A special CBI court on 15 September ordered a criminal proceeding against Arun Shourie for the sale of the Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel, Udaipur, in 2002. Pradip Baijal, a retired 1966-batch IAS officer, has also been named, along with three others. Judge Pooran Kumar Sharma dismissed the CBI’s closure report of 2019, and ruled that Shourie, as the disinvestment minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet, and Baijal, as his secretary, had “abused their posts collectively and independently”, causing a loss of Rs 244 crore to the exchequer. M/s Kanti Karamsey and Co., which valued the land at Rs 45 per sq foot in 2001, were also indicted. “Even a spoon in the hotel would be costlier than that,” the judge observed. According to him, prima facie, criminal conspiracy and cheating were admissible against the accused in the sale of the hotel.
Shourie, who will be 80 next November, is known for his personal integrity and honesty. Those who know him will attest that he is scrupulous in speaking and practising what he considers the truth. A PhD in Economics from the University of Syracuse, US, he worked for the World Bank before returning to India as the editor of The Indian Express. The paper was owned by the redoubtable Ramnath Goenka, who wasn’t afraid to take on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. The duo of Goenka and Shourie became a formidable force to reckon with in Indian politics and democracy. Indira Gandhi used every dirty trick in the book, but could not bend, let alone break, them.
Afterwards, Shourie forced Abdul Rahman Antulay, the eighth chief minister of Maharashtra (9 June 1980 – 12 January 1982), to resign following an anti-corruption campaign against him. Antulay was a well-known Gandhi confidant and loyalist. He had ousted Sharad Pawar to ascend to the CM’s gaddi. Pawar, with his Progressive Democratic Front, had unseated Vasantdada Patil of the Congress in 1978. Now, the Congress returned the favour.
When the Congress split after the Emergency, Antulay had stood by Indira Gandhi. In fact, the Indira Congress, or Congress (I) as it came to be known, was hatched if not conceived at Antulay’s residence. In 1980, when Gandhi came back to power with a thumping majority of 353 seats in the Lok Sabha, Antulay was rewarded with the chief ministership of Maharashtra. He was the first Muslim to hold that post.
Shourie’s fight against graft
As the editor of The Indian Express, Arun Shourie received a tip-off by a person who was allegedly asked by Antulay to pay Rs 5 crore to open a hospital. The money would go to a newly formed trust, the Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan. Shourie and Maharashtra Times editor, Govind Talwalkar, began to investigate. With the help of two employees of the Koyana Dam Rehabilitation Project, whose office was next to the Pratishthan, Shourie and Talwalkar got hold of the trust’s ledger. They photocopied the page containing contributions, with supporting cheque numbers. They found over a 100 entries, from all kinds of supposed beneficiaries, companies and individuals, engaging in a variety of businesses in Maharashtra. Evidently, Indira Gandhi needed lots of money for her newly formed party and Antulay was her chief fund-raiser.
But Shourie had to show a link between the payments made to the Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan and favours given by the government in return. The Maharashtra government, in a self-incriminating circular, had instructed sugar and cement companies to make donations to the trust ‘per bag’. Both sugar and cement being controlled commodities, the circulars would be damning evidence of corruption. It was Sharad Pawar who reportedly helped Shourie get the circulars. Two industry leaders met him late at night, giving him what he needed.
The night before the paper could go to print, somehow the news leaked out. Goenka got a call from Antulay. Shourie was with him at that time. Apparently, the indomitable Express proprietor instructed Shourie, “Tell him I am there but I will not speak to him.” When the story broke the next morning, there was a furore in Parliament. Indira’s henchmen and crisis managers, including former President R. Venkatraman, tried to save her by claiming that she was not aware of the donations or the quid pro quo alleged in Shourie’s expose. Shourie countered by asking how could she, as a trustee, not know about the funds coming into the trust? Publishing a photo of Indira Gandhi signing the trust papers, he ran a headline, ‘You are a liar, Mr Venkatraman’. Finally, Antulay had to go. He resigned and went into near oblivion till Manmohan Singh brought him back briefly as the minority affairs minister after the Supreme Court cleared his name of wrong-doing.
If the pillar falls…
Shourie, the author/editor of over 30 books who was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1982 and the Padma Bhushan in 1990, is an outstanding Indian change-agent and leader. On 30 July 2020, another eminent senior citizen, Jaya Jaitly, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in a nearly 20-year-old case, arising out of a sting operation against her by Tehelka magazine. She managed to avoid going to jail, with the Delhi High Court putting a stay on the sentencing order the same day.
True, no one is above the law. But is this how our legal system should be treating pillars of our society, sentencing near 80-year-old seniors in cases that are decades old? In Anita Gets Bail: What Are Our Courts Doing? What Should We Do About Them? (2018), Shourie begins with the harrowing story of how his Parkinson’s-afflicted wife, Anita, became the first in the family “to be out on bail, for having evaded summons that were never served, summons which had been issued because of a house that we had never built, on a plot that we did not own.”
If the high and mighty are so vulnerable, what about the rest of us? The judiciary, some say, is the last upright pillar in our society. If that falls, what is left?
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.