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Politics

Raids, Seizures, Searches: How Central Agencies Have Taken Poll Position

ED’s latest round of searches and seizures have, again, been directed against important opposition leaders of states which are in the midst of high-pitched electoral battles, with BJP among the principal players.

New Delhi: The run-up to the assembly polls saw yet another round of central investigation agencies descending on opposition leaders in one case or another. The timing of such raids were questioned by many – especially when investigation agencies are increasingly being seen as aiding the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s political interests.  

In 2022, the Supreme Court allowed the Enforcement Directorate to conduct searches and seizures of property without a formal complaint in Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) cases, effectively presuming the accused person to be guilty. A three-judge bench headed by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar broadened the investigative powers of the ED by upholding the constitutionality of several contentious sections of the Act. Since then, however, the agency has targeted opposition leaders particularly during election campaigns, raising grave doubts about its autonomy.    

ED’s latest round of searches and seizures have, again, been directed against important opposition leaders of states which are in the midst of high-pitched electoral battles, with BJP among the principal players. Here are a few examples. 

Rajasthan

The ED raided the Jaipur and Sikar premises of Pradesh Congress President of Rajasthan, Govind Singh Dotasra, in the last week of October, when he was busy campaigning. No official statement was issued by the ED but it came to be known that the searches were conducted in Dotasra’s houses in an alleged teachers’s entrance exam leak case.

Along with him, properties of another Congress MLA – Om Prakash Hudla, from the Mahua seat in Dausa – were also searched. Interestingly, paper leaks in service selection entrance examinations was one of the primary issues that the BJP had been raising against the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress state government. Later in November Dotasra’s son Avinash and Abhilash also received summons from the ED. 

Around the same time, chief minister Ashok Gehlot’s son Vaibhav Gehlot also received ED’s summons, prompting the chief minister to compare the ED with a “tiddi dal” (locusts) obeying their masters, meaning the BJP. Gehlot said that the ED has been conducting raids against Congress leaders and workers, and those associated with the party, almost everyday amidst the election campaign. 

After the raids, Dotasra said that the ED officials could not find any cash or illegal documents from his premises, and yet seized his and his sons’ phones and pen drive. He said that the search warrant was in the name of his son Avinash, who is an accounts officer. Reports indicate that the ED has been probing Dotasra’s links with a coaching institute Kalam academy, but the PCC chief said neither he nor his sons have any connection with it.

Similarly, Gehlot’s son was also reportedly called by the ED in connection with a Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) case against a hospitality group called Triton Hotels & Resorts Pvt. Ltd. 

In early November, the ED also conducted searches of 25 premises in an alleged Jal Jeevan Mission scam being probed under the PMLA. The Jal Jeevan Mission is a union government scheme to provide potable water through tap in every household.The ED raided state minister Mahesh Joshi’s properties and the premises of additional chief secretary in the public health engineering department Subodh Agarwal. Along with him, multiple other raids by the ED happened in the properties of engineers, contractors, government officials. 

A scam was reported when the state government’s Anti-Corruption Bureau filed an FIR on the complaint of BJP Rajya Sabha MP Kirodi Lal Meena who alleged a Rs 20,000 crore scam in the implementation of the scheme. The FIR alleged that two companies Shree Shyam Tubewell Company and Shree Ganpati Tubewell Company paid bribes to public servants to cover up irregularities and inflate bills for the work done by them. 

Earlier, in July 2020, when Ashok Gehlot was facing revolt from his colleague Sachin Pilot, the ED had raided the premises associated with the CM’s brother, Agrasen Gehlot, and his company Anupam Krishi in a case related to alleged diversion of fertilisers during 2007-2009. Agrasen has been questioned by the ED many times, even as the case continues to drag on. 

Chhattisgarh

The ED’s searches in Chhattisgarh began as early as August, 2023 when premises of chief minister Bhupesh Baghel’s political adviser and former journalist Vinod Verma and two Officers on Special Duty were raided in Raipur and Durg.  

Then, following a seizure of Rs 14.92 crore in Raipur and Durg, the ED named the chief minister in its statement as a beneficiary of Rs 508 crore in the Mahadev betting app case just four days before the first phase of polls in the state on November 7. 

The case itself was curious in the way it unfolded. First, the ED claimed that the app’s promoters Saurabh Chandrakar and Ravi Uppal, two Bhilai-based residents who ran a juice shop, ran a huge online betting nexus with the help of several franchises. The ED also questioned several Hindi film industry actors in the case that was being probed since July, 2022. If there was a Congress connection, nowhere did it present itself. However, just before the Chhattisgarh polls, the BJP leaders released a video clip in which a person named Shubham Soni claimed to be real owner of the online betting app and alleged that he had paid Rs 508 crore as bribe to Baghel through his media advisor and an IPS officer to seek protection from any punitive action. Soni also claimed that he was told by Baghel to flee to Dubai. 

Soon after, the ED released a statement naming Baghel as an accused on the basis of the video released by Soni. It also claimed that Baghel’s name propped up in a statement made by a “cash courier” arrested in Raipur with possession of around Rs 5 crore. But the agency added that all these accusations “are a subject matter of investigation”.  

As the Congress slammed such accusations as serving the BJP’s political interests and tarnishing the popular chief minister’s image, Baghel claimed that he had never met any of the three people – Chandrakar, Uppal, and Soni – that the ED mentioned. He also said that if there was any merit to the accusations, the ED should show concrete proof.  

