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Inquiry in the Time of Elections

Author: Asit Jolly and Bhavna Vij-Aurora
Publication: India Today
Date: February 5, 2013
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/inquiry-in-the-time-of-elections-strategically-manoeuvred-probes-help-the-ruling-party-keep-rivals-at-bay-and-potential-troublemakers-on-tenterhooks/1/248504.html

Introduction: Strategically manoeuvred probes help the ruling party keep rivals at bay and potential troublemakers on tenterhooks

On May 5, 2009, when campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections was at its peak, Rahul Gandhi made a stunning admission. Conceding that political parties tended to misuse the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and other investigation agencies, he said, "Every party in power can pressure institutions. Every government tries to push its people into such agencies." He called it "a reality of Indian politics".

Coming as it did when the Congress was being criticised for CBI's clean chit to Italian middleman Ottavio Quattrocchi in the Bofors case, Rahul's moment of openness was taken as a confessional statement by BJP. The opposition party had for long termed CBI the "Congress Bureau of Investigation", there only to do the bidding of its political masters.

On the eve of General Elections, which are crucial to the Congress's Project Rahul, is there a pattern and a design in investigations against not just the party's rivals but also unpredictable and occasional allies like Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP)? Almost every political party that could be nudged to help the project has key leaders under some sort of investigation.

Not just CBI, agencies under the government such as Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department are often accused of targeting political adversaries and even wearing down allies with the potential to create problems for the ruling party.

With overriding powers that include phone tapping, the Income Tax Department can potentially be misused in a more damaging manner than CBI. Former telecom minister A. Raja's complicity in the 2G spectrum scam emerged after transcripts of telephone conversations intercepted by tax officials were made public.

Former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala , his elder son Ajay Singh and a senior functionary of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) were awarded 10-year jail terms after their conviction in a 2003 teacher recruitment scam following a prolonged CBI investigation.

With both father and son behind bars, INLD's political future could be in peril. That would give the Congress significant advantage in a state where winning back its current tally of 10 Lok Sabha seats is expected to be a struggle.

A second CBI case, in which the Chautalas are charged with possessing undeclared wealth, is at an advanced trial stage and could land the former chief minister's other son, Abhay Singh, in jail too. Abhay Singh is spearheading an anti-Congress campaign in the state and his exit could be his party's final curtain call.

While it must be said that courts initiated many of the ongoing investigations, CBI is known to have delayed its probe and taken curiously contrary positions in cases involving leaders of other parties.

YSR Congress chief Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, for instance, has been in jail since May 27, 2012 while CBI dithers on filing a chargesheet in court. Jagan is accused of laundering massive sums of money allegedly received in return for favours doled out by his late father, former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy. "God and Dad are watching over me from above. They will take care of me," says the young politician who dared to cock a snook at Sonia Gandhi and launch his own party.

The bureau's lethargy in pursuing corruption allegations against SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, BSP President Mayawati and their kin is more intriguing. Having reportedly sought the Supreme Court's permission to register a 'regular case' against Mulayam, his sons Akhilesh and Prateek and Akhilesh's wife Dimple in November 2007, the CBI counsel sought "on advice of the Government" to withdraw the request a year later in December 2008. This was widely seen as part of a deal whereby SP MPs endorsed the Indo-US nuclear deal in July 2008.

The investigation that could potentially bring down Uttar Pradesh's first family still hangs like a sword over the Yadav clan-much like the charges against Mayawati in the Taj Heritage Corridor case, and more recently (January 2013) the Enforcement Directorate's scrutiny of her younger brother Anand Kumar's business dealings.

No one, including BJP, has ever questioned CBI's competence, only its motives. Consider the uncommon alacrity it displayed when SP legislator Kishore Samrite accused Rahul Gandhi of abduction and rape. Not only did the agency complete its investigation with unusual promptness to absolve Rahul of all charges, but the CBI counsel rushed to the Supreme Court on August 24, 2011, in an unusual move, seeking to become a party before the hearing of an appeal filed by Samrite.

Interestingly, Mayawati and Mulayam's people blame BJP and Congress equally for their leaders' troubles. "The BJP wanted to contest 60 Lok Sabha seats (in 2004) and used cases to put pressure on us," says Uttar Pradesh's leader of the Opposition Swami Prasad Maurya of BSP. SP spokesman Rajendra Chaudhary says, "Neither Congress nor BJP wants smaller parties to get strong and so use CBI to weaken them."

Former CBI director U.S. Mishra (2003-2005) caused a sensation in December 2012 by admitting there was "political pressure" on the agency as it probed Mayawati's disproportionate assets case and during other high-profile investigations.

He said there was similar pressure to stall other high-profile cases, and often progress reports in such cases were influenced by top government officials. Serving CBI officers, however, claim it is not so easy to manipulate prominent cases as many of these are monitored by courts.

Mishra's predecessor Joginder Singh, who handled the controversial Quattrocchi affair between July 1996 and June 1997, says that CBI is helpless and it has to do the government's bidding and bear all the criticism. "The Bureau," Singh told india today, "has been reduced to the government's 'dirty tricks' department."

The agency does not have an independent budget. "The government controls everything, right from the director's appointment to deputations from state police departments, even the spending on stationery," says a CBI officer requesting anonymity. He questions the appointment of successive directors, including incumbent chief Ranjit Sinha, pointing out the norms excluded opposition politicians from the selection process.

Some startling facts about CBI's dependence on the government, according to Joginder Singh, are that the agency cannot proceed with any investigation in a state without the governor's approval, and its prosecuting counsel are answerable only to the law ministry, which must also clear all appeals to a high court or the Supreme Court.
While rivals struggled to stay afloat, the agency did not get the sanction to prosecute Rajiv Gandhi's pal and former Union minister Satish Sharma on serious corruption charges. Jagdish Tytler too was given a 'clean chit' in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case. But whether or not Jharkhand Mukti Morcha President Shibu Soren gets a final reprieve in the Supreme Court may eventually depend on whether his acquittal by the Delhi High Court is challenged by CBI as well.

Rahul Gandhi's path to power is still not smooth. But going by his own admission in 2009, he may well have 'helping' hands easing his way.

- with Bureau Reports.
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