The quality of debate surrounding the Supreme Court's decision to cancel 122 2G spectrum licenses with the "stroke of a pen" is a reflection of the standards that prevail in public issue discourses in mainstream media in India.
Stripped off all its sensationalism, the 2G spectrum issue essentially boils down to this. The Government of the day, in its wisdom (or lack of it) and well within its rights, put in place (or inherited) a discretionary telecommunications spectrum allotment policy. However, in its implementation (during the 2008 allotments), there were clear discrepancies and irregularities, atleast in case of some of the bidders, that leave no doubts about malafide intent.
So the Supreme Court - three years after the allotments are made, operators have stabilized their full commercial operations, and a web of contractual obligations involving different market stakeholders have emerged - steps in and examines the evidence on corruption in the allotment process and puts a full-stop by cancelling all the spectrum allotments made during that period. What's more, it goes beyond the malafide intent and questions the government's use of a discretionary allotment policy and effectively seeks to "legislate" an "auction-based" allotment process. A nascent mobile telecommunications market-space, the equivalent of a mid-size European country, is decreed to be wiped out in four months.
Now consider this. A newly elected democratic government of Banana Republic, a war torn and military-ruled country in the continent of Timbuktu, decides to encourage foreign investments to boost its economy. It offers attractive concessions like free land, tax holidays, and so on in mineral exploration and manufacturing sector. Investors flock to Banana Republic, enter into sovereign contracts with its government, and start exploration and manufacuting activities. The economy booms, tax revenues increase, and the country starts its recovery from its war-era devastation. There are the inevitable tales of cronyism and corruption in some of the contracts awarded, all of which have aroused some national indignation. Then disaster strikes and the military takes power. Its first act is one of deep populism. It plays on the national resentment at the corruption in contracts signed with foreign investors and cancels all sovereign commitments of the previous government and expropriate the foreign investments. Banana Republic slips into its normal state of turmoil.
Apart from the different exterior trappings (the cancellation was at the "stroke of a pen" in the former, while it was at the "boom of a gun" in the latter), on substantive terms, is there any difference between the two scenarios? In both cases, sovereign policy commitments made by the respective democratically-elected governments of the day (whatever its flaws) and implemented deficiently (as is the case with any implementation in such societies) are, without any of the legal requirements of fairness and justice, cancelled over-night at the arbitrary discretion of a few individuals. In both cases, apart from moral hazard arising from defaulting on sovereign commitments and the long-term economic damage caused, the decision-makers have clearly over-looked the fact that much water has flowed under the bridge subsequent to the "original sin". The decisions extinguished the multiple economic transactions and contractual commitments - many of them without any malafide intent, based on legally valid legislative and executive decisions, and a consequence of the natural flow of economic activity - that have emerged after the original decisions/allotments.
Not for a moment am I holding any brief for those who violated their constitutional responsibilities or who benefited fraudulently. All of them should be brought to book for their criminal liabilities. The political masters, bureaucrats, and the businessmen who colluded to defraud the exchequer should all be throughly investigated, their criminal intent established and punishment imposed. For example, the public servants who took part in the conspiracy should be punished under the prevailing rules, while the businessmen who benefited from it should be punished under the relevant rules and the amounts defrauded quantified and collected from them and their partners. This should be done in a manner that least disrupts the competitive marketplace (and even its critics would admit that the economic outcomes - technology, business models, consumer surplus etc - of India's telecommunications reforms has been one of its economic and policy success stories) that has emerged from the original decisions.
In any case, the sovereign policy commitments of democratically elected governments, however flawed, should always prevail and not be left at the mercy of flippant individual discretion, howsoever mighty, provided the allotment process is in conformity with the broad constitutional principles. This becomes all the more important if subsequent transactions, in good faith and based on the sanctity of a sovereign commitment, have been executed on the original decision. However, law should take its course and severely punish those who displayed any malafide intent, discrepancies, and wilful omissions in the implementation of the allotment process.
The term "banana republic" is characterized by two features - a country operated as a commercial enterprise for private profit and one where the sanctity of long-term policy commitments of any of its governments is of questionable value. On these grounds, does India qualify to be a "banana republic"?