In a riveting, articulate and informed intervention in the Lok Sabha on Supplementary Demands for Grants 2022-2023 and Demands for Excess Grants for 2019-2020, All India Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra raised the question of misuse of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) by the Narendra Modi government during zero hour on December 13, 2022.
Attacking the government resolutely in what she stressed was “parliamentary language”, a rarity these days, she rattled off figures to substantiate her recrimination.
She unambiguously said, “There is an atmosphere of terror with the sword of the Enforcement Directorate hanging over businessmen and high net worth individuals. The ruling party buys lawmakers for hundreds of crores and yet members of the Opposition represent 95% of lawmakers under investigation by the ED. But forget politicians, they are tough, they can fend for themselves. Businessmen and high net worth individuals are soft targets.”
She quoted government figures to stress that the ED has conducted 5,422 investigations under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) in the last 17 years, with only 23 convictions, a “pathetic” 0.5%. She further revealed that since 2011, the ED has launched 1,600 investigations and 1,800 raids, but convicted only 10 people.
She questioned the additional demands (the figure of Rs 2,900 crore cited is incorrect; the precise figures are not known) made by the government for the ED to open additional offices and staff housing. This is by far the fiercest criticism of one of the premium investigative agencies.
Though she did not quote recent figures, there is truth in what Moitra said. Since 2014, when the Narendra Modi government came to power, 121 political leaders have been probed by the ED and 115 (95%) belonged to the Opposition – 24 of the Congress, 19 of the Trinamool Congress, 11 of the Nationalist Congress Party, eight of the Shiv Sena and so on. Significantly, cases were dropped when Opposition leaders crossed over to the BJP. Some of them were even rewarded with prime positions in the government and the party.
The ED was established as a small enforcement unit within the Department of Economic Affairs on May 1, 1956, to investigate cases of violation of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA), 1947.
In 1957, it was named the Enforcement Directorate with the addition of a branch in Madras along with the existing two in Bombay and Calcutta. In 1960, administrative control was transferred from the Department of Economic Affairs to the Department of Revenue. The ED was later relocated to the administrative realm of the Department of Personnel and Administrative Reforms, where it remained for four years. It was transferred in 1977 to the Department of Revenue.
Moitra referred to the PMLA (2002), which is the most recent but crucial legislation involving the ED, which it has been using at political behests lately.
After FERA was repealed in 1999, the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) (1999) took its place from June 1, 2000, following new foreign exchange requirements of the liberalised regime. The PMLA was added two years later.
With the Fugitive Economic Offenders Act, 2018, and strings of the foreign exchange laws such as the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act, 1974 (COFEPOSA), the ED is empowered to take action against the violators of the foreign exchange regime of the country.
However, being a criminal Act, the PMLA is in a different category. It is meant for catching bigger fish involved in suspicious financial deals, but certainly not politicians on the other side of the aisle, political dissenters and innocent high net worth individuals.
Moitra thus is right in raising this issue on the floor of the Lok Sabha in a cogent and compelling manner, which most of the parties and members have not paid attention to. Even Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, which seeks to repair a country which has been seeing religious divisiveness for the past eight years, has not raised the issue of misuse of institutions such as the ED.
The second crucial point is that the floor of parliament and legislatures should be used in such convincing and parliamentary ways to highlight issues of importance with informed convincing debate rather than the tactics of street politics.
The writer is a political scientist. He was Atal Bihari Vajpayee Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, 2019-21 and Principal, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Evening College, Delhi University.