Locked in combat

Published : Mar 23, 2007 00:00 IST

Mulayam Singh Yadav is fighting the Congress, the BJP and the BSP.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Mulayam Singh Yadav is fighting the Congress, the BJP and the BSP.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Mulayam Singh Yadav is now battling on two fronts: in court in a wealth case and outside it in a high-stakes election.

MANY facets of the disproportionate assets case against Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader Mulayam Singh Yadav may be unclear and confusing, but one thing is certain - it is fodder for a bitter and protracted campaigning for the coming Assembly elections in the State, more so after the Supreme Court, on March I, ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to conduct a preliminary inquiry into the charges against the Chief Minister. The apex court order came in response to a writ petition filed by Vishwanath Chaturvedi, a former Congress candidate for the Assembly and a trade union activist, alleging that Mulayam Singh Yadav and his family members had amassed millions of rupees by corrupt means.

Until the Supreme Court order, the principal questions debated in relation to the case were the alleged amassment of wealth by Mulayam and his family members, the petitioner's credentials and the maintainability of the public interest petition. Since the March I order, questions have been asked about the timing of the verdict, the legal and factual contradictions in it, and the credibility of the CBI as an impartial investigating agency. This expansion of the terms of reference of the debate has brought into it new players and the potential to amplify the intensity of the political battles.

The Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition was filed by Vishwanath Chaturvedi's lawyer Dinesh Kumar Garg in December 2005. The principal argument in it was that Mulayam Singh Yadav and his family members had amassed wealth disproportionate to their known sources of income. According to the petition, the family owned property worth more than Rs.10,000 crore. It even enclosed copies of the sale deeds of the properties acquired by Mulayam, his two sons and daughter-in-law over the years. The PIL petition also pointed out that Mulayam declared a taxable income of only Rs.79,000 in 1977.

The list of properties runs into nine pages and the documents relating to them take up approximately 1,000 pages. The petition stated that all these assets were accumulated by corrupt means and urged the court to direct the CBI to prosecute Mulayam and his family members under the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Indian Penal Code.

In the hearings on the admissibility of the petition, the lawyers of the S.P. chief had argued that a number of properties mentioned in the PIL were bought using earnings from agriculture and agricultural produce over a period of two and a half decades. In 2004, Mulayam had stated before the Election Commission that he owned 14 acres of land in is hometown, Saifai, a plot in Friends Colony in Etawah, fixed deposits for Rs.25 lakh in banks, and shares worth Rs.20 lakh in `other properties'. On February 27, 2007, the Chief Minister presented, in a written submission to the Supreme Court, a point-by-point response on the properties listed in the petition.

Mulayam's submission, as well as the arguments articulated by his lawyers during hearings, questioned the veracity of a number of allegations made in the PIL. One allegation was that Mulayam and his family members owned four plots in Gomti Nagar in Etawah, worth several lakhs of rupees. In his submission Mulayam stated that the plots belonged to Pesu Bhojwani, Jitendra Bhojwani, Rajesh Bhojwani and Kamal Bhojwani and that he had no relations with the Bhojwanis. Vishwanath Chaturvedi alleged that the Bhojwanis were Mulayam's business partners.

The submission pointed out that even properties bought by the S.P. using party funds had been shown in the petition as Mulayam's property. It made a specific reference to a plot in the Ramana Dilkhusha mohalla of Lucknow, which was purchased on June 8, 2005, for Rs.1.65 crore. Mulayam's lawyers pointed out that the property was bought for the official purposes of the party and the purchase reflected in the party's balance sheet. Of course, Mulayam executed the sale deed in his capacity as the president of the S.P.

Another allegation was that the Chaudhary Charan Singh Post Graduate College in Etawah, worth approximately Rs.100 crore and managed by a society called Siksha Prasar Samiti, was controlled by Mulayam's brother Shivpal Yadav, a State Minister, and son Akilesh Singh Yadav, a Lok Sabha member. The Chief Minister's submission states that Siksha Prasar Samiti has been getting government grants and aid since 1994 and this includes a grant of Rs.103.44 crore for the construction of the college. Significantly, the submission claimed that he and his family members did not have controlling positions in the Samiti.

Mulayam's lawyers questioned Vishwanath Chaturvedi's credentials as a bona fide public interest petitioner. They pointed out that he had obvious political links with the Congress party, as he was its candidate in the Haidergarh constituency against Rajnath Singh, the present national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in the 2002 Assembly elections in the State. Vishwanath Chaturvedi had himself admitted that he was an activist of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the trade union wing of the Congress. Still, his affidavit before the Supreme Court insisted that "being a person of very ordinary means" he "was not interested at all in entering into politics" but "somehow he was adopted by the Congress party in the last Assembly elections". He maintained that "apart from this venture", "he has no contact or connection with Congress party".

