This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) boss Arvind Kejriwal hit the bull’s eye when he said that if he got control of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) just for a day, half of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s leaders would find themselves in jail. He was highlighting the selective use of the enforcement agencies against the BJP’s political rivals, carefully sparing its own functionaries. “In seven years, they filed 167 cases against AAP leaders but not one was proved in court. In 150 cases, they were cleared… 800 sleuths were unleashed on AAP… Even the deputy CM has been made an accused in an FIR…”
Much of what Kejriwal revealed is widely known but big media outlets stay clear of acknowledging this. The enforcement agencies have emerged as the chief instrument in the Modi government’s arsenal for spreading the ruling party’s political base to areas where the Opposition is strong.
It is part of a well-defined arrangement in which the ED/CBI/IT are tasked to perform two political tasks – providing vital input to the political leadership on rivals’ vulnerabilities, and coercing them through raids, arrests and litigation. The first is done through informal private leaks within the parivar and direct media leaks. The arrangement is so perfect that agency sleuths informally liaise with designated BJP officials. They were even seen in each other’s vehicles.
The ruling party systematically uses such information to further expose and torment Opposition leaders. To facilitate this, the ED recently issued a notification expanding the list of agencies with which it will exchange information. Critics smell a rat in this surprise announcement.
The selective use of punitive might is used to tire out political rivals. On the eve of every election, selected Opposition leaders are made special targets of raids and accusations. The practice began with Modi’s advent in 2014 and got a fillip after the present ED boss assumed office. He has now been given a most unusual third extension, even though the matter of his tenure had been raised earlier in the Supreme Court.
The increasing misuse of ED as an instrument of power is borne out by a steep 95% rise in its actions since Modi came to power. Among Opposition targets, the Congress topped the list with 24 prosecutions followed by Trinamool Congress with 19 and Nationalist Congress Party with 11. Since then, things have gotten worse. The Rajya Sabha was told that there was a 27-fold rise in the number of ED raids from 112 in 2004-2014 to 3,010 in 2014-2022. Almost all the victims were Modi’s political rivals.
The enforcement agencies are also used to broker defections from Opposition parties. Manish Sisodia of AAP presented an audio clip featuring offers to drop the cases against him if he crossed over to the BJP. If true, this marks the worst kind of misuse of agencies for political gains, i.e., using them to bargain with political rivals for defections. Earlier, four AAP Delhi MLAs had alleged that they were threatened with ED/CBI raids if they did not cross over to the BJP.
The success of ‘Operation Lotus’ in Maharashtra, which toppled the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in June, is sought to be replicated in almost all non-BJP states – Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and even Punjab. A closer look at toppling operations in the last few months shows that direct payment of big money, rather than positions, is the lure, coupled with offers to withdraw ED/CBI harassments. Kejriwal has claimed that 277 MLAs defected to the BJP after winning on tickets from other parties. He calculates that at the rate of Rs 20 crore per MLA, the ruling party has spent at least Rs 5,500 crores on this. This was based on the allegation of the four Delhi AAP MLAs, that they were offered Rs 20 crore each to defect. And Rs 25 crore would be paid if they brought along other MLAs. Refusal would have brought on ED raids.
On October 30, Sisodia said that BJP ‘brokers’ were plotting to ‘buy’ 43 Delhi MLAs for Rs 1,075 crore. He also played an audio clip in which brokers, apparently acting on behalf of the BJP, were heard offering Rs 100 crore for the defection of TRS MLAs.
Obviously, Operation Lotus in Telangana, to topple the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) regime, began with great hopes of Shiv Sena-type mass defections. This was accompanied by coercive action against TRS ministers and MLAs. However, the plan misfired because the state police, which got wind of it early, acted fast. Many of the shady deals, including huge direct cash payments, were recorded by hidden cameras. Later, the chief minister called the media and played the clips which talked of code words like ‘nariyal pani’ and ‘vitamin’. As per the plan, the first lot of 20-30 MLAs were to defect on direct cash payment and form a separate group. Three agents, including a Kerala politician and a godman, were arrested by the Telangana Police.
Direct cash payment supported by ED/CBI coercion has become an integral part of Operation Lotus. Ashok Gehlot told NDTV that he had evidence to show that Rs 10 crore was distributed to MLAs holed up at a Gurgaon resort during the toppling bid in Rajasthan. A Rajasthan Congress minister said he was offered Rs 25 crore if he voted for the BJP in the Rajya Sabha polls.
Three Jharkhand Congress MLAs were arrested in West Bengal on charges of involvement in an attempted Operation Lotus there. The state CID also seized hawala money from them. The AAP in Punjab alleged that Rs 20-25 crore was being offered to its MLAs in a bid to topple its government.
BJP general secretary B.L. Santhosh, who is also Nagpur’s point man in the party, has emerged as Team Amit Shah’s toppling sutradhar. He figures in most of the recent cash-for-defection cases. He evaded two summons asking him to appear in the Telangana case. Clips released by the Telangana chief minister mention the topmost BJP leaders 23 times, indicating the likelihood that they play a direct role in Operation Lotus. One of the clips also has the broker saying that “we have already dethroned eight state governments and now Telangana, Delhi, AP and Rajasthan are in the list”.
The claims made in the Telangana clip seem perfectly plausible. Engineering defections is a crucial part of Amit Shah’s expansion strategy. Almost the entire Northeast was ‘conquered’ through defections — 93 MLAs in eight years. Three JD(S), 11 Congress and two independent MLAs defected in Karnataka, bringing the BJP back to power in the state three years ago. In Goa, barely two months after the first defections, 11 MLAs were spirited away to BJP. Now the Congress is left with just three MLAs in a house of 40.
Veteran political correspondent P. Raman is the author of Tryst with Strong Leader Populism.