The government’s move to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes was meant to dredge up black money lying outside bank accounts, financing terror and corrupt deals. Now the first batch of graft allegations have surfaced, as a combative opposition takes on the government.
Earlier this week, Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, stood up in the state assembly to say that the Aditya Birla Group paid a bribe of Rs 25 crore to “Gujarat CM” in 2012 – a clear reference to Narendra Modi .
On the same day, lawyer Prashant Bhushan filed an application in a case pending in the Supreme Court, seeking investigation into the Sahara and Birla documents. These papers contain evidence gathered after the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Income Tax department raided the offices of the corporate giants. They point to huge payments made to political parties and a cover up by government agencies and statutory bodies, claims Bhushan. In October, the activist lawyer also filed a complaint with the Central Board of Direct Taxes and the special investigation team set up to investigate black money.
The developments so far have followed a familiar route. Charges of corrupt collusion between parties and corporates. Apparent signs of institutional apathy, if not complicity. Public interest litigations filed by activist groups and agitation by opposition parties. But does the new zeal for spring cleaning mean that these charges of high level corruption will not go the same way as countless others – down the dustbin?
Of Birla and Sahara
Two sets of papers are under scrutiny. Aditya Birla Group offices were raided in 2013, in the wake of the controversy around coal block allocations. More than Rs 25 crore in cash was seized, along with other evidence. Bhushan alleges that the CBI, instead of investigating the evidence for black money, bribery and corruption, merely handed over the haul to the IT department.
The IT department duly filed an appraisal report. The most explosive pages of this report refer to a note made by Subhendu Amitabh, an executive of the company. Dated November 16, 2012, it says, “Gujarat CM – 25 cr (12 Done – rest ?)”. Amitabh later told income tax officials that they were “personal notes”, and the abbreviation stood for “Gujarat Alkali Chemicals” and not “Gujarat chief minister”. In November 2012, Modi occupied the post.
The Birla papers also speak of payments made for “Project J- Environment & Forest” in February 2012. Bhushan draws attention to the fact that this was the time when the environment ministry, under the United Progressive Alliance government, was accused of taking bribes for clearances.
The second set of papers flow from raids on the Sahara offices in 2014. They reportedly show “payment entries” to leaders across the political spectrum, from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, to regional parties in Bihar and Jharkhand, to the Lohiaite parties and the Trinamool Congress. These papers, too, seem to refer to payouts made to the “CMs” of Delhi, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
While some of the Sahara papers have been dismissed as “fabricated”, Bhushan claims the matter was taken up earlier this year by senior advocate Ram Jethmalani, who passed some of the documents on to Delhi minister Satyendra Jain and wanted them checked for authenticity. The papers appeared to be signed by a member of the IT department. The Regional Forensic Laboratory reportedly said that the signatures seemed authentic.
But charges of high-level corruption are old hat in Indian politics, and the track record of previous cases is not heartening. When senior leaders of the UPA were put in the dock for involvement in the 2G spectrum allocation scam, it was popularly described as a “samudra manthan”, a churning of the oceans to drain out the poison of corruption. It certainly eroded faith in the existing institutions of state and in public figures. But, nearly a decade after the scam broke, little has changed in the political-corporate nexus or our structures of accountability.
Just over the last year, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh faced charges of holding disproportionate assets and received a visit from the CBI, but his leadership goes unchallenged.
The monsoon session in 2015 also came to a standstill over what became known as the “Vyapam scam”. It referred to irregularities in the Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pareeksha Mandal (Vyapam), which conducts admissions and recruitment tests for government jobs and professional course, and left behind a trail of deaths among the people involved in it or investigating it. Accusations reached the highest levels of the state government, including the chief minister. The CBI investigation judders on, but most key figures in government remain unscathed.
Then there were the Essar leaks, a collection of damning emails, office memos, phone conversations and other records. They suggest that the Essar Group manipulated the system by handing out favours to powerful politicians and bureaucrats. Earlier this year, reports emerged that the company also tapped conversations among people in government, judiciary and powerful business houses. The leaked tapes shone a light into how policy decisions and systems of justice are warped by money and influence, and have been for years. Yet the outrage over the case, which incriminates almost all our institutions, did not translate into real systemic change.
If proved true, the Sahara and Birla papers will testify once more to the staggering scale of collusion between political and corporate interests, to the institutional complicity which gives a free pass to offenders. The allegations may have been wielded as a political tool by the Opposition, but the test for the Modi administration lies in how it handles them.
The move towards demonetisation was projected by his administration as another churning of the oceans, a paradigm change in the way the governments treated corruption. If it wants to live up to this promise, the government must ensure that the cases go through the due paces of justice. And if it is serious about dredging up the system, it needs to put itself up for scrutiny as well.