Sukhram gets 5 years in jail

Our Special Correspondent

New Delhi, Nov. 19: Former telecom minister Sukhram's 86 years did not help keep him out of jail today, the five-year sentence belying the ease with which he made himself useful for the BJP and the Congress even after becoming the face of one of the most ignominious events in Indian public life.

The punishment for taking a bribe of Rs 3 lakh for a contract to a private firm 15 years ago comes at a time another former telecom minister is being tried for his alleged role in a scam.

Taken to Tihar, Sukhram has been lodged in the same jail No. 1 that houses A. Raja, who stepped down in the wake of the 2G spectrum scandal.

Sukhram, the telecom minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao cabinet, had been convicted and sentenced for graft twice earlier in 2002 and 2009 but remained out of jail.

Special CBI judge R.P. Pandey said the octogenarian politician, who got bail in both cases, had already "reaped the dividend" of a long-drawn process of law and "enjoying freedom", which was "passing a wrong message… that one can earn money by corrupt means and enjoy its fruits".

The bribery case goes back to 1996, when a stunned nation watched for the first time on television bundles of currency notes being seized from a minister's house.

Almost a pariah after the scandal broke despite his strong support base in Himachal Pradesh's Mandi, Sukhram did manage to claw his way back into power politics.

When the Congress showed him the door, he floated his Himachal Vikas Party and aligned with the BJP to oppose the Virbhadra Singh-led Congress government in the state.

When the BJP came to power in Himachal, Sukhram was its ally. The BJP had shut down Parliament for 13 days when the CBI unearthed currency notes from Sukhram's residence.

The Congress poked fun at the BJP for accommodating Sukhram but, such is the irony of politics, that after a few years the discredited leader returned to the Congress by merging his outfit with his former party.

Sukhram retired from active politics five years ago, one of the reasons being old age. Today, however, his plea to the court to show leniency to an "old man" didn't work as the judge cited "aggravating" circumstances to hand him the five-year sentence after the CBI pointed out that he was a "habitual offender".

"I have reached an opinion that while the age of the convict is certainly a mitigating factor, his previous conviction in two other corruption cases is an aggravating circumstance which has to be considered while fixing the quantum of sentence," PTI quoted the judge as saying.

The judge said Sukhram held a very high position of "respect and trust" when he committed the offence of criminal conspiracy and corruption. "The corrupt public servant is a menace to society and brings the society and his office into disrepute," the court said.

Sukhram shivered as the judge pronounced the sentence. The court also slapped a fine of Rs 4 lakh on the veteran leader.

As the crestfallen politician was led out, a young man lunged at him. The assailant, identified as Harvinder Singh, was swiftly overpowered by police.

Sukhram's counsel Pawan Narang said his client would "challenge" the order in Delhi High Court next week.