The Income Tax Department Is the Latest Parrot in the Government's Cage

The BJP may have inherited from the Congress the misuse of investigative agencies for political purposes but it is now taking the tradition forward.

The BJP may have inherited from the Congress the misuse of investigative agencies for political purposes but it is now taking the tradition forward.

Left: CBI main office in Delhi. Right: Income Tax department building. Credit: PTI

Left: CBI main office in Delhi. Right: Income Tax department building. Credit: PTI

The ‘caged parrot’ or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has now been joined by the Income Tax department as a weapon to win friends and influence people.

It was ironic that the Congress party cried itself hoarse in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday about the income tax raids on properties owned by Karnataka minister D.K. Shivkumar. The minister runs the Eagleton resort near Bengaluru where the party has sequestered 42 of its MLAs (originally 44) from Gujarat to prevent them from being poached by the BJP.

The Congress is locked in a grudge fight between its brains trust and political secretary to Sonia Gandhi, Ahmed Patel, and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah over a Rajya Sabha seat in Gujarat, the voting for which will happen on August 8.

It is ironic because the all-powerful duo of Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have stolen these tricks of coercion and intimidation from the original player – the Congress. 

Currently, sources say that the Aam Aadmi Party is bracing itself for the inevitable arrest of Satyendra Jain, a minister in the Kejriwal government who is being investigated by the CBI. A senior leader of AAP said, “We have been told it will happen soon. Earlier, when the CBI had raided Kejriwal, the Congress was happy. They should have realised that Modi and Shah will not just stop at them”.

The chain of raids started with the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, whose office was targetged by the CBI in 2015. Delhi police, which reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs, arrested 11 of his MLAs; one was picked up while he was addressing a press conference. Former CBI chief, Ranjit Sinha accepted that the Supreme Court’s observation of calling the agency a ‘caged parrot’ that ‘speaks in its master’s voice’, was correct. The CBI then moved on to another opposition leader – West Bengal chief minister Mamta Banerjee, who is facing the heat in the Saradha and Rose Valley scams. Her nephew is always in the headlines for vague stories of alleged misdeeds – stories which may or may not be true but are all planted by the investigative agencies.

P. Chidambaram, who was the minister for finance and home in the Manmohan Singh government, is also on the CBI’s wish list as the agency raided his son Karti Chidambaram’s properties in Chennai recently.

As the CBI’s early morning knock on NDTV owner Prannoy Roy’s house showed, the targets for this method of intimidation need not be politicians but anyone deemed less than enthusiastic about the ruling dispensation.

Today, both Chidambaram and Patel are screaming ‘witch hunt’ as the CBI gets down to rather selective business. But the bigger question is: Who perfected the art of using investigative agencies for political purposes? This question should trouble both Patel and Chidambaram. They may adopt an  air of injured innocence but the fact is that they were instruments of the same playbook for ten years.

The misuse of central investigative agencies has been legion. Most regional parties, including the entire family of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, his son, former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, daughter-in-law and MP Dimple Yadav have the sword of the “possession of assets disproportionate to known source of income” hanging over their heads. This sword is lowered as needed, as was the case during the run up to the Indo-US nuclear deal vote in favour of the UPA government in parliament in July 2008.Mulayam Singh mysteriously changed sides and it is generally understood that his decision to support the government and go against the Left and BJP who were opposing the nuclear deal certainly needed a gentle nudge from the CBI.

Similarly, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati’s occasionally curious U-turns on various issues can be attributed to arm twisting by the central agencies. Both Mayawati and her brother have disproportionate assets cases pending against them.

When Patel says the BJP president is seeking revenge against him by ensuring he loses the Rajya Sabha election, this is a reference to the time Amit Shah was jailed for three months in 2010 in the Sohrabuddin encounter case. “Now, it is farcical for the Congress to cry wolf “, said a senior BJP minister. He added, “Look at how all the Central agencies were unleashed against Shah and Modi for the 2002 Gujarat riots. Do you think they are like Gandhi, who will just forgive and forget?”

What the BJP leader fails to mention, of course, is that the investigations into Shah and Modi were driven by the Supreme Court and much of the initial, incriminating evidence in the Sohrabuddin matter emerged from the Gujarat CID (Crime Investigation Department) investigation, as the state government did its best to ensure the CBI was kept out.

Even before the NDA and UPA, it was Indira Gandhi and her sons, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi, who used and abused agencies such as the income tax department, the CBI and enforcement directorate which report to the Centre. All these agencies were unleashed against their opponents and it seems both Shah and Modi, as keen pupils of history,  have learned their lessons well.

While the politics of tit-for-tat runs its course, what about the actual health of these institutions which are vital for a democracy to function?

Business tycoons such as erstwhile Indian Premier League honcho Lalit Modi and Kingfisher’s bankrupt ‘king of the good times’ Vijay Mallya were allowed to flee to the US by the CBI, but political opponents of the BJP do not have access to such “special handling”.

The parrot pecking away selectively at targets such as Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and his large family (daughter Misa Bharti’s charted accountant was arrested recently) needs to be given a large sign that says ‘Political Interference Is Injurious to Health’ in order to gain back some institutional credibility. The recent case of former Gujarat police officer D.G. Vanzara – who spent eight years in jail in the Sohrabuddin and other fake encounter cases only to be discharged by a special court because the CBI failed to put up a credible case – is a testament to how pliable it is. Earlier, when Shah was discharged on questionable grounds, the premier agency refused to go in appeal.

Currently, all of the CBI’s actions seem to be tarred with a large political brush. And now it seems to the turn of the income tax department.

Even the SC’s well meaning interventions and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) have not ensured independence. The only way to ensure independence will be if officials manning these sensitive agencies stop reporting to the Centre in the investigations. Oversight and due diligence should actually acquire some meaning. Otherwise, the political game of revolving chairs will continue and India’s democracy will suffer.

Swati Chaturvedi is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. She tweets at @bainjal.