Other Corruption Cases

Scam chronicle

Print edition : January 19, 2018

Indira Gandhi with President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed during the Emergency in 1975. Indira Gandhi was arrested briefly on the charge of official corruption in 1978. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Jayalalithaa and her confidante V.K. Sasikala were sentenced in the disproportionate assets case. Photo: K. PICHUMANI

B.S. Yeddyurappa was indicted in the mining scam.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was cleared by the CBI in the Vyapam scam. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

Rajiv Gandhi. The Bofors case impacted his political career. Photo: V. SUDERSHAN

Glaring cases of corruption involving those in the upper echelons of power have cropped up time and again, only to be dismissed subsequently.

IN December 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh issued orders to the District Magistrate of Gorakhpur to withdraw a case against Chief MinisterYogi Adityanath, filed in 1995, for violating prohibitory orders. This might be an instance of blatant abuse of power by a politician to escape punishment, but it is definitely not the only case in which politicians have misused their influence to clear their names of wrongdoings, especially corruption and fraud. A look at some of the important cases in which politicians exposed in corruption scandals got away without punishment speaks of the workings of the justice delivery system.

In 1975, in the Indira Gandhi vs Raj Narain case, the Allahabad High Court convicted Indira Gandhi of electoral malpractice and banned her from politics for six years. In response, and in complete violation of the court order, she declared the Emergency. The period remains infamous as a mockery of democratic processes when political opponents were arrested en masse and several freedoms were curbed, including the freedom of the press. The political impact of the case was the defeat of the Congress in the 1977 elections and the emergence of the Janata Party-led coalition as the first non-Congress government at the Centre. In 1978, Indira Gandhi was arrested briefly for official corruption, but in 1979 she was elected back to power. The charges against her were dismissed eventually. The Janata Party coalition split and this led to the creation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In his book The Case That Shook India, Prashant Bhushan maintains that twice in the history of post-independent India, the BJP won the general election and came to power at the Centre on the crest of anti-corruption movements. Bhushan states that although the BJP won only two seats when it contested its first election in 1984, in the 1990s the party “stirred up the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign, and riding on its back it won a substantial number of seats, which paved the way for its eventual victory in 1996”. He points out that both Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s rise is attributable partly to the anti-corruption movement (Jan Lokpal movement) that captured the people’s imagination in 2011-12. “It was the momentum created by that movement that was used by Modi to demolish the Congress with the promise of ending corruption, graft and black money. Arvind Kejriwal also did the same for coming to power in Delhi. Unfortunately, neither of them has appointed a Lokpal yet.” He says the Modi government did not work to strengthen anti-corruption institutions such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), and legislation such as the whistle-blower law and the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA).

Bofors scandal

The defining scandal of the late 1980s was the Bofors deal between the Swedish arms manufacturer and the Indian government, with insinuations of bribery against several persons on both sides. In the deal signed for the supply of 410 155mm howitzers, the Swedish company paid Rs.640 million ($10 million) in kickbacks to Indian politicians and key defence officials, it was reported. Exposed through investigative journalism by The Hindu’s N. Ram and Chitra Subramaniam, the case is symptomatic of how corruption cases are buried with little trace despite immense media attention. However, the case impacted Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s political career and he lost the 1989 Lok Sabha elections. Years later, former chief of the Swedish police, Sten Lindstrom, who led the investigations, revealed that he was the one who leaked the information. Although he admitted that the investigating team did not find anything to suggest that Rajiv Gandhi had received payments, Rajiv Gandhi was definitely aware of what was going on and knew about the kickbacks. Not taking any action was tantamount to being guilty. The other players, however, escaped with much less. Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian businessman who was considered the middleman for the Bofors deal, was repeatedly allowed to slip through the investigating agency’s fingers.

“But the CBI under the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government was not going to extend itself to get the Italian businessman extradited even if that were possible. It failed to produce the necessary legal documents in court, lost the case, and subsequently withdrew all charges against him. With Quattrocchi’s death from a stroke in July 2013, the Bofors corruption case reached its natural end,” states Ram in his book Why Scams Are Here To Stay.

In 2011, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s court in Tis Hazari, Delhi, discharged Quattrocchi in the Bofors case. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government lifted the ban on Bofors in 1999 during the Kargil war against Pakistan.

The office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India is held in some esteem for its indicting reports, but the verdict in the 2G spectrum scam case has dented its credibility. Its case of a notional loss to the government exchequer to the tune of Rs.1.76 lakh crore, which led to a political churning, the brunt of which the Congress is still facing, now stands invalidated and speculative. An External Peer Review conducted by an international team led by the Australian National Audit Office, which had representation from the Supreme Audit Institutions of Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United States, covered Performance Audit reports presented to Parliament or a State legislature between April 2010 and March 2011. It noted that there was variability in the CAG’s adherence to applicable standards of professional practice across the performance auditing function. It felt that there was “scope for around half the reports reviewed to have been more balanced in content and tone”. The CAG needed improvement in the “extent and quality of evidence and documentation supporting performance audit findings and conclusions”, the review said.

Nevertheless, the CAG’s 2014 report caused another flutter in the Manmohan Singh government when it accused it of inefficient allocation of coal blocks between 2004 and 2009. The report was picked up by the BJP. Its Members of Parliament, Hansraj Ahir and Prakash Javadekar, filed a complaint with the CVC, which ordered the CBI to probe the matter. It became a huge embarrassment for the Manmohan Singh government, with its top bureaucrats and leaders being named in the scandal. Big businessmen, such as Naveen Jindal and Kumarmangalam Birla, were also accused of wrongdoing and possibly bribery. The CBI later closed the case against Birla and former Coal Secretary P.C. Parakh. The entire episode came to be known as Coalgate. Here too, as in the case of the 2G scam, a presumptive loss of Rs.10.673 lakh crore was marked against “windfall gains” to the allottees but later brought down to Rs.1.856 lakh crore. Manmohan Singh rebutted the submissions of the CAG report in Parliament and called them disputed.