Startlingly, days after the elections were over, Asim Das, the alleged cash courier who was arrested in Raipur with around Rs 5 crore and whose statement was the basis of implicating Baghel in the Mahadev betting app case, wrote a letter to the Special Court, Raipur and the ED’s Director saying that he never delivered any cash to politicians and that he was being framed in a conspiracy. He added that he had visited Dubai to meet his childhood friend Soni regarding investments in his construction business and indicated that the cash seized from him had nothing to do with the betting app. 

In the run-up to the assembly polls, the ED also arrested state ASI Chandrabhushan Verma, businessman Satish Chandrakar, and alleged hawala operators Anil Dammani and Suni Dammani. The ED, following the raids, claimed that “high-ranking officials connected with the CMO (Chief Minister’s Office) received kickbacks to allow illegal online betting.

There were raids in other cases, too, by the ED. The agency conducted searches and seizures in 15 different places in October when it allied that state rice millers association in cahoots with officers of state’s Marketing Federation Ltd (MARKFED) illegally increased the price of paddy to an exorbitant Rs 120 per quintal after “higher powers” were bribed with Rs 175 crore.  

The ED had made similar raids and arrested persons in the coal levy commission case, allegedly involving Rs 540 crore and illegal liquor sale which allegedly cost the state exchequer Rs 2160 crore. In both cases, the ED claimed that the illegal money went to “a political party” but did not elaborate on the accusation. In both cases, persons said to be close aides of the chief minister Baghel were arrested

Madhya Pradesh

The ED made an arrest in August in an alleged Rs 354 crore bank fraud case involving many influential people associated with the Congress, including Ratul Puri, the nephew of Congress’s chief ministerial candidate Kamal Nath. 

In 2019, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had booked Ratul Puri, his father Deepak Puri, mother Nita in another case that accused Moser Baer India Ltd, a CD manufacturing company owned by Puri, and its promoters of bank fraud from a loan taken from the Central Bank of India. The ED also appears to be following the same case against Puri.  

The ED in August 2023 also arrested a former relationship manager of the Bank of Singapore Nitin Bhatnagar in the PMLA case against Moser Baer.

Congress leaders, meanwhile, claimed that the ED and the income tax department were trying to indict multiple Congress workers and associates under the scanner to help the BJP in the elections.. “We are getting information through newspapers that the offices of Income Tax and ED are being opened at different places…Officials are being posted…They are raiding the ruling (Congress) regime in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan,” Singh told reporters in Bhopal.

“If ED, IT offices are being opened in Madhya Pradesh, they should raid the chief minister, ministers and their favourite officers, but as per the news being received, they are planning to target the Congress and opposition leaders in MP,” he said.

Telangana

In the southern state of Telangana, the ED sent fresh summons to Bharat Rashtra Samithi MLC K. Kavitha, who is also the daughter of the chief minister K.Chandrasekhar Rao, in the Delhi excise policy case, weeks before the assembly polls. She has received ED’s summons in the case earlier this year, too.

 The new excise policy introduced by the Aam Aadmi Party government in which 849 liquor shops were allocated to private firms was scrapped by the Arvind Kejriwal government after Delhi L-G Vinay Kumar Saxena recommended a CBI inquiry, citing irregularities in the policy’s implementation. AAP leaders Manish Sisodia and Sanjay Singh have already been arrested in the case. 

The ED alleged that Kavitha, too, is a part of the “South Group” that paid at least Rs 100 crore in bribes to AAP through AAP worker and businessman Vijay Nair who has already been arrested. 

Along with Kavitha, various other BRS functionaries also faced ED’s raids.

A week before polling, the ED also swooped down on Congress MLA candidate G.Vivek in connection with a Rs 8 crore transaction between his company and one Vigilance Security Services Pvt. Ltd. The ED claimed that the transferred amount originated from an unidentified bank account. Searches were conducted on November 20 at various locations owned by Vivek, Congress MLA candidate from Chennu seat. Incidentally, Vivek had recently quit the BJP to join the Congress and is the richest candidate in the fray. 

The I-T department also conducted searches at Vivek’s premises. Earlier, the I-T department and the ED had raided the premises of Congress candidates Kichannagari Lakshma Reddy of Maheswaram and Ponguleti Srinivasa Reddy of Palair in different cases of financial fraud. 

Curiously, the BJP has used most of these raids as vehicles to advance its anti-corruption political rhetoric and have attacked the opposition parties in the run-up to the polls. In many of these cases, the BJP, more than the ED, has revealed the charges against the opposition leaders in its press briefings. How the BJP managed to get the details even before the ED revealed them was debated in political circles quite vigorously. 

The ED didn’t conduct any raids in Mizoram. The election in the state is between the incumbent Mizo National Front or MNF and the other seven-party regional alliance, the Zoram People’s Movement. The BJP has one MLA in the state at present and analysts say it does not have any major electoral stakes here, as it depends more or less on its regional allies. Narendra Modi cancelled his election rally here. The Congress used to be an important player but has now shrunk, with just 5 MLAs in the outgoing assembly.

The Wire had earlier reported that almost 95% of the cases probed by the ED and the Central Bureau of Investigation against political leaders are from the opposition. Although the ED claims that it has a high conviction rate of 96%, the figures appear to be misplaced if one factors in the number of cases it has closed since 2005. The ED registered 5,906 cases until March 2023 but completed the probe and filed a chargesheet in only 1,142 cases – out of which it has disposed of only 25 cases, a mere 0.42 of the total number of cases. Of those 25 cases, the ED has managed convictions in 24 cases, which is around 96% conviction rate as claimed by the agency. 

In a response to The Wire, the ED had earlier denied all allegations of bias.

There is a four-fold jump in ED cases since 2014; 95% of those cases are against opposition leaders