New Delhi: On 2 April, just four days before the single-phase Tamil Nadu assembly elections, the Income Tax Department raided DMK chief M.K. Stalin’s daughter Senthamarai’s residence to unearth “cash distribution” based on “complaints and inputs”.
On 21 February, just over a month before the first of eight phases of polls in West Bengal, the CBI knocked at the door of Trinamool Congress Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee, party supremo and Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, to summon his wife and sister-in-law in a year-old case of coal theft.
A year and a half ago, in September 2019, a month before the assembly polls in Maharashtra, the Enforcement Directorate registered an alleged money laundering case against Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit Pawar, in connection with the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam.
The whole list for the era when Narendra Modi has been prime minister is longer, showing a clear trend that just before any election, agencies, including the CBI, ED and Income Tax Department, swing into action — summonses are issued in old cases; raids and searches are conducted and arrests made; and new FIRs are registered based on inputs. But as time passes, nothing concrete comes of the investigations.
A senior ED official denied the existence of this trend. “These allegations are baseless. One needs to understand how agencies work. We get inputs, which are verified and then action is taken. An investigation does not stop, be it for an election or anything else. Also, an investigation may or may not lead to anything. A responsible investigation takes time,” he said.
However, ThePrint analysed numerous cases and found that in instances where central agencies acted against opposition leaders during a political crisis or just before state elections, most cases remained “under investigation”, with no major developments.
This is not to say that the Modi government is unique in being accused of using central agencies for political gains. As Bahujan Samaj Party leader Danish Ali put it: “The investigative agencies were used against political opponents even during the Congress regimes; it is nothing new or something unknown. The BJP, however, seems to be more blatant and has overdone it, particularly at the time of elections, to intimidate rivals. Sadly, even the Election Commission is a mute spectator.”
Akhilesh Singh, spokesperson of the Congress, said action by the agencies was a “tactic used by the BJP to get all opponents on their side”.
“When they know they can’t fight parties ethically, they turn to using these ploys. This is just a way to trouble opponents,” Singh alleged.
However, BJP spokesperson R.P. Singh told ThePrint that the investigative agencies only act when they have “specific information and trail of financial discrepancies”, and that these raids have nothing to do with elections.
Cases involving Trinamool leaders
On 15 March, in the middle of the West Bengal assembly election campaign, the CBI summoned Mamata Banerjee’s close aide Partha Chatterjee in connection with a 2014 Ponzi scam case, registered on the orders of Supreme Court, pertaining to ICore Group of Companies.
According to the CBI, ICore raised over Rs 3,000 crore from people offering high returns on investments, and diverted a portion of these funds, defaulting on the promised returns. The last CBI action in this case was in December 2018, when the agency arrested Suman Chattopadhyay, editor of a leading Bengali daily.
On 16 March, the ED also arrested Vikas Mishra, the brother of TMC youth leader Vinay Mishra, in connection with the money laundering probe into a ‘coal theft’ case in which Abhishek Banerjee’s wife Rujira (nee Naroola) was also summoned by the CBI. The case, registered in November last year, pertains to selling of illegally mined and transported coal worth several thousand crores in the black market by an “organised racket”, which was being run at “a very large scale” over several years.
Although the FIR in the case names members of the Eastern Coalfield Limited, personnel of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), railway officials and some private individuals, it does not name Rujira Banerjee. However, according to the CBI, she was questioned in connection with some alleged discrepancies in her financial transactions with one of the accused, Anup Lala alias Anup Maji.
The ED, on 19 March, also questioned two TMC leaders — Madan Mitra, West Bengal’s former transport minister who is contesting from the Kamarhati constituency in North 24 Parganas, and Vivek Gupta, a former TMC MP who has been fielded from the Jorasanko constituency in Kolkata — in connection with the Saradha chit fund scam.
Mitra, was, in the past, arrested by the CBI and later granted bail.
In the same case, the ED on 3 April attached assets worth Rs 3 crore belonging to TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh, Lok Sabha MP Satabdi Roy and Saradha director Debjani Mukherjee.
Probes against leaders who joined BJP going slow
At the same time, the probe against Mukul Roy, a key accused in the Saradha scam who switched from the TMC to the BJP in 2017, has been moving at a snail’s pace. Roy was last called in for questioning by the CBI in September 2019, while the ED sent a notice to him in November 2020 asking him and his wife to submit complete details of their bank accounts and the assets they have in possession since 2013-14.
