Perhaps the Bharatiya Janata Party, plagued by its failure to deal with issues like unemployment, price rise and the overall prosperity and security of the country, has decided to make the corruption of its opponents a major electoral issue for the Lok Sabha elections of 2024.
The recent rash of arrests, interrogations and raids on senior members of opposition parties, experts believe, point to the fact that BJP, with the help of national agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Income Tax department, is keen to portray potential opponents as corrupt, while presenting Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an anti-corruption “crusader”.
In the last few months, Manish Sisodia and Satyendar Jain, two of the seniormost leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), were arrested by the CBI and ED respectively on charges of corruption while K. Kavitha of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) was interrogated by the ED in the same case in which Sisodia was arrested.
Days later, the ED raided the homes of Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, his son, the Bihar deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav, and other members of their family in railways related cases.
Action against the alleged corruption of opposition leaders is noble but somewhat negated in the eyes of the public by the BJP’s lack of interest in following up on corruption charges against opposition leaders who joined the BJP.
Since 2014, when the BJP came to power at the Union, the party welcomed to its fold Himanta Biswa Sarma, formerly of the Congress party and now the BJP chief minister of Assam; the Bengal leaders Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy (formerly of the Trinamool Congress party, who joined the BJP before the 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal although Roy returned to the TMC later); and Maharashtra leader Narayan Rane, formerly of the Congress party and now a BJP Union minister.
Each of these politicians had been directly on the radar of one or another national agency since 2014, but all references to their involvement in corruption were dropped the day they joined the BJP.
Just as glaring is the difference between the Union government’s action in extending the service of Sanjay Kumar Mishra, director of the ED, for another year, and what happened to Lalu Prasad Yadav in 2013 based on the RJD chief’s extension of the service of the then regional director of the Bihar’s animal husbandry department, the late Shyam Bihari Sinha, in 1991.
In 2013, Lalu Yadav was convicted in the fodder scam on the basis of “a conspiracy” he apparently executed with Sinha, the main accused in all the fodder cases, to fraudulently withdraw Rs 950 crores from the treasury for cattle feed, fodder and medicine from 1990 to 1996.
As the chief minister of Bihar at the time, Lalu lodged 48 first information reports when the fraudulent withdrawals came to light and the Bihar police began investigating the cases. But opposition leaders – mainly from the BJP –demanded that the CBI take over the fodder scam cases because the state police “might not have investigated the role of the ruling politicians”.
The Supreme Court eventually handed the case to the CBI which implicated Lalu and other politicians in the scam on the basis of the fact that Lalu had extended the service of S.B Sinha. “The leaders extended favour to S.B Sinha because they had vested interests in him,” the CBI had pleaded in court.
Last 2021, the Narendra Modi government extended the service of Sanjay Kumar Mishra, director of the ED, for the third consecutive year. The government promulgated an ordinance empowering itself to extend the service of CBI and ED directors up to five years. Outcries of illegality were made by senior lawyers and opposition parties, including the Supreme Court’s amicus curiae and senior advocate K.V. Viswanathan.
Misuse of agencies?
“They (the BJP) have planned to fight the 2024 polls through the CBI, ED and income tax department, with a dollop of communalism,” said Manoj Jha, a member of parliament and spokesperson of the RJD.
In response, Sushil Kumar Modi, a member of parliament and a senior BJP leader, tried to justify the ED’s recent raids on Lalu and his family by saying: “Lallan Singh, the president of the Janata Dal (United) had given evidence to the CBI against Lalu Prasad’s family.”
However, Lallan Singh has denied this.
One way to determine whether the ED raids on the homes of Lalu’s family members is politically motivated or not is to go into the facts of the corruption cases in which Lalu is involved.
In the fodder scam of the 1990s, the Comptroller and Accountant General pointed out the fraudulent withdrawals from the treasury in its reports. These reports became part of the evidence against the accused. Meanwhile, the Patna high court monitored the CBI’s investigation in the fodder cases on the direction of the Supreme Court.
However, it is unclear as to how the CBI built the Railways related cases against Lalu and his family. The two cases which the CBI lodged against Lalu in 2017 are:
- Selling two hotels owned by the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) at Ranchi and Bhubaneswar to private operators in violation of the provisions; and
- Giving group ‘D’ category jobs in the railways in exchange for land.
These cases date to Lalu’s tenure as the Union railway minister from 2004 to 2009. Lalu’s wife Rabri Devi, son Tejashwi, and his daughters were implicated in these cases by the investigating agencies on the grounds that “family members might be beneficiaries of the kickbacks of the scams”.
The IRCTC cases seem suspect because they were closed for lack of evidence not once, but twice – in 2008 and later, in 2013 – before they were suddenly opened again in 2017, just after the BJP lost the Bihar assembly elections.
The effect of the reopening of these cases was to make the Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar of the JD(U), quit the Mahagathbandhan, an alliance of the main parties opposing the BJP in the state including the JD(U), the RJD, the Congress and some Left parties, and throw in his party’s lot with the BJP. This brought the saffron party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) back to power in Bihar and the IRCTC cases against Lalu and his family faded into the background.
In August 2022, when Nitish quit the NDA and returned to the RJD-Congress alliance, the CBI brought the cases against Lalu to the fore once again.
Nitish has said repeatedly: “They (the investigating agencies) raid Lalu ji and his family members to break the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance). They raided Lalu in 2017, when we were together. We fell apart. Now they are raiding Lalu again when we have come back together. Where were they for five years?”
Prabhat Kumar, Lalu’s lawyer in the case, said, “There is no basis whatsoever for the railways related cases against Lalu and his family. They won’t stand in a court of law. This is politically motivated.”
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, media educator and independent researcher in social anthropology.