Through December CBI, Special Courts have been in the news. Verdicts handed down in infamous scams spanning two decades have triggered a political maelstrom. In the backdrop of the setback to the BJP in the Gujarat elections, the impact is stunning. It may not be in the same league as the demonetisation experience of 2016 year-end but it promises to hand out many unpleasant surprises going forward.
To begin with the latest of these verdicts, on 23 December, Shivpal Singh, Special CBI Judge, convicted Lalu Prasad, the still-in-the-saddle RJD head honcho and 15 others for fraudulently withdrawing Rs. 89 lakh earmarked for the Animal Husbandry Department from the Degaru Treasury between 1991 and 1994 and sent them to Birsa Munda Jail, Ranchi. The sentencing would take place on 3 January 2018. This was Lalu’s second conviction in the fodder scam, the first having been in September 2013, for illegal withdrawal of Rs 37.7 crore from the Chaibasa Treasury, which carried a five- year prison sentence, consequent disqualification from the Lok Sabha and debarment from contesting elections for six years after completing his jail sentence. However, the Supreme Court granted him bail in December 2013, after only two months behind bars. There are four more cases which according to a May 2016 Supreme Court directive are to be decided by February 2018.
Predictably, while swearing by the mantra of respecting judicial verdicts and the rule of law, the well-orchestrated reaction of the RJD painted Lalu as a hapless victim of political conspiracy, vendetta and vile upper caste machinations , as a man who had to be fixed because of his principled stand against the scourge of communalism and his potential to disrupt the 2019 general elections. The frenzied tweetathon to his 3.5 million followers verged on the delusional. “Had people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Baba Saheb Ambedkar failed in their efforts, history would have treated them as villains. They still are villains for the biased, racist and casteist minds. No one should expect any different treatment”. It was alleged that the verdict was deliberately pronounced on Saturday to pre-empt filing a bail petition during the ensuing break for the courts over Christmas and New Year.
It was a diluted throwback to June 1996 when Lalu was first sent to Beur Jail, Patna. Then he was the undisputed messiah of the backward castes and his party capitalised on his pilgrimage to prison as an attack on the honour of the underprivileged masses. Lalu was able to place his home-bound, stately illiterate wife, Rabri Devi in the Chief Minister’s gaddi and rule the State with supreme ease by proxy. The fact that it took the opposition ten years to dislodge him from power and that he bounced back in the 2015 state elections with the trophy of the largest single party in the Assembly is proof that Lalu’s culpability has been overlooked by sizeable sections. This is precisely what the cynical, power-crazed RJD is seeking to again harness in its favour.
Riding precariously on this bandwagon, the Congress has come out with a strangely convoluted statement. It says that since the fodder scam broke in the 1990s, it has had an alliance with the RJD which was part of UPA I and the Mahagatbandhan. According to the underlying warped logic, criminal cases and political tie-ups are two distinct issues. This is not one of your typical foot-in-the -mouth gems of the many spokespersons of the Congress. The only niggling problem is that some people do remember it was Rahul Gandhi, now president of the invigorated Congress, who had torn ~ in public ~ the Ordinance brought in by the UPA II Government under Dr Manmohan Singh, with the exclusive agenda of saving the convicted Lalu from disqualification. And Rahul loves to preen about having his heart in the right place, unlike suit-boot wallahs who can only come up with hollow jumlas of na khaayenge aur na khane denge. It is evident, much filth has flown down the already polluted Ganga and now it is power at any cost, scruples be damned. Rank opportunism reigns.
The same sickening obsession with getting the better of political opponents came through strongly in the utterly shocking 2G scam verdict of 21 December. The case had, along with others, come to symbolise the worst of crony capitalism that allegedly flourished under the UPA regime, fueling popular fury and sweeping it out of power in 2014. O P Saini, Special CBI Judge, delivered a “historic” verdict holding that there was no criminality or conspiracy in spectrum allotment and acquitted all the accused. A scam was created by some people “by artfully arranging a few selected facts and exaggerating things beyond recognition to astronomical levels”. He held that the former Telecom Minister, A Raja of the DMK, did no wrong and pinned the blame on multiple Government agencies from Dr. Manmohan Singh’s PMO, to the Ministries of Law, Finance as well as senior DoT officials. Saini also came down heavily on the CBI for its extreme shoddiness. Analysts and stakeholders are still in a daze trying to get their collective heads around the implications of such an extraordinary verdict. This is no closure.
Be that as it may, given the dismissal of all charges, the DMK and its key actors in the saga, A. Raja and Kanimozhi, both of whom had served time in Tihar Jail, were expectedly jubilant and received a rapturous welcome from party leaders and cadres. But for the Congress to jump in at this juncture and pillory the BJP for spreading lies about the scam and demand an apology from Vinod Rai, the former C&AG on whose report of presumptive loss to the exchequer the investigative and judicial proceedings were based, was outright disgraceful. It was shameless politicising of a judicial process, yet incomplete, only to attempt to show the present Government in a poor light. So much for high principles it unceasingly tom-toms.
While the Congress and other political parties have come out all guns blazing in support of their leaders embroiled in the fodder and 2G scams, it cannot escape disappointing notice that there has been no comparable reaction to the indictment ~ and a three- year prison term ~ for the IAS officer, former Coal Secretary, H C Gupta in the Coalgate scam by Bharat Parashar, Special CBI Judge on 13 December. There were a few angry, distressed tweets by colleagues. Disturbingly enough according to unconfirmed accounts, some of these had to be deleted under pressure.
Very interestingly, the judgment had underscored that neither was it alleged by the prosecution nor any such evidence was available to show that Gupta obtained allocation of coal blocks for accused companies by any corrupt or illegal means! As Anil Swarup, HRD Secretary, Government of India sums it up with tremendous effect, “If we hound the honest, society and administration will be left with either dishonest performers or dishonest non-performers. The choice is ours”.
Clearly, the political class has voted overwhelmingly to band together. Supporting the tainted is kosher in the craze for power. For upright civil servants, no such impregnable shield is available. They are condemned to perish.
(The writer is a retired IAS officer and comments on governance issues.)