Ever since the results in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party has seemed somewhat on the backfoot. They are still at the crease – the saffron party did after all win those elections – but the Opposition’s attacks had managed to get under the skin, to force them into playing defence. The emergence of the Punjab National Bank-Nirav Modi scam made conditions even worse, taking away the government’s boast that no corruption scandals had broken during their tenure. Nirav Modi’s flight from India, before details of his alleged fraud were even made public, also furthered the impression that the government has not been able to act against crony capitalists. This week, with the second half of the Budget Session of Parliament about to begin, the BJP is fighting back.
First, the Central Bureau of Investigation moved to arrest Karti Chidambaram, son of senior Congress leader P Chidambaram, in a decade-old corruption case. Then, on Thursday, the Cabinet cleared two changes that are meant to be signal the government will take a tougher line against business owners and companies who break the law.
- The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill: This legislation, first announced by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his 2017 Budget speech, is aimed at finding a way to punish economic offenders who have left the country, before they have been convicted. If the law passes, it will allow a court to declare certain people ‘fugitive economic offenders’ for not turning up within a stipulated time period to face trial, permitting authorities to then seize their assets even before they have been declared guilty. Controversially, it also allows the disentitlement of any civil claim connected to this property – meaning before they are even declared guilty, the law might take away their rights to any claim over the property altogether.
- The National Financial Reporting Authority: This new body is meant to oversee accounting and auditing standards in the country, and ensure that Chartered Accountants and auditors actually enforce those norms. Until now auditing and accounting in India worked through the Institute of Chartered Accountants in India, a self-regulatory body, which has had a monopoly over training and licensing CAs in the country. It has often been seen as relatively helpless when it comes to improving auditing standards or cracking down on those organisations that failed to enforce extant rules. The new body will now be tasked with regulating the accounting and auditing of all listed companies as well as large unlisted ones, while leaving the smaller companies to ICAI.
These three measures – the arrest of Karti Chidambaram and the two Cabinet proposals – may only be a start, but they are the clearest responses from the government so far in an attempt to combat the criticism over the last few months. Will it work?
The Karti Chidambaram arrest is the most obviously political move here. Thought the Central Bureau of Investigation is meant to be independent, it seems likely that it was prodded into taking this move, considering it not only reminds the public of the alleged corruption of the Congress – which helped the BJP come to power in 2014 – but also could endanger Opposition unity going into the second half of the Budget Session. And though one might argue that this is a big move to take at the moment when it might have been more effective closer to an election, the government has yet to act against the bigger fish, in the form of Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s brother-in-law Robert Vadra.
The NFRA might end up being a useful utilisation of a crisis. In some ways, a reform like this has been pending for some time now because of the opposition from within the ICAI, which was concerned that it would be rendered toothless by such a move. The government has tried to assuage those concerns by saying the new body will only look at listed firms and unlisted companies above a certain threshold. But it remains to be seen how the CAs, a fairly important community, responds to the move.
The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill had been bumping around New Delhi since the middle of 2017, with the government not sure what to do with, especially after concerns were raised on a number of its provisions. Significantly, some commentators who looked at the draft said that there were entire sections that might not stand up to judicial review.
Making that point in Parliament might be hard for the Opposition, though they will try to prevent the government from scoring a legislative victory, since any criticism of the Bill will be spun as self-serving protection of the corrupt. In some ways this will work like the Triple Talaq Bill, the government is likely to win narrative points whether the Bill goes through or not – never mind the fact that if it does pass, it might not be upheld by a High Court or the Supreme Court later on.
That said, it is yet unclear whether the Bill will apply to crimes that were allegedly committed before it was passed. The current text of the draft says, “the Act applies to any individual who is, or becomes, a fugitive economic offender on or after the date of coming into force of this Act.” The government points to the “who is” portion of that sentence to suggest that it will be applicable against Nirav Modi, and possibly even Vijay Mallya, but this may be another portion that will require judicial review.
Whether you see these as blatantly political moves – which both the Karti Chidambaram arrest and the potentially unconstitutional Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill may end up being – the government has ensured that it cannot be accused of dithering on the subject. Where the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance attempted to sit back and defend itself on much more serious charges, permitting a national anti-corruption movement to grow up around it, the BJP has clearly put its cards on the table and will throw its trump card, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, into the ring during the Budget Session. The Opposition has managed to build bridges and a narrative over the last few months. With politicians reconvening in Delhi on March 5 after the Holi break, those Opposition bonds are likely to face their sternest test yet.