A Special CBI Court found former Coal Secretary H.C. Gupta, former Joint Secretary for Coal K.S. Kropha and former Director in the Coal Ministry K.C. Samaria guilty of abuse of public office, securing pecuniary advantage without public interest and criminal conspiracy under the PCA and the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and sentenced them to two years in prison. Madhu Koda, former Chief Minister of Jharkhand, was also convicted of similar charges and sentenced to three years’ rigorous imprisonment with a fine of Rs.25 lakh. R.S. Rungta and R.C. Rungta, Directors of Jharkhand Ispat Pvt Ltd, Rathi Steel & Power Ltd and Kamal Sponge Steel & Power Ltd, were the others convicted in the scam. In September 2014, in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) petition, the Supreme Court quashed the allocation of 214 coal blocks.

While the BJP used the Adarsh Society and Delhi Commonwealth Games scandals against the Congress establishment to gain political mileage, its leaders were also involved in high-profile corruption cases. Karnataka’s first BJP Chief Minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa, was convicted by the State Lokayukta, N. Santosh Hegde, for illegal profiteering from land deals and profiteering from granting illegal mining licences to companies. Yeddyurappa was forced to step down as Chief Minister and Member of the Legislative Assembly. He was arrested and he spent over 20 days in prison. He resigned from the BJP and launched his own political party, the Karnataka Janata Paksha, but later merged it with the BJP. Subsequently, he was cleared of most of the charges and the first information reports against him were squashed. “The prosecution has become unsuccessful in establishing the guilt of the accused, not only the offences made under the provisions of Prevention of Corruption Act, but also under the provisions of the IPC, and hence this court acquits all the accused in the case,” said the special CBI judge in 2016 while acquitting Yeddyurappa, his two sons, son-in-law and nine others in the case of illegal mining in Bellary involving a bribery of Rs.40 crore. Yeddyurappa has been reinstated as the president of the BJP State unit.

One of the longest cases pertaining to corruption, involving among others the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, came to its logical conclusion after several twists and turns with the conviction of her close confidante V.K. Sasikala and the latter’s close relatives, Ilavarasi and V.N. Sudhakaran. The disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa was abated as she passed away in 2016, but Sasikala and the other accused were served a sentence of four years’ imprisonment and fines. Jayalalithaa had to step down as Chief Minister under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, the same Act under which Indira Gandhi was disqualified in 1975.

The most high-profile case in 2017 pertained to BJP president Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah’s business dealings, which came under public scrutiny after the news website The Wire reported in an article titled “The Golden Touch of Jay Amit Shah” that his firm Temple Enterprises Pvt Ltd’s turnover increased by up to 16,000 times after the BJP came to power in 2014. While the Congress demanded a time-bound judicial probe into what it termed as “crony capitalism”, Amit Shah defended his son, saying there was no question of corruption. Meanwhile, Jay Shah slapped The Wire with a Rs.100-crore defamation suit and gagged it from publishing anything against him or his firm. The Ahmedabad civil court later set aside its injunction and allowed the news website to publish any content pertaining to Jay Shah or his firm barring the use of the words “Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister/elected Prime Minister” in relation to any debate on the original article.

Vyapam scam

While the Radia tapes, the Saradha chit fund scam and the Augusta Westland scam were high-profile cases that captured the imagination of the public in recent times, the sheer scale of the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh, involving everybody from top politicians to officials to businessmen, makes it stand out. Apart from the all-pervasive nature of the admission-cum-job racket, the mysterious deaths of about 45 people associated with it, including whistle-blowers and journalists, left an ugly and dangerous mark on it. While the CBI recently cleared Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s name in the Vyapam case, he has not been completely absolved and the cases have not been solved. Senior lawyers Kapil Sibal, K.T.S. Tulsi and Vivek Tankha, who represent the complainants Digvijaya Singh and Prashant Pandey, a whistle-blower, called the CBI Compromise Bureau of Investigation and alleged that it had tampered with evidence to save Shivraj Chouhan.

Even as old corruption cases are yet to see any resolution, new ones keep cropping up with alarming regularity. Recently, Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions and the Prime Minister’s Office, stated that the number of cases registered under the PCA were 617 in 2015, 673 in 2016 and 339 up to June 30, 2017. The number of corruption cases under trial in 2015 was 6,663; in 2016 it was 6,502; and up to June 30, 2017, it was 6,414. Meanwhile, the number of convictions under the PCA remained low at 434 in 2015, 503 in 2016 and 199 until June 30, 2017.

Going by the sheer numbers of cases against MPs and MLAs, the government submitted a scheme before the Supreme Court to set up special courts to deal exclusively with these cases. The court was hearing a civil writ petition filed by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, a lawyer and Delhi BJP leader, seeking life-time debarment of convicted politicians. In doing so, he challenged the provisions of the Representation of the People Act, which bars convicted politicians from contesting elections for a period of six years after serving a jail term. Hearing the petition, a Supreme Court bench headed by Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Navin Sinha ordered the setting up of 12 fast-track courts by March 1, 2018, at a cost of Rs.80 crore.

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