Badal's travails

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

PUNJAB'S Vigilance Bureau has registered a case against former Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal under the Prevention of Corruption Act. This comes in the wake of the agency's attempts to uncover the most extraordinary friendships it says he has inspired.

Consider the case of the non-resident Indian K.S. Sidhu, who owns the Wimpy fast food outlets in New Delhi and Chandigarh. Sidhu picked up 79,328 shares in Orbit Resorts, a yet-to-be-built hotel owned by Badal on the outskirts of New Delhi, at eight times their face value of Rs.100. On top of it, he signed an agreement, binding on his heirs, successors and assignees, promising that he would "not, at any stage, seek repatriation of capital invested".

Or take the case of Narottam Singh Dhillon, who gave up his luxury car dealership in the United States and settled down on a 28-acre (11 hectares) farm adjoining the Badal family's property in the village that gave it its name. Dhillon gave out personal loans amounting to Rs.1.6 crores to the Badals over the years, after breaking a fixed deposit he had opened with his foreign exchange savings after arriving in India. Yet, within days of handing out the cash, he topped up his fixed deposit again, although he had no known means of income other than from his farm.

Both Sidhu and Dhillon were arrested in the course of an ongoing police investigation into "disproportionate assets" allegedly owned by Hardip Singh Bhamra, the former Chief Minister's Officer on Special Duty. Last year Bhamra was charged with possessing four properties worth Rs.1,28,64,337, well beyond his legal sources of income. Badal's aide lost an appeal in the Supreme Court against his arrest on June 19, and the Punjab government has now applied for permission to attach his assets. Police officials claim that the officer, who has been absconding since the raids, is being harboured by Dhillon to protect the Badal family.

On the face of it, all those concerned have a fair amount of explaining to do. Sidhu is not, as Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has claimed, an indigent living on British social security. A 1998 survey of wealthy South Asians in the United Kingdom ranks him at number 53, based largely on his co-ownership of Palmier, a London-based distributor of women's clothing. The business was reported to have turned in pre-tax profits of 1.4 millions on sales of 26.5 million in 1996-1997. According to the survey, if Palmier was valued on a par with a quoted textile company, it would be worth 15 million. Sidhu had been a personal assistant to Amarinder Singh's father Maharaja Yadavindra Singh before settling in the U.K.

Sidhu's apparent affluence, however, raises more questions than it answers. The businessman picked up the near-defunct Wimpy International brand for an estimated 500,000, and proceeded to open fast food restaurants in New Delhi and Chandigarh. The chain has no evident plans to expand or upgrade in the face of recent competition, and it is hard to find out just what its claimed 1,200 employees in fact do. Informed sources in Punjab's Vigilance Bureau claim that the firm was simply the cover for a large-scale money laundering operation, with Badal at its heart. While this allegation will be tested in court, it does appear to have some legitimacy in the light of Sidhu's decidedly peculiar investment in Orbit Resorts. So far, neither Sidhu nor the Badal family has offered a coherent explanation of just why the very unusual non-repatriation clause formed a part of their business practice.

Dhillon's story is not dissimilar. No reasons have been offered as to why the Badals took loans from him, why he chose to advance them money, and how he managed to refill his coffers within days of each withdrawal. Vigilance officials are also investigating a separate Rs.3 crore accumulation in an account for which, they claim, there is no clear source of origin. Arguing an unsuccessful application for additional police custody of Dhillon, prosecutors claimed that he used his accounts to "convert black money into white money and transfer it to the Badals through bank transactions."

Evidence of criminality? Not quite. Investors are, after all, free to purchase shares at any value they like, however bizarre their actions might seem to anyone else. And individuals, of course, are free to give loans to who they wish. As important, no real evidence has emerged as yet that either individual was actually laundering funds for the Badal family, the essence of the Punjab government's anti-corruption crusade. Raids on Badal's lavish farmhouse at Balasar in Haryana, and on properties owned by the former Chief Minister's alleged co-conspirators in New Delhi, Shimla and Badal village itself, have thrown up little documentary evidence - at least none that has been made public so far. Indeed, it is possible to argue that if Dhillon had indeed been fronting for Badal, he would have at least delivered on his promises to the individuals he allegedly accepted bribes from.

Amarinder Singh's braggadocio has not helped his case, either. On June 11, cases were filed at the Lambi police station against Dhillon for possessing and dealing in counterfeit currency, possessing and trading in narcotics, and possessing and dealing in arms and explosives. He was accused of having links with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and unspecified terrorists. The charges were extremely serious, and ought, if they were true, to have led to a full and transparent investigation. Instead, the police have been ordered to back down - a sign that the case was politically inspired to start with. Witnesses in the Sidhu case have been hard to come by. Harjinder Singh, a driver with Wimpy in New Delhi, has already complained that he is being coerced to testify against his will.

Yet, Badal seems nervous. His hasty alliance with his political arch-enemy, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, was evidently intended to secure the Shiromani Akali Dal's flanks in the event of his arrest. Part of the deal is Tohra's re-installation as the head of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee, from which Badal had him dismissed during their acrimonious parting of ways in 1999. Badal has also been flirting with the religious Right, notably by supporting the vesting of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a martyr of the Sikh faith, in an effort to embarrass the Congress(I). Badal's concerns transcend the arrests of Sidhu or Dhillon, for he is also under investigation for a multi-crore-rupee deal in the irrigation sector.

For the moment, it is unlikely that Badal will actually go to jail. Amarinder Singh has declared that he will only arrest his predecessor in office if a court issues orders for such action. Whether evidence and witnesses will ever be found to bring about these circumstances, of course, remains to be seen.

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