of judgement. Let's see how long this phase lasts ...

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See also: Nair's interviews in Rediff and Outlook.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Ok, so why exactly do bureaucrats with no knowledge of science or technology, like Pratyush Sinha, get to investigate this deal? How on earth did the CVC/CAG even come up with the ridiculously exaggerated gazillion rupee estimate of notional loss as reoprted in the Daily Mail article, and generally bandied about in the news media?

    Why does a lawyer get to write an article about this in the Hindu? http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/article1413770.ece

    Where are the telecom policy experts?!?

    Having a scientist like Roddam Narasimha co-author the report is a very sensible thing to do. As the Chaturvedi-Narasimha report says, and as would be evident to anyone with even a vague knowledge of telecom policies, communications, and spectrum allocation, "Concerns on cheap selling the spectrum to Devas have no basis whatsoever."

    The whole thing seems to be an exercise in asserting the primacy of bureaucracy. As I see it, Antrix is guilty of a typical 'crime', if you can call it that- a Government agency using its knowledge of the system to circumvent unnecessary bureaucracy and expedite a business deal for a private entity. The Government watchdogs, on the other hand are using this as a whipping post where a progressive and effective Government agency is chastised in full view of the country for working around resurgent remnants of the 'license raj'. If you examine the Chaturvedi-Narasimha report, it is clear that procedural lapses are the only problem here. The national security argument is highly speculative too, considering that, in exigent circumstances related to national security, the Government can summarily suspend Devas' rights over the spectrum, as they have just done, albeit without any justification.

    I am willing to wager that had the 2G scam not happened, the Antrix-Devas deal would have not been noticed by the Government or the media.