Power Play: Politics, Intimidation, and Accountability
The big question this week, after almost the entire Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) joined the government in Maharashtra, is whether the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is one giant washing machine, which  would cleanse politicians under the scanner of our investigation agencies of corruption charges, money-laundering and worse. Last year, almost the entire set of Shiv Sena (SS) legislators had joined  hands with BJP under the leadership of Eknath Shinde to form a new government, after which investigations against them were dropped.
 
Although things are far more brazen today, political observers will tell you that the strategy of keeping political rivals, financiers (read industrialists), and the media in check, with the threat of crippling enforcement action, is at least five to six decades old. It works more effectively when a single political party holds the reins of power at the Centre.
 
Investigations are delayed, charges diluted and cases drag on for decades during which key documents go missing and important witnesses die. The abysmal track record of Central agencies in proving their charges in court tells its own story. None of this has ever happened without political meddling.
 
Harsh foreign exchange laws, extortionate tax policies and enormous red tape around industrial licensing, appointments and fundraising created the licence and inspector raj. Corrupt officials were empowered with draconian powers to harass people, to the point where a single inspector filing a false charge could shut down a business long before the legal system would even admit a lawsuit. Managing the political environment and government agencies was a key competency for doing business in India. An obvious corollary of such a system was an exponential increase in corruption.
 
In the 1970s and 1980s, industrialists perceived as inimical to the government used to be called  for meetings where a stack of files pertaining to investigations launched against them would be prominently placed on the table to signal the consequences of not toeing the line. In 1988, the government of the day even tried to dictate the choice of the editor at India’s largest English newspaper. We will never know if the subsequent hounding of its chairman was the price it paid for ignoring the not-so-subtle suggestion.
 
Those who mastered the art of using this dubious system went on to exploit it ruthlessly. Public sector bank (PSB) loans helped generate enormous personal wealth for industrialists, either by inflating project costs or blatant diversion of funds. Political pressure dictated bank actions.
 
The enormity of loot and corruption is captured by one figure—Rs11.17 lakh crore written off as bad loans by PSBs in the six year preceding 2021-22. Write-offs were lower in earlier years only because banks colluded with defaulters to hide the holes in their books.
 
Laws against narcotics, smuggling (rampant in a closed economy) and internal security were also used against social activists and political opponents even in the run-up to the declaration of Emergency in June 1975. Caste and communal riots were frequently triggered with cynical precision to divide people, win votes or vacate the land. These have been vividly documented in the movies of the 1970s and 1980s.
 
The difference today is two-fold. Earlier, even the worst of corrupt and self-serving politicians maintained the pretence of acting in public interest. Consequently, their wealth and power were kept reasonably hidden or transferred overseas.
 
That is no longer true. Instead of bribes, handouts and election funding from industry and business, politicians want a direct share of the business. Realty, infrastructure, construction, education and the cooperative sector are their businesses of choice. Public display of power and wealth is the norm. The involvement of politicians across party lines was openly visible in the major corporate defaults of 2018, especially in realty, construction, banking and finance. With rarely any track record of politicians having built businesses from scratch, investigation agencies have no difficulty in establishing the money trail to questionable political wealth.
 
Politicians have come  to believe that the voting public is immaterial to the power game; people can be manipulated to vote for an ideology, a leader, or with the promise of freebies. Only the general elections of 2024, and the Maharashtra elections shortly thereafter, will establish if this is a correct assessment. Until then, the ruling party will work its political washing machine wherever needed.
 
The Congress party derisively referred to the three Central agencies as ICE—income-tax (I-T), central bureau of investigation (CBI) and the enforcement directorate (ED)—as the government’s weapons to destabilise the Opposition. This charge is not even seriously denied by the ruling alliance—it is merely countered with straw-man arguments.
 
According to the Indian Express, in the past eight years, 95% of politicians investigated by the CBI have been Opposition leaders. It says, at least 124 prominent politicians have come under the CBI’s lens since 2014, of which 118 were from the Opposition, while cases against select politicians were put on the backburner. As against this, under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) only 60% of politicians investigated were from the Opposition. The difference in numbers is significant; but it also shows that political corruption and misuse of Central investigation agencies has remained a constant since the 1970s.
 
In response to a parliament question, it is learnt that  the ED has registered nearly 888 cases but obtained only 23 convictions since 2014. In a case involving Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut, the sessions court judge, hearing his bail application, pulled up the ED for the slow pace of investigation. The judge accused the agency of not having begun and concluded a single trial.
 
The ED has brushed aside this criticism and powered on. A report by IANS says that cases registered by the ED rose by 505% between 2018-19 (when 195 cases were registered) and 2021-22 (1,180 cases registered). The number of searches also rose exponentially by 2,555% between 2004-14 and 2014-22, it says.
 