Similarly, the probes against Suvendu Adhikari, who joined the BJP from the TMC in December 2020, and Sovan Chatterjee, who switched over in August 2019, in the Saradha chit fund scam and the Narada sting cases, have stalled.
Adhikari, the BJP’s face against Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram, was questioned by the ED in September 2017 when he was state transport minister in connection with the Narada sting, in which several TMC leaders were purportedly seen accepting cash from a person who posed as a businessman. The tapes were released just before the 2016 assembly elections.
Adhikari was also summoned and questioned by the CBI in the Saradha scam in September 2014, but officials said the matter is still “under investigation”.
In December 2020, Sudipta Sen, owner and director of the Saradha Group, also wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and CM Mamata Banerjee, alleging that several political leaders took money from him. Sen accused Adhikari of taking Rs 6 crore from him and named leaders, including Mukul Roy, CPI(M)’s Sujan Chakraborty and Biman Bose, and Congress’ Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of accepting money from him. He also suggested that proceeds from the scam went to these leaders.
In the letter, Sen said he was pained to see those who took the money were “now joining the BJP”, and asked the CBI to investigate the matter.
In November 2014, the CBI had also questioned former Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma in the Saradha scam. In August 2015, Sarma joined the BJP, and since then, the probe against him has not moved.
Before Kerala polls
In the lead-up to the Kerala assembly polls, the ED claimed Swapna Suresh, the key accused in a gold smuggling case in the state, committed the crime at the behest and insistence of CM Pinarayi Vijayan.
The Kerala government, on 26 March, decided to start a judicial inquiry against the central agency. The state Crime Branch also registered two cases against ED officials for coercing some of the accused to testify against the CM.
Earlier, on 3 March, the ED also summoned two officials of Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) — Chief Executive Officer K.M. Abraham and Deputy Managing Director Vikramjit Singh — for questioning in connection with a case of alleged forex violations. CM Pinarayi Vijayan is the chairman of KIIFB. The two officers, however, refused to join the probe, and Vijayan said Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was misusing the Enforcement Directorate for political purposes.
In this case, the Kerala government decided to take the legal route against the ED by moving court.
After J&K’s Gupkar alliance was formed
In October 2020, just four days after the major political parties in Kashmir announced the formation of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, the ED called Lok Sabha MP and former CM Farooq Abdullah for questioning in connection with the alleged embezzlement of funds from the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association, which he headed.
The ED case is based on an FIR filed by the CBI in 2015, which booked former JKCA office-bearers, including Mohammed Saleem Khan and Ahsan Ahmad Mirza. In 2018, CBI had filed a charge sheet including Abdullah and three others for allegedly misappropriating over Rs 43 crore from grants given by the BCCI.
On 19 December 2020, hours after the completion of the J&K District Development Council elections, the first polls in the union territory since Article 370 was scrapped 16 months before, the ED issued a provisional order attaching Farooq Abdullah and some others’ properties.
Just a month before that, the CBI took over three cases related to an alleged land allotment scam that took place in the erstwhile state, allegedly in collusion with revenue department officials. This followed an order by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, in which the Act was declared unconstitutional and the central agency was directed to probe all allotments.
Although the FIRs accuse ‘unknown officials’, on 23 November, the J&K administration revealed details of 0.9 acres of government land in Jammu that had been allegedly encroached upon by Farooq and his son Omar Abdullah, both former CMs.
The list also included names of National Conference politicians Syed Akhoon, Aslam Goni, Haroon Chowdhary, Sujjad Kichloo, Abdul Majid Wani and former J&K Bank chairman M.Y. Khan, who are alleged to have encroached on government land in Sunjwan village.
Two more cases were registered in this regard in January 2021.
The J&K High Court had said that all allotments that had taken place under the Roshni Act, or the J&K State Land (Vesting of Ownership to Occupants) Act, 2001, would be null and void.
The Roshni Act, passed in 1996, allowed the J&K government to vest land ownership rights on people who were occupying state land by paying a part of its assessed value towards the public exchequer. The aim was to regularise illegal occupants while generating funds to build power projects in the state.
Against D.K. Shivakumar in Karnataka
In October 2020, the CBI conducted raids at 14 locations linked to Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president D.K. Shivakumar and his brother D.K. Suresh over the alleged possession of disproportionate assets of around Rs 75 crore. The case is “under investigation”.
The CBI had registered a case against Shivakumar for allegedly amassing disproportionate assets worth Rs 74.93 crore. In searches, the CBI recovered Rs 57 lakh in cash, officials said.