Throughout the hearings in the case the S.P. leadership believed that the petition would be thrown out merely on the grounds that Chaturvedi had clear political interests. For, in August 2006 a Supreme Court Bench, consisting of Justices K.G. Balakrishnan, A.R. Lakshmanan and S.H. Kapadia, dismissed a petition against Railway Minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad on the grounds that it was filed by his political opponents, namely, Sushil Kumar Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rajeev Ranjan Singh of the Janata Dal (United). The court stated that the petitioners were waging a political battle against Lalu Prasad in the courtroom.

However, on March 1, the Bench comprising Justices A.R. Lakshmanan and Altamas Kabir ruled that the verdict in the case against Lalu Prasad would not apply to Vishwanath Chaturvedi's petition. The Bench pointed out that "the said decision [in the case against Lalu Prasad] has no application to the facts of this case" because that "pertained to a pending criminal case and PIL is totally foreign to pending criminal proceedings". It added that "the case on hand does not relate to any pending criminal proceedings".

The Bench further stated: "In the absence of concrete proof that the petitioner belongs to the Congress party, his writ petition cannot be thrown out on the question of maintainability." It emphasised that a preliminary inquiry by the CBI was in Mulayam Singh Yadav's own interest because the Chief Minister of a large State like Uttar Pradesh could not function under a cloud where his integrity had been questioned. The Bench said "if the CBI finds there are justifications for registering an FIR [first information report] after the preliminary inquiry, it could be so in accordance with law."

The S.P.'s response to the verdict has developed on three fronts. At the legal level, the party maintained that it would file a review petition. It has also launched a campaign questioning the credibility of the CBI as a neutral investigating agency. The track record of the country's premier investigating agency, especially its shortcomings in moving with alacrity to ensure the extradition of Ottavio Quattrochi, an accused in the Bofors scam, has been highlighted as part of this campaign.

At the political level, it has launched an initiative accusing the Congress of trying to use the CBI to settle political scores. In the process, it has also submitted a compact disc (CD) of a sting operation on Vishwanath Chaturvedi to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. Vishwanath Chaturvedi's conversation in the CD implies that he knew what the verdict of the Supreme Court would be in the case against Mulayam. The S.P. campaign maintains that this "forecast" is contempt of court.

As for the opposition in Uttar Pradesh, the court ruling gave an impetus to its demand that Mulayam be ousted from office. "He has no moral ground to continue in office and must step down," said State Congress Legislature Party leader Pramod Tiwari. BJP State president Kesarinath Tripathi had no doubts that this would be a major political plank for the party in the campaign for the Assembly elections. Interestingly, Mayawati, chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), did not respond to the court verdict. Cases relating to corruption while in office as well as amassment of assets disproportionate to known sources of income are pending against her, too, in the Supreme Court.

While these political reactions were, by and large, predictable, the criticism of the judgment from legal circles was exceptional. Noted jurist and Rajya Sabha member Fali. S. Nariman questioned the timing of the judgment. According to him, the verdict was "singularly ill-timed" as the Uttar Pradesh elections were announced hardly 10 days before the order was pronounced. Nariman pointed out that the judgment would, "in the minds of politicians, influence the election result". The jurist was also of the view that "in a country governed by the rule of law, reasonable people ought never to be left under the impression that they are trying to play politics".

There is also a stream of legal opinion that the judgment's direction to the CBI to submit the report of the preliminary inquiry on Mulayam to the Central government violates the autonomy conferred on the country's premier investigating agency. The judgment also said that "on receipt" of the CBI report, the "Centre may take further steps depending on the outcome of the preliminary enquiry".

The apex court itself had held in the Jain hawala case 10 years ago that the investigating agency's powers vest it with the discretion to decide on its own whether a preliminary inquiry should be followed by a regular case. Here that power seems to have been accorded to the Central government, particularly the Union Home Ministry. S.P. general secretary Amar Singh has questioned this formulation pointedly. According to him, the CBI is not under the jurisdiction of the Home Ministry, but under the Ministry of Personnel handled directly by the Prime Minister.

On its part, the CBI has been quick off the blocks in implementing the court order. Following the March 1 order, it registered a preliminary inquiry against Mulayam, Akhilesh Singh and family members on March 5. A day later, it sent notices seeking documents, including details of wealth and income tax paid by Mulayam and his family members.

Amar Singh points out that this speed is directly in contrast with the sluggishness displayed by the agency in filing extradition papers in the Quattrochi case or in pursuing the long-pending corruption cases against Mayawati. "This," he says, "clearly shows that the CBI has become Congress Bureau of Investigation."

There is little doubt that rhetoric like this will, time and again, mark the developments in the case.

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