While the conviction rate remains pathetically low, a legal amendment in 2019 weaponised and turbo-charged the ED’s actions permitting search & seizure operations and arrests without even a first information report (FIR). It also empowered the agency to investigate money laundering with retrospective effect, going back decades, if necessary.
 
In March this year, 14 political parties moved the Supreme Court (SC) against the government’s ‘arbitrary’ use of Central agencies to ‘crush’ Opposition leaders. They pointed out that “political figures, who have crossed over to the government side, have mysteriously been given ‘clean chits’ or have seen investigative agencies go slow in proceedings against them.”
 
The misuse of political power is a matter of concern; but given the naked display of massive wealth by the political class (including many from the ruling party) and their known links to large corporate defaulters, a genuine investigation and time-bound trial would have established at least some of the charges against them. The apex court correctly rejected the petition saying that it could not lay down guidelines in the abstract without the factual context of individual cases. Indeed, the dodgy track record of many of the petitioners may also have influenced the Court.
 
Maharashtra’s political upheavals in the past year offer an egregious case study in washing-machine politics. As many as 14 leaders of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government, comprising the SS, NCP and Congress under chief minister Uddhav Thackeray were under investigation by ICE until the government was toppled.
 
After acquiring power by splitting the SS, the BJP has decided to fortify its electoral chances by engineering a similar split in the NCP and inducting many tainted leaders as ministers. Ajit Pawar, Praful Patel, Hasan Mushrif, and Chagan Bhujbal face serious charges of corruption, money laundering and worse. Even those who were denied bail for a long time because of their ability to influence investigation have been made ministers.
 
Ajit Pawar is a scandalous example of how the washing machine deals with corruption stains. In 2020, the economic offences wing (EOW) filed a closure report finding no evidence of Ajit Pawar’s involvement in loss-making Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank (MSCB). In 2022, it did an about-turn and wanted to continue the probe. He is now a deputy chief minister and is speculated to become the finance minister.
 
Similar tactics of arresting ministers after making serious corruption charges have been used in other Opposition ruled states as well. Karnataka, which was also a victim, has sent a strong signal that the electorate cannot be ‘cancelled’ out with political power-play. Developments in Maharashtra suggest that the BJP is not worried, so long as it can keep disrupting the already fragile unity of Opposition parties. Splitting the NCP has already dealt a sharp blow to Sharad Pawar’s stature and clout as a tall Opposition leader. Will the BJP strategy succeed or will the people again assert their views through the ballot and hold the political class accountable? Only time will tell.
 
 
Comments
angelo.extross
9 months ago
One cannot expect people to assert their views through the ballot unless and until Aadhaar is linked to Voter ID cards/EVM and voting done with biometrics. Till this happens Dead Voters will vote, duplicate/triplicate voter IDs will appear, illegal migrants will vote. Can we expect the Election Commission to work in this direction or are we expecting too much? No, we are not expecting too much because the Aadhaar is linked to PAN, Bank, LPG connections, Social Benefit Schemes, etc. Linking it to the Voter ID cards/EVM should not pose a "difficult" job
adityag
9 months ago
Good article. It reminds me of HL Mencken's ideas. And to some extent, Thomas Sowell.

By this logic, Singapore, Qatar, and Dubai (and I daresay the United States) are as corrupt as India. Even the bastion of free-market capitalism -- Hong Kong -- is not perfect (there's no universal suffrage and corruption is rampant). They operate in similar fashion -- by silencing opposition.

Just look at America with this whole "disinformation bureaus" which quashes nearly every dissent and worldview that are at odds with the Biden Administration's. It's laughably stupid and "undemocratic".

No such thing as "power free" or "corruption-free". This is a feature of any "liberal society". It doesn't even have to be a democracy, just look at Singapore for instance -- people are extremely happy and safe there, even if they know there's a lot of stuff that are messed up and not reported widely. Oh, censorship is pretty rampant there from the beginning, so much for many praising Lee Kuan Yew and putting him on a pedestal. Silencing of opposition is the norm in this tiny nation.

The best way to be "truly free" from this circus is to abolish centralised agencies and make a society libertarian. Less of government, more of laissez-faire capitalism. Yes, it will have its own set of problems and trade-offs, just like anything else. And people will whine about that too. And the world will just move on.
abhay1955
9 months ago
Very well written and compared. The once upon a time cultured party is now truly transformed into a power griddy party. In old times leaders used to respect each other which is not so now. I have faith in Indian voters who will take care of the situation in due course.
Meenal Mamdani
9 months ago
I worry that the Election Commission may be compromised and as we do not have paper ballots to authenticate electronic votes, will we get authenticate results?
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