Swaraj Abhiyan founder Prashant Bhushan discusses the Essar tapes and other scams, the role of whistleblowers and his fallout with Arvind Kejriwal.
Celebrated lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan has just notched up another victory with the Supreme Court-appointed panel decreeing there was prima facie evidence that former CBI director Ranjit Sinha had attempted to influence the investigation into the coal block allocation scam under the then UPA government. The court’s observation was based on a visitor’s diary submitted by Bhushan that showed Sinha had compromised investigations into the scam by meeting the accused at his residence over 50-60 times, as records reveal.
Over the years, Bhushan has become the point person for whistleblowers from the bureaucracy, police and even the media. He has skilfully and doggedly used the public interest litigation (PIL) route to dig out and pursue cases of corruption, civil liberties and human rights.
Bhushan exploded on the political scene as one of the prominent members of the headline-grabbing India Against Corruption, along with Anna Hazare and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, but the movement went up in smoke after his very public fight with Kejriwal over the future course of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Bhushan has moved on to form the Swaraj Abhiyan, a new political movement that hopes to bring ideology into everyday politics, even as he continues to push the judiciary to hound the corrupt and is at the forefront exposing a string of scandals, such as the Reliance gas scam, the Essar tapes and emails scam, 2G spectrum scandal and the Vyapam scam. Bhushan, however, admits he now needs a larger network of people to help in unearthing, scrutinising and probing scandals, and is all set to launch a new organisation for whistleblowers.
Excerpts from an interview:
Are you satisfied with the court’s indictment of Ranjit Sinha?
I’m glad the courts are taking this forward, because the issue is very serious. Here is a CBI director who seems to be surreptitiously and unofficially meeting a number of high-profile accused persons who are being investigated by the agency, even as he’s dealing with their investigation files. It has to do with the integrity of the main anti-corruption investigating agency and, therefore, it’s essential Sinha be brought to book.
How did the visitor’s book fall into your hands?
It was obviously someone from the organisation which was responsible for putting the guards at Sinha’s residence who gave me the diary…a whistleblower. However, I did not bother to ask him his name or identity.
You have become the point person for whistleblowers from the bureaucracy, police and even the media. Why do they trust you?
I’ve been involved with public interest cases and issues, particularly corruption cases in high places, for years and perhaps people believe here’s a person who is doing something about it, taking them to court and the like. People have been coming to me for a long time…all these public interest cases have been generated by people who have the relevant information. I’ve been dealing with corruption for a long time, the first time may have been the Bofors scam in the early 90s.
How did it play out?
In the Bofors case, the courts unfortunately interfered with the investigations repeatedly, and then when the Congress government came back, it also interfered, like in the Madhavsinh Solanki case, and after some time I also got fatigued with the matter and didn’t bother to pursue it.
What did the case reveal?
It was absolutely clear that bribes had been paid, that Ottavio Quattrocchi was paid, as was established by Swiss bank documents in connection with the deal. If Quattrocchi was not an agent in this deal, why was he paid?
Where was it stalled?
The investigation was completed, it was the prosecution that was stalled. The courts repeatedly interfered and quashed various matters, the CBI didn’t take it forward, nobody else did either.
Even subsequent governments didn’t pick it up?
No, even non-Congress governments did not pick it up. In fact my experience has been that large political parties are interested in using corrupt cases against their opponents for political purposes only but are not serious to pursue the cases to prosecute and punish them in jail because usually the brokers or corporates involved are common, so they are not interested.
You saw this in Bofors, do you see the Modi Government pursuing corruption cases?
No. Take the Essar emails, or Essar tapes, or Reliance gas deal or the 4G scam. For instance, in the Reliance gas deal, it is obvious that Reliance indulged in serious over-invoicing, as the Comptroller and Auditor General has mentioned , but why is the Modi government not investigating it? Reliance funds all political parties.
And the Essar emails?
The Essar emails clearly convey that the company was bribing politicians across the board. This included people like union minister Nitin Gadkari (who was hosted on a yacht along with his family), President Pranab Mukherjee was gratified by way of a job for his granddaughter, Congress’s Sriprakash Jaiswal and Digvijay Singh, among others. We’ve been seeing that large corporate houses have been buying influence and gratifying all major political parties.
Why do you say the Essar tapes are even bigger than the Nira Radia tapes?
The Essar tapes are conversations between actual people involved in those crimes. There are confessions of the crimes by the people themselves, conversations between Mukesh Ambani and various government officials and ministers; or Reliance officials talking amongst themselves, which show them confessing to over-invoicing and bribing. All this was happening between 2002 to 2008. I’ve not heard the tapes myself, but I’ve heard what’s being said and they are very damaging. There are clearly multiple acts of wrong doing and corruption here.
How did you get the damning Essar emails?
Again, it was a whistleblower from Essar company who handed it to us.
Don’t whistleblowers have an independent agency to go to?
There was a whistleblower agency set up on the orders of the Supreme Court when it said the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) must become the nodal agency for whistleblowers. The CVC must investigate the complaints given by whistleblowers, give them protection and the like. But we’ve found that the CVC has failed whistleblowers, partly because the appointees are weak, pliable; and secondly, they don’t have enough staff and wherewithal for investigation.
