Sunday noon, Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren got an unexpected call from Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar. The Maratha leader was in Ranchi for an NCP programme and wanted to see the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader at 4.30 pm. Soren was in Delhi and was to meet some journalists over lunch at the Taj Palace hotel. But he wasn’t going to disappoint Pawar. He had a hurried lunch before he flew down to Ranchi in time to meet the NCP chief.
In normal times, a young CM’s eagerness to meet a veteran politician such as Pawar wouldn’t trigger much curiosity. But these are election times and meetings between Congress’ allies tend to feed all kinds of conspiracy theories. After all, it was only last week that three former and current allies of the Congress — the Shiv Sena, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and the Samajwadi Party — sided with Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal for the upcoming assembly election. The buzz in political circles is that Soren has also assured her of his help “in whatever ways possible”, even though he has fielded 30 Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) candidates in Bengal. According to JMM insiders, the argument that he proffered to Didi was: the JMM will eat into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s tribal support base in the tea belt.
Political reporters like me have been so obsessed with the activities of mainstream politicians that we have almost missed the elephant in the room — the central investigation agencies, which are putting up valiant efforts yet again this election season.
Brush with politics
Many of them have always been in the limelight — the Central Investigation Bureau (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the income tax department. But ahead of the Bihar election, it was the turn of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) to make itself count, thanks to the CBI investigation into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. Ahead of the Kerala assembly election, it’s now the customs department — apart from other agencies, of course — that is making its presence felt in the gold smuggling case.
For the sake of convenience, let’s treat these agencies as one entity — DEM or deus ex machina (god from the machine). In Greek plays, the DEM was used to end what would look like an intractable situation in a play. The god would suddenly descend on the stage —on a crane, of course — and everything would change. You have seen its variant in Hindi cinema. Remember the lightning and thunder, usually coming off a deity, which often saved Amitabh Bachchan and other heroes whenever Amjad Khan, Shakti Kapoor, or some other villain looked like getting the better of them?
The deus ex machina or DEM has a different variant in contemporary Indian politics. When the Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan plunged into a crisis following Sachin Pilot’s rebellion, the DEM (IT department, in this case) descended to conduct raids on the premises of his close associates.
When Congress leader Ahmed Patel was contesting the Rajya Sabha election, the DEM raided the premises related to party trouble-shooter D.K. Shivkumar who was keeping the flock of party MLAs together in a resort. Ahead of the 2019 Maharashtra assembly election, DEM (ED, in this case) made a surprise appearance to book Sharad Pawar in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam.
Remember actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death ahead of the Bihar polls? The DEM (CBI) started probing the suicide/murder case but it was the NCB (DEM) that changed the story plot, and purported WhatsApp chats of his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty, actor Deepika Padukone (who had gone to the Jawaharlal Nehru University to express solidarity with agitating students) and director Karan Johar surfaced, allegedly linking them with drugs.
One can go on enumerating these cases where the DEM intervened whenever the political plot thickened. Not that it’s a six-seven-year-old device in Indian political dramas. During the UPA era, there was a time when the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) were both supporting the government from outside. I have mentioned it earlier but I must repeat it. One evening, reporters were sitting with Prithviraj Chavan, then Union minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office, at the Congress headquarters. It was 10 p.m. Reporters had to go back to their offices, but Chavan wouldn’t leave. He revealed that SP leader Amar Singh was waiting for him there. SP leaders were facing CBI cases then. The agency came under the superintendence of the ministry of personnel that Chavan held. No wonder the SP continued to support the UPA, even though the Congress refused to accommodate it in the government.
To cut the long story short, central investigation agencies have always played an important role in the Indian political system. Ahead of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, for instance, the CBI summoned BSP supremo Mayawati’s family members.
The BSP chief has gone ballistic against the opposition Congress since then.
Over a period, Central agencies have scripted many other success stories. Look at the list of sugar barons who switched loyalties ahead of Maharashtra assembly polls when agencies were probing the cooperative bank scam.
In 2016, when Tamil Nadu was witnessing a tussle between different AIADMK camps, the IT department (DEM) raided the residence of industrialist J Sekar Reddy and the residence and office of former state chief secretary, P Rama Mohana Rao. Both were known to be close to the AIADMK leadership.
Four years later, the CBI filed a closure report, citing a lack of sufficient evidence. In the meantime, the AIADMK has become an inseparable part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). As for the NCB cases against Bollywood personalities, just check how many of those who figured in purported Whatsapp links during the drug case investigation went after Barbadian singer Rihanna on Twitter with #IndiaTogether hashtag.
These agencies are facing a crisis of credibility today, in terms of their political and electoral impact. Gehlot managed to save his government. ED’s move against Pawar cost it the Maharashtra election, with the NCP making it an issue of Maratha pride. The CBI has probed Sushant Singh’s death case for six months but hasn’t been able to arrive at a conclusion whether it was death by suicide or murder. One hopes India’s premier investigation agency is able to make up its mind after the Assembly elections.
Against this backdrop, the agencies (DEM) are putting up a valiant effort in this election season. They have questioned the wife of Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek in a coal pilferage case.
She is not an accused person in the case, but who cares as long as TV channels are going live with visuals of the DEM outside Banerjees’ residence? The ED has registered a case against the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) for violation of the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). Notices have been issued to the KIIFB CEO, K. M. Abraham, a former chief secretary of the state, and deputy managing director Vikramjit Singh, an IPS officer who wasn’t even posted in the KIIFB when the alleged irregularities took place. The ED had arrested former principal secretary to Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, IAS officer M Sivasankar, in the gold smuggling case but the NIA in its chargesheet let him off for lack of evidence. The Customs department has now pitched in, involving the Kerala CM in the gold smuggling case.
One doesn’t know what will be the fate of these political cases being investigated by the DEM — for instance, ED hasn’t gone anywhere near Pawar after booking him in 2019 — but the agencies certainly tend to forget cases against their former bosses. Remember CBI director Ranjit Sinha? He was in the eye of a storm a few years back as the visitors’ diaries of his residence showed multiple entries of meat exporter Moin Qureshi and others facing investigations between 2013-14. Over six years after Sinha retired, the CBI investigation, which also involved two other former directors, remains frozen.
So, what if there are questions about the ‘retrospective extension’ to the ED director and the absence of a regular CBI director? As long as they are responding to their ‘calls of duty’, they have nothing to worry about. That’s why they have much at stake in the coming elections, especially after the electoral and political setbacks in recent times. People may not remember what happened to their pre-poll investigations, but their political minders will- on May 2 when the results are out.
Views are personal.