SingTel – BT

Indian police raid Bharti, Vodafone offices

(NEW DELHI) Police on Saturday raided offices of two of India’s biggest telecom firms, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Essar, in a widening probe into alleged wrongdoing in the awarding of mobile spectrum.

India’s top federal police force, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), searched offices of Bharti Airtel, and the Indian unit of Vodafone, part of Britain’s Vodafone Group, as well as senior former government telecom officials, a CBI spokeswoman said.

The searches involved alleged irregularities in the distribution of second-generation (2G) mobile spectrum between 2001 and 2003 when the previous Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power, the spokeswoman said. ‘The searches were in connection with allegations that have been framed,’ she said.

The raids were part of an increasingly sprawling police investigation into awarding of spectrum that has engulfed the current Congress-led government and threatens to taint the previous BJP government which ruled until 2004.

The BJP accused the Congress government of seeking to blacken the opposition party’s name and nicknamed the CBI ‘the Congress Bureau of Investigation’. BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar said: ‘What is happening is part of a political conspiracy to divert attention away from the government.’

The raids come as a former Congress telecoms minister is on trial with 13 other top government and other officials over an alleged multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving the allocation of mobile spectrum in 2008.

A Raja, telecoms minister from 2007 to 2010, is the central figure in the case that has rocked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration and helped make corruption one of India’s hottest political issues.

Responding to the raids, a spokesman for Bharti Airtel, in which SingTel has a stake of about 32 per cent, said ‘all the spectrum allotted to us from time to time has been strictly as per the stated government policy’.

Vodafone said the company had acted in ‘complete compliance’ with rules. Britain’s Vodafone bought a 67 per cent stake in Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa’s Indian mobile unit in 2007, renaming it Vodafone Essar.

The CBI alleged in its preliminary enquiry report that the telecoms department increased the spectrum base under late telecoms minister Pramod Mahajan beyond the prescribed limit for a token sum and favoured certain companies, causing a loss to the exchequer. No formal charges have been laid.

The sale of 2G spectrum by the Congress government in 2008 at far below market rates to selected companies could have cost the treasury up to US$40 billion in lost revenue, the public auditor has alleged.

Raja has insisted he was only following the previous BJP government’s policy in awarding mobile spectrum. — AFP

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