Are you setting up an agency?
We’ve set up a whistleblower forum, which has eight members, including Justice A.P. Shah, Justice Santosh Hegde, former secretary E.A.S. Sarma and Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas among others. It was set up four-five months ago but the announcement was low key. We hope whistleblowers will come to this forum, the office is in Delhi, we will launch it again soon with a proper Press conference. Publicity is the oxygen of the anti-corruption movement.
What is the first hurdle for whistleblowers?
First, we have to analyse what the documents and material reveal, how serious is the crime or illegalities; then we have to process what can be done legally, if the courts can order an independent investigation or order the government to probe the evidence. But like in the Radia tapes or Essar emails, there needs to be a public exposure of wrongdoings, as many of these crimes involve corporates, bureaucracy and politicians, and it is important that this nexus is exposed. I do stress on media exposure of crimes.
What do you do when this nexus also investigates its own crimes?
That’s why we’ve to go to court, because it’s an independent body
But you’ve also accused the judiciary of illegality?
By and large they are independent; of course, the integrity of some judges is questionable and there is a problem, but to a fair extent the courts are independent.
Apart from courts and media, what else is needed?
We need a peoples’ movement, which is why we’ve set up the Swaraj Abhiyan, which campaigns against corruption, farmers’ issues, communalism, and lastly, education and employment.
What went wrong in your last effort with Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal?
Anna is a decent man, a simpleminded person, who probably does not have a broad understanding of many issues, but he is clearly a public-spirited person and courageous. But it was Kejriwal’s character that made everything go wrong. I didn’t quite realise that he was so unscrupulous, that he was willing to use any kinds of means to achieve his ends. Of course, political power can be useful, but it can’t be an end in itself, political power is only a means for doing something in public interest.
How is Kejriwal unscrupulous?
For example, after the 2014 Lok Sabha election, a disheartened Kejriwal went into secret negotiations with the Congress party to form a government again in Delhi, even while we were in court saying fresh elections must be ordered soon.
When elections were finally announced, did you not want to be part of it?
I had become very wary of Kejriwal by then, with all his machinations to get back into power. For example, the AAP voluntary manch had felt their voices were not being heard by the party, but Kejriwal wanted to destroy this organisation as he felt it was turning into a revolt by them . So, he sent a fake SMS in their name, calling out to all volunteers to join the BJP. Then he used the fake SMS to accuse them as BJP agents in a Google hangout.
Do you regret the way it played out, after all you were the core members of the India Against Corruption movement?
Yes, there’s a sense of enormous regret , this movement had enormous potential but unfortunately, it has all been squandered and all we’ve been left with is another political party that is like any other conventional political party.
Has AAP not stuck to any of its poll agenda and promises? Free water, electricity, schools?
Well, some of it may have been done, but the main purpose of forming this party was anti-corruption, transparency and accountability. There is zero transparency, zero accountability and rampant corruption in this government. Why is the Delhi government not putting up files and notings on the website for real transparency? Kejriwal’s idea is to only make a show that he has done a lot. Take the mohalla clinics – the agreement is that doctors will be paid Rs 30 for seeing a patient, so some useless doctors have been randomly picked up, those who just have an MBBS, and these doctors prepare a list of a large number of patients seen and not seen to get money, and the government has a list of patients to show. Then, for further medical investigations, the clinics have tied up with private companies where considerable amounts of money are being paid for blood tests, and typically, a lot of useless blood tests are being ordered that are not required. Then, a lot of contract labour are being employed in government hospitals, and other departments, where agencies are hired and given large commissions, and so on.
I’ve not examined schools but professor Krishna Kumar, one of the foremost educationists in the country, and former director of the National Council Of Educational Research And Training, has written a very critical article about the Delhi government and that what AAP is doing is utter nonsense, like sending school principals to Cambridge to learn education, or that just randomly cutting down 20% of the text books will help. They’ve not engaged proper educationists to look into the public schooling.
Are you disappointed the Lok Pal never came?
After the pressure was put up on him, Kejriwal hurriedly drew up a bill after nine months, which was not only totally at variance with the original, but he mischievously put a clause in the bill saying the Delhi Lok Pal will investigate central ministers too. Obviously the Centre was not going to pass it, their assent was required for it to become law. He’s obviously quite happy not to have a Lok Pal, just like Prime Minister Narendra Modi is happy not to have one.
Would you acknowledge his challenge to the Modi government?
Yes, he’s bold in taking on the Modi government and one must grant him that.
Where do you go from here, any political plans ahead?
People all over the country are looking for some honest, credible alternative, but we don’t have that as yet. It’s a very difficult task because in India, we have the first-past-the-post system and to be seen as credible players in the game of power, people have to see you as a large credible player. For this you need to have a large visibility, which requires lots of money, publicity and the like. It happened in the case of AAP because of the huge anti-corruption movement that preceded it and the publicity it got.
The way forward would be to try and put up a coalition of all such peoples’ movements and organisations, which broadly have a common ideology and who also want honest politics. It has been launched in Karnataka, but it will not happen overnight, it’ll take some time.
As for me, there are many PILs on course, from the massive corporate bank loans fraud, Reliance gas case, Air India under Praful Patel, Essar tapes and more.