Shivakumar was released on bail in October 2019 after having been arrested by the ED in a money laundering case.
During Rajasthan Congress crisis
In July last year, the ruling Congress in Rajasthan was caught in a political crisis triggered by the differences between CM Ashok Gehlot and his deputy and state party chief Sachin Pilot. The IT and ED searched premises associated with Gehlot’s brother Agrasen in a money laundering case linked to an alleged fertiliser scam.
The probe revolved around the export of muriate of potash (MoP), which is essential for plant growth and quality. According to ED officials, Agrasen Gehlot is accused of selling the MoP, which he got at subsidised rates, to companies abroad.
The ‘scam’ was first noticed by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) in 2012-13. Since those raids, nothing has moved in the case. No summons has been issued for questioning. Officials in the ED said the case is “under investigation”.
Cases involving Pawars and Shiv Sena
In September 2019, a month before the assembly polls in Maharashtra, the ED registered a money laundering case against NCP chief Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit Pawar in connection with the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam.
Pawar said he would “voluntarily appear” before the ED, even before a summons were issued, but later cancelled his visit, citing law and order issues. More than a year later, there has been no development in the case. No summons have been issued, no arrests have been made. When asked, ED officials said that the case was “under investigation”.
In another case of alleged money laundering, raids were conducted at Shiv Sena MLA Pratap Sarnaik’s house in November 2020, and his son Vihang was arrested. This was after Union Minister of State and senior BJP leader Raosaheb Danve claimed that the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition Maha Vikas Aghadi would lose power in the next two to three months.
Sarnaik was granted bail in December 2020, and on 7 April 2021, the Bombay High Court granted him protection from coercive action in the ED case.
Sarnaik had also moved a privilege motion in the Maharashtra assembly against Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami and had sought action against actor Kangana Ranaut for maligning the image of the state through her tweets.
Speaking to ThePrint, Shiv Sena MLA and spokesperson Sunil Prabhu said: “It is all just a political conspiracy to defame the Shiv Sena. The people of Maharashtra have also started realising that.”
In Chhattisgarh, Haryana, UP, Andhra
In September 2018, two months before the Chhattisgarh assembly polls, then-state Congress president Bhupesh Baghel (now CM) was served a notice to appear before court when the CBI filed a charge sheet in a CD scandal’ case.
In Haryana, meanwhile, four months before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the CBI had booked senior Congress leader and former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda on cheating and corruption charges in connection with land acquisition in Gurugram that favoured private builders. The agency also conducted searches at 20 locations, including Hooda’s Rohtak residence. Since then, there has been no headway in the investigation.
The CBI also launched raids across UP over allegations of illegal mining of minor minerals in Hamirpur between 2012 and 2016, when the Samajwadi Party was in office. The case has been in cold storage since then.
In November 2018, about eight months after Chandrababu Naidu’s ruling Telugu Desam Party quit the BJP-led NDA, and five months before the Andhra Pradesh assembly elections that were held alongside the Lok Sabha polls, ED raided then-TDP MP Y.S. Chowdary in a case of alleged money laundering related to a bank loan fraud. After the assembly polls in April 2019, Chowdary joined the BJP, and since then, there has been no development in the case.
Officials say action is taken ‘for optics’, to please govt
Speaking to ThePrint, a former CBI officer who wished to remain anonymous said the agency is pressed into action before any election or during a political crisis for “optics”, or to “send a message across”, or to “demoralise the opposition and create a certain impression about them among public”.
However, the former officer clarified in most cases, the agency has genuine leads — just the timing of the action is “questionable”.
“The CBI is an agency that lacks urgency. When an input comes, it takes months for teams to start work on it. First, legal opinion is taken, then it goes through several channels, then teams sit upon it,” the officer said.
“It is not true that all of these cases and inputs are not genuine, it’s just that the timing of the action is questionable. These agencies have this information in advance, so why act only when elections are close? Why not earlier or later? Hence, it becomes questionable,” he explained.
A second former CBI officer said the agency also has to deal with political pressures.
“No central agency cares about what the public or the media thinks of it. It only cares about what the present ruling government thinks of it, and thus plays into its hands,” he said.
A former senior ED officer told ThePrint that political pressures are a reality, but it depends on the head of the agency concerned whether to succumb to it or dodge it.
“Of course, there are pressures to do things a certain way. But it depends on the officer; if they’re willing to be ‘yes men’,” the former ED officer said.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)