Few judges have arraigned political heavyweights, cabinet ministers, bureaucrats and business barons as Special Judge Om Prakash Saini has done in the past six years. If he had remained as a sub-inspector in the Delhi Police, he might have sent only local criminals to Tihar central jail. But he was destined for a higher calling. When a hundred policemen wrote the examination for judicial magistrate’s post, he was the only one to pass, that too with excellent marks in 1987. That has proved to be too bad for the reputation of several bigwigs, not least for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which was soon to face general election.
The soft-spoken judge hailing from Haryana, now 60, was selected to try the 2G spectrum scam, involving an alleged loss of Rs 1.76 lakh crore to the exchequer, because of his well-accepted integrity and true grit. He had earlier proved his mettle when he chose to take up the Red Fort shoot-out case when other judges baulked at the assignment offered to them. Terrorists had attacked the army camp in 2000 and killed three jawans. He examined 300 witnesses and convicted seven accused persons; one of them was given death sentence and six others life imprisonment.
When the Commonwealth Games scam broke out, Judge Saini was easily the best choice. He had jailed some of the aides of Suresh Kalmadi, then sports minister who himself spent some time in prison. It was this judge who ordered framing of charges against top persons in the National Aluminium Company Ltd for an alleged money laundering complaint filed by the Enforcement Directorate.
The Manmohan Singh government was shaken in 2010 when the Comptroller and Auditor General of India reported a huge scam in spectrum allocation since 2008. The Supreme Court took up a public interest litigation raising corruption issues and cancelled 122 licences of telecom companies and also asked the government to set up a special court to speed up the trial of those who were involved in the conspiracy. Despite the expectation of a quick trial it has dragged on till now. The arguments concluded in April this year and the judgment was reserved with a promise to deliver it early. However, the judge postponed the decision twice as the testimony alone ran into over 4,000 pages and evidence was steeped in technical intricacies.
The conduct of the trial, in which 150 witnesses were examined, was closely followed by the media as the list of people Judge Saini summoned was a constellation of VIPs. The CBI special court was conducted in Patiala House, close to India Gate in central Delhi. The premises were choked with OB vans, media persons and stragglers when VIPs came to testify. The size of the crowd varied according to the standing of the accused person. Over the years, the interest faded due to sheer fatigue and the spurt of more scams that turned away media attention.
Meanwhile, the judge relentlessly pursued the case. He was rigid even on granting bail to ministers and officials involved. The UPA dominated by the Congress was reeling under corruption charges and their arrest was seen as damage control for the sinking regime. Those who were sent to jail found that the judge’s attitude was equally fateful. Then telecom minister A Raja sought bail, even offering to surrender his passport and undertaking to report to the police from time to time. But he did not get freedom because the charges of conspiracy, money laundering and corruption were grave. Kanimozhi, MP and daughter of M Karunanidhi, DMK patriarch, played the feminine card to get bail. But the judge rejected the prayer stating that she belonged to the upper echelon of society, was a Member of Parliament and could not complain that she was discriminated against on the ground of being a woman.
There was never a dull moment in his court. Karunanidhi’s wife Dayalu Ammal was also among witnesses and her lawyer told Judge Saini that she had been diagnosed with “cognitive and behavioural abnormalities” because of her clumsy habit of hitting and punching people and inappropriate talk and action. The judge was not impressed and he insisted on her presence. Nothing untoward was reported at her examination.
Another star witness was former corporate lobbyist Niira Radia. Her statements were found evasive which brought forth admonition from the judge that she was an intelligent professional and should answer the questions properly.
The judge raised many eyebrows when he used his special powers to summon telecom moguls like Sunil Mittal of Bharti Airtel, Asim Ghosh of Hutchinson Max and Ravi Ruia of Sterling Cellular. At one time, he also summoned Anil Ambani and his wife Tina Ambani of Reliance Telecom. However, these orders were revoked by the Supreme Court and a lot of embarrassment was avoided.
The curtains came down on Thursday on the mother of all scam trials which only led to a muddying of names and contributed to the fall of the grand old Congress party. The nation will hope there would not be another such high-strung trial in the future.