The buzzword doing the rounds these days not only in Delhi but also throughout the country is ED, or Enforcement Directorate. But spare a moment and think of ‘ed’ as a suffix. It is commonly appended to English verbs to denote the past.
And yet, its abundant use in current political and legal discourse, though as an abbreviation signifying an important arm of the Union government, has hardly been viewed against what had happened in the rather recent or not-too-distant past.
Only eight years or so ago, the politics of the country underwent a huge change. Though ED was not there as such a big player at that point of time, the issue of corruption plaguing public life and gnawing at public funds, which ED is taking on now, was very much an issue even then.
Strangely, just like before, the battle lines around corruption are once again being drawn between the government and the Opposition around the same issue. The only difference between then and now is that the roles of the two warring sides have somewhat reversed or interchanged and that is how ED has come into play like seldom before.
UPA on the defensive
Earlier, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Congress at the Centre went on the defensive amid the BJP-led Opposition onslaught over the issue of corruption. It soon had to eat humble pie and the BJP with its alliance partners stormed to power first at the Centre and eventually in several states.
The UPA was not just upstaged by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, or NDA. The alliance’s constituents went their own ways, leaving the Congress virtually alone, at least at the Centre.
But, the change could hardly curb corruption over the past eight years of BJP rule under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Its latest telltale signs emerged when a highway inaugurated by him only last month in Uttar Pradesh caved in within days of its opening. Around the same time, another bridge that was part of a highway in Madhya Pradesh also gave in soon after construction.
Both UP and MP are BJP-ruled states and together with the Centre, both the provinces are flaunted by the party to be run by a “double-engine” government. Yet, even BJP MP Varun Gandhi joined social media warriors to cry foul and demanded a probe into the UP road cave-in, indicating widespread corruption in government-allotted multi-crore projects paid for from the public exchequer. But, there was hardly any firm assurance from the government of working out corruption involved in the bizarre collapse of the freshly metalled highway and bridge.
Maharashtra upheaval and ED
In sharp contrast to this, the ED sleuths virtually pounced on Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, for allegedly making money via his builder friends in a 14-year-old deal to redevelop a Mumbai slum. The ED action has come close on the heels of an unprecedented upheaval in Maharashtra politics. The state was yet to recover from this shock, when the ED swung into action against Raut.
Raut and his Sena cohorts claim the ED action is a way to “raid, smash and grab” party functionaries in order to wrest not only the state government run by the party until a little over a month ago but also the party founded by the late Balasaheb Thackeray.
Before the raid at Raut’s Mumbai house and his arrest on Sunday (July 31), Congress president Sonia Gandhi was interrogated for multiple days and for several hours on each of those days in Delhi by ED officials in the National Herald case for alleged money laundering. This was after similarly elaborate interrogation sessions of her son Rahul Gandhi for days at ED’s Delhi office in the same case.
The interrogation of the two was followed by a raid by ED officials at the Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg head-office of the National Herald in New Delhi and 11 other locations on Tuesday, or August 2.
And, in between Sonia’s interrogation in Delhi and Raut’s arrest in Mumbai, there was a raid in Kolkata at an actress’ house by ED, where virtual mounds of currency notes were recovered leading to her arrest and also that of a senior Trinamool Congress (TMC) minister. Both have reportedly been so close to each other as to allegedly mint and stash huge cash and gold through government school teachers’ recruitment drives in West Bengal.
The Bengal raids
Significantly, the ED action in Kolkata and Mumbai took place under the full glare of television cameras, which was dutifully aired by several TV channels though this may not be desirable under the laws, norms and procedures for raid and search by a government agency.
In the case of a Kolkata raid, TV channels and social media also reported alleged recovery of “sex-toys” from the actress’ house in utter disregard to the privacy of the accused. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee promptly sacked the minister and the party denied having any association with the other accused.
So, the common thread that runs through all these actions being taken by ED officials is that justifiably or unjustifiably, multiple Opposition parties have come under the heat turned on against them by the Union government. The contrast this can have with those in the ruling party or who have been crossing over to it from rival parties is too palpable to be missed.
Clean chit for BJP leaders
The BJP CM of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Chouhan was given