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It is rare for the Narendra Modi government to admit to gross incompetence or mala fide intention, or both. It’s even rarer for it to place data before parliament to this effect.
According to a reply in the Lok Sabha by minister of state for finance Pankaj Chaudhari, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) has registered 5,422 cases under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), but only 23 persons have been convicted – less than 0.5%. This is nothing short of an indictment by the government of its own investigation agency and calls for special scrutiny by a parliamentary committee.
How exactly does the ED manage to botch up so badly? By way of comparison, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director Subodh Kumar Jaiswal told the Supreme Court last year that his agency had secured a conviction rate of 65-70% and it wanted to raise it to 75% by August 2022. It’s a stark contrast.
It is worth finding out whether any investigation agency in any reasonably governed democracy has such a pathetic, almost non-existent conviction rate. But the ED is in the news every day, raiding a politician here, or some businessman there. TV channels report ED raids and investigations ad nauseam, but never pause to ask why its conviction rate is so low.
Is it because securing convictions is never the objective, at all? The goal of the establishment is merely to threaten political rivals, dissenters or media to consolidate its authoritarian powers. The ED is probably just an instrument for securing that limited objective.
Indeed, data released in the Lok Sabha shows an explosion of cases registered by ED under the current regime for alleged money laundering. About 72% of all Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) cases and 65% of PMLA cases were initiated by the Modi regime in the last eight years. The same abysmal conviction record prevails.
Under FEMA, money laundering is a compoundable civil offence, whereas PMLA specifically deals with money laundering where proceeds of a crime are involved. Illegitimate transactions under PMLA are generally linked to bribery, drugs or terrorism. It is well known that the ED has registered cases against leaders and associates of most regional Opposition parties for the purpose of harassment. The ED conducted 3,010 raids and searches in eight years of Modi’s rule, but only 112 searches happened between 2005 and 2014. This shows how instrumental the ED is to the regime’s larger authoritarian project.
It is now routine for Opposition leaders who join the BJP to be let off the hook. It cannot get more cynical and brazen than this. It is true that ED was used as an instrument of political harassment even under previous regimes, but the scale of abuse in the last eight years is unmatched.
The fear of the ED is far greater because it has special powers to force an accused to self-incriminate during interrogation – powers which were challenged in a petition as unconstitutional but whose validity the Supreme Court has now upheld. Statements taken during interrogation can be used as evidence, which normal criminal law does not permit because it is fundamentally violative of human rights. It is clear that the ED survives only because of its political uses. Professionally, the conviction rate suggests, it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.