It has become as predictable as Delhi’s annual smog that come a state election, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s most trusted ally – the Enforcement Directorate (ED) – will swing into action to issue notices and corner political rivals.
Yet, despite the record number of notices issued under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), the ED recorded just four convictions in 2016-17. This didn’t stop the agency from going ahead with its actions, though. Officials told The Wire that 570 notices under the PMLA were issued between 2017 and February 2018.
Consider the following:
1. Maharashtra will go to the polls in three weeks. Like clockwork, the ED has issued notices to Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray. Interestingly, the notices to Pawar were sent after Union home minister Amit Shah spent two days in Mumbai last week.
2. The Haryana elections will be held alongside Maharashtra. So predictably, the ED has sought the “custodial interrogation” of controversial businessman Robert Vadra, who is married to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Congress party general secretary. They accuse Vadra of allegedly possessing land assets abroad.
Senior ED sources told The Wire that Vadra, who is currently abroad with the court’s permission, will be arrested the moment he returns to India. From the BJP’s perspective, one assumes, this should ideally coincide with the Haryana election campaign.
Former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda is also facing a multi-agency probe by the ED and the Central Bureau of Investigation for his alleged violation of land allocation rules for Vadra. These alleged crimes make perfect election slogans for Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the campaign trial. The headline-hunting government ensures that these slogans find perfect placement on primetime TV.
Take the case of P. Chidambaram, 74, who is currently lodged in Tihar jail. The ED has argued in court that the former finance minister, who is one of India’s leading lawyers and has substantial assets in the country, is a “flight risk”. Chidambaram has been in jail since September 5, and the ED has also told the court that he should be kept in jail as he “is an influential person, who can affect world leaders”.
Another Congress leader, Karnataka’s D.K. Shivakumar, is also in jail because of multiple ED cases. His real crime is that he ensured senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel’s election to the Rajya Sabha by sequestering Gujarat Congress MLAs in his resort. Amit Shah has never forgiven him. The ED has also interrogated Shivakumar’s entire family while he is in jail.
Chidambaram, Vadra and Shivakumar have been interrogated by the ED more than a dozen times. But even then, come an election, the ED petitions for custody.
A senior ED official said, “Earlier, bail was the norm and jail was the exception. But Modi 2.0 has upended that practice.” But there is more: “Now Shah monitors all cases, despite the fact that the ED comes under the Ministry of Finance. Even as BJP president, Shah used to call senior ED and CBI officials,” he alleged, “and demand that [various] leaders be taken into custody.”
While the question of a politician’s culpability can only be decided by a court, the fact that an element of vendetta is involved is clear. The day Chidambaram was jailed, BJP handles on social media gloated that he was the minister who had sent Shah to jail.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who visited Chidambaram in jail along with interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi, issued a statement where he pointed out that the Foreign Investment Promotion Board’s was a collective decision and only one minister could not be held accountable. Singh pointed out that if the minister was held liable for an FIPB decision, the whole system would collapse.
Senior ED officials say that attempts to charge secretary-level officials who are part of the FIPB have not got legal sanction yet. Despite this, Chidambaram – who is not even named in the INX Media case – is in jail.
Indian leaders have a long history of using pliable investigative agencies to fix political rivals. No government can claim to have clean hands on this matter. Yet, the total weaponisation of the ED is Shah’s contribution to the polity.
Besides targeting opposition politicians, the investigative agencies are also used to ensure that leaders from other parties cross over to the BJP. Trinamool Congress’s Mukul Roy and Congress’s Himanta Sarma Biswa had multiple cases against them. After they joined the BJP, those cases seem to have died down.
As a senior Congress politician, who with his son has been making the rounds of the ED office, puts it, “The BJP is a laundry service. You join, and corruption stains vanish. Daag dhul jaate hain.”
Swati Chaturvedi is a Delhi-based journalist.