New Delhi: The first 100 days of Modi 2.0 has firmly placed Union home minister Amit Shah at the top of government affairs. From criminalising triple talaq to the Centre’s decision to read down Article 370 and bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, the Gandhinagar MP has been at the forefront of implementing the BJP’s political agenda.
Even after J.P.Nadda was appointed BJP working president at the start of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term, Shah has still found time to chalk out the party’s election strategies in various states.
But what went relatively unnoticed is the way, as home minister, he has led a crackdown on opposition leaders. Within two months, a string of opposition leaders or their apprentices have come under the scanner of Central investigation agencies.
During Modi’s first term, investigative agencies raided Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s office, while old cases against Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati were also reopened.
Days ahead of the general elections, the CBI swooped down on Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar’s office without a warrant. One may also remember the BJP and a section of television channels dramatising the questioning of Robert Vadra by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in an illegal land deal case.
The status of those cases remains unknown, as neither the media nor the investigative agencies appear to have followed them up.
However, with Amit Shah directly overseeing the agencies, the gears have decisively shifted against the opposition.
The former home and finance minister P. Chidambaram became the biggest target of this change. The CBI says INX Media wrongfully received overseas funds to the tune of Rs 305 crore in 2007 when Chidambaram was the finance minister. He is accused of giving a Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) clearance to facilitate the transfer of funds. The CBI and the ED have registered separate cases and are investigating the Congress leader.
Since his arrest on August 21, the CBI sought to extend his custody several times. Opposition leaders questioned why the agency was so desperate for the custody of a person who is alleged to have only a fleeting link to a money laundering case. Congress leader Manish Tewari was of the view that keeping Chidambaram in custody was a case of persecution as the CBI apparently did not have evidence against him.
Next in line was Congress leader D.K. Shivakumar. The Karnataka leader has a reputation for pulling his party out of crises. In recent times, he has been credited for keeping the Congress flock together before H.D. Kumaraswamy was sworn in as the chief minister of Karnataka last year. Similarly, he also played a prominent role in flying in Congress MLAs from Gujarat during the Rajya Sabha elections. A strong Vokkaliga leader, Shivakumar has been facing charges of tax evasion and corruption in Bengaluru. But the ED charged him for alleged money laundering in Karnataka Bhawan in New Delhi. He was arrested in the first week of September, and the ED has also sought to extend his custody.
Host of opposition leaders facing scrutiny
There are a host of other opposition leaders whom Central agencies are probing. Among the most prominent are Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray, who campaigned against the BJP in the parliamentary elections, although his party did not contest. Thackeray was summoned by the ED in connection to the Rs 421 crore Kohinoor building project in which Thackeray is a shareholder along with former Maharashtra chief minister Manohar Joshi’s son Unmesh Joshi.
The ED says that during its probe on the IL&FS money laundering case, Kohinoor’s name cropped up. It alleged that the IL&FS Group had given a loan to Kohinoor worth of Rs 225 crore and later took a hit of Rs 135 crore, indicating some sort of money laundering.
Similarly, Madhya Pradesh’s Congress chief minister Kamal Nath’s nephew Ratul Puri was also arrested by the ED in connection to a Rs 354 crore bank fraud case recently. Earlier, during the general elections, the Income Tax department had raided his residence. While Kamal Nath has said that he has no connection with his nephew’s businesses, many observers thought the raid was politically motivated, given top BJP leaders like Kailash Vijayvargiya attacked the chief minister for “protecting” his nephew.
Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar is also under the scanner in a bank scam case. The Economic Offences Wing of the Mumbai Police registered an FIR against Ajit and 70 others alleging that Pawar’s decision led to a loss of over Rs 1,000 crore to the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, one of the staunchest critics of the Centre, has also been under pressure. Her cabinet minister Partha Chatterjee was recently summoned by the CBI for questioning in the Saradha chit fund scam. Chatterjee is also the editor of Jago Bangla, Trinamool Congress’s mouthpiece. In the past, TMC ministers like Madan Mitra and Sudip Bandyopadhyay have been arrested and agencies have summoned at least ten other TMC leaders.
The party has termed the action against their leaders “politics of revenge”. They have alleged that only TMC leaders are being questioned in the case while many BJP leaders like Mukul Roy or Babul Supriyo – against whom allegations of involvement in various chit fund scams surfaced in the Narada sting operation – were being ignored by the agencies.
A case of selective probes?
The list of opposition leaders who are being probed by Central agencies is long. While these agencies are required to probe corruption cases, the motive appears suspect because of their interest being restricted only to opposition leaders. Quite a few BJP leaders who are also accused of involvement in scams and corruption remain scot-free.
Moreover, in none of these cases, the agencies have charge-sheeted the leaders of particular crimes. The fate of these cases hangs in limbo. Though the action against opposition leaders has garnered a lot of attention, one does not know whether the agencies have been able to gather enough evidence against the accused.
This has prompted the opposition to allege that the agencies are being “misused” by the Centre to further its political agenda – a case of vendetta rather than a crusade against corruption.
Against this political backdrop, the inaction against some of the tainted BJP leaders is conspicuous.
The Print, in a column, pointed out that at least seven high-profile BJP leaders have been accused of being involved in some sort of corruption.
Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa is accused in land and mining scams. The infamous diaries recovered from his residence purportedly shows large bribes being paid to BJP leaders, judges and advocates. The CBI probed his cases for many years but could not gather enough evidence when Modi came to power at the Centre.
The same is the case with Bellary’s Reddy brothers, who have been accused in a mining scam worth Rs 16,500 crores. Before the 2018 assembly elections in the state, the CBI concluded its investigations citing technical reasons. Kallol Biswas, the Indian Forest Service officer who blew the whistle on the case, was sacked by the Modi government in August.
Similarly, BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who handles many important matters in the northeast is an accused in the Louis Berger case, in which the American company bribed Indian government officials to land water management projects. Before Sarma defected from the Congress and joined the BJP, the saffron party had launched a full-throttle anti-corruption campaign against him. However, the case faded into thin air after Sarma joined the BJP.
The multi-crore Vyapam scam, in which then chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was under the scanner, has also disappeared from the agencies’ radar. More than 40 whistleblowers in the case have “mysteriously died”, but justice has not been served. The CBI only shot into action in 2017, two years after BJP came to power at the Centre, giving a clean chit to Chouhan.
In West Bengal, Mukul Roy, one of the prime accused in the Saradha chit fund scam, is now the BJP’s most important member in the state. Roy joined the party soon after the ED summoned him in the Narada sting case, where he was seen accepting bribes.
Union HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ is also an accused of involvement in two scams – one related to land and the other to hydro-electric projects in Uttarakhand when he was the chief minister. The BJP had forced him to resign in 2011 after his government was hit by several corruption cases.
Similarly, cases against former Shiv Sena leader Narayan Rane were put on the back burner once he joined the BJP. The party made him a Rajya Sabha MP.
Before the general elections, the agencies had initiated action against Biju Janata Dal’s ministers in Odisha in cases related to the Rose Valley chit fund scam. However, with Naveen Patnaik supporting all the Union government’s moves in parliament, those cases too have stopped receiving attention.
From these instances, it is apparent that the Central agencies do not show the same vigour in summoning or arresting BJP leaders accused of corruption. This is precisely why the opposition sees the arrests of their leaders as cases of political vendetta. With Amit Shah, who himself faced a series of charges under the UPA government manning the home ministry, that perception has only become stronger.