The 'Steel Frame' Plays a Large Supporting Role for India's Criminal Politicians

The symbiotic relationship between politicians with criminal backgrounds and highly ambitious careerist bureaucrats is damaging democracy.

Anil Goswami and Ranjit Sinha. Credit: PTI

Anil Goswami and Ranjit Sinha. Credit: PTI

On November 1, 2017, while examining the Election Commission’s demand for speedy trials and a life-term ban on politicians including MPs and MLAs from contesting election after being convicted in criminal cases, the Supreme Court asked the Union government to set up special courts to try politicians allegedly involved in criminal cases.

The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a civil society group, have analysed the self-sworn affidavits of 541 out of 543 winners in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections filed before the Election Commission. They found that 34% of the winning candidates are facing criminal charges including rape, murder and arson. This percentage is on the rise. It was 24% in 2004 and 30% in 2009. ADR also underlined that “the chances of winning of a candidate with criminal cases in the Lok Sabha 2014 elections are 13 per cent while for a candidate with a clean record it is 5 per cent”.

Given the nature and extent of criminalisation in India’s public life, the Supreme Court directive will have a far-reaching impact on the country’s electoral democracy. But is it enough? Has the criminalisation of politics in India become a reality without criminalisation of the steel frame, that is, the IAS and IPS and the like? Can our politicians, in or out of power and irrespective of their party affiliations, make truckloads of black money and commit a battery of heinous crimes without the assured connivance, wilful or otherwise, of their willing and able partners-in-crime in the bureaucracy belonging to, but not limited to, the IAS and IPS at the national and state capitals? The answer is no. Here’s why.

The symbiotic relationship between politicians with criminal backgrounds and highly ambitious careerist bureaucrats in the IAS, IPS and the like is damaging the vitals of India’s democracy. Party affiliations of politicians and specific postings of bureaucrats don’t matter. Right from the early probation days in their parent cadres to the central deputation in New Delhi, hard-working bureaucrats have a soft corner for their political mentors and saviours. And the feeling is mutual and suitably reciprocated. We need to take a life-span approach to understand the dynamics of this politician-bureaucrat partnership.

Bhatnagar and the Bofors

Let’s consider the case of Sharad Kumar Bhatnagar. He was the defence secretary (July 6, 1984-May 31, 1988) under Rajiv Gandhi when the Bofors deal was inked on March 24, 1986. The first whiff of scandal came on April 16, 1987 when a Swedish Radio broadcast claimed that AB Bofors had paid kickbacks to key Indian policymakers and top defence officials to secure the deal. Under immense media scrutiny and public pressure, and as a face-saver, Rajiv set up a joint parliamentary committee to probe the allegations on August 6, 1987. The then prime minister had the audacity and wisdom to make Bhatnagar the governor of Sikkim (February 1989-January 31, 1990) and that meant he was effectively immune from investigation.

Also read: Voters Make “Strategic Choices” in Favour of Money and Muscle, Says Milan Vaishnav on Criminal Politicians

The CBI had on January 22, 1990 registered the FIR for the alleged offence of criminal conspiracy, cheating, forgery under the Indian Penal Code and other sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act against Martin Ardbo, the then president of AB Bofors, alleged middleman Win Chadda and the Hinduja brothers. The CBI had claimed that certain public servants and private persons in India and abroad had entered into a criminal conspiracy between 1982 and 1987 in pursuance of which the offences of bribery, corruption, cheating and forgery were committed. The first chargesheet in the case was filed on October 22, 1999 against Bhatnagar and others. A supplementary chargesheet against the Hinduja brothers was filed on October 9, 2000.

In 2002, a CBI special court felt that there had been “a serious flaw in the procedure adopted by S K Bhatnagar as chairman of the negotiating committee as a result of which objectivity and impartiality could not be observed. …There seems to be a deliberate attempt on the part of S.K. Bhatnagar to somehow show the Bofors gun system as superior and available at a much cheaper price.”

It was too late, however, to question – let alone prosecute – Bhatnagar, who had died in August 2001.

Goswami and the CBI

Another example is Anil Goswami, a Jammu and Kashmir cadre IAS officer of the 1977 batch, who “resigned” from his high-profile post of Union home secretary in February 2015, four months before his fixed two-year tenure was slated to end, for his alleged role in interfering with the workings of the CBI and attempting to stall the arrest of an accused. Goswami had allegedly called up two New Delhi-based senior officers of the CBI regarding the Saradha scam case and tried to stall the arrest of a former Union minister, Matang Sinh. At Goswami’s son’s wedding in 2014 in Delhi, Sinh was a prominent guest.

Incidentally, Goswami was appointed as Union home secretary by the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh. Goswami was also entangled in a controversy at the fag end of the UPA tenure in 2014. In February 2014, Goswami had allegedly called on two sitting Supreme Court judges to influence the appointment of his advocate wife, Neeru Goswami, as a judge in the Jammu and Kashmir high court. The Supreme Court judges had gone on the record about improper efforts to influence the appointment. One senior judge, Justice T.S. Thakur, even wrote to then Chief Justice P. Sathasivam in March 2014 saying he was not convinced about Neeru’s professional capabilities.

Sinha and the fodder scam

Another example is Ranjit Sinha, an IPS officer of Bihar cadre of the 1974 batch who had a controversial tenure as the CBI chief. In 1996, as a DIG in the CBI under the joint director (East), U.N. Biswas, he was accused of scuttling the investigation to help protect the accused, Lalu Prasad Yadav, in the fodder scam case whose progress was being monitored by the Patna high court.

Biswas was the chief investigator in the case and was asked by the court to file a report. The original report by Biswas damning Lalu and others was swapped with a toned-down version authored by Sinha by the then director CBI, Joginder Singh, and submitted to the court. When the court asked why the submitted report did not carry details of the original charges, Biswas admitted before the court that the report had been changed by the CBI director and that the original report was more damaging. The high court, after going through the report prepared by Sinha, termed it as “sketchy and truncated”. The court indicted the CBI and ordered that Sinha be removed from the case. After taking over as the CBI director, he transferred out four crucial officers investigating the fodder scam after obtaining the consent of the Jharkhand high court, but the orders were later cancelled by the Supreme Court of India following filing of a PIL.

The bonhomie between Lalu, one of the main accused in the fodder scam, and Sinha can be gauged from the fact that during his stint as the railways minister, Lalu kept the post of director general, Railway Protection Force vacant for three months until the time Sinha was elevated to the post. As CBI director, Sinha advocated the dropping of charges against Lalu in the three pending cases which are offshoots of the fodder scam; the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader has been convicted in one of these cases. In recommending that the charges against Lalu be dropped, Sinha differed not only with Director of Prosecution but also other senior officers of the Patna branch, including the head of Patna zone.

This is just a sample of how unscrupulous elements in the steel frame prosper by cozying up to their political masters. The steel frame has actually become a ‘steal’ frame in matters related to the governance of this country. India’s policymakers need to find ways to make these elements accountable for their commissions and omissions.

Basant Rath is 2000 batch IPS officer who belongs to the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. Views expressed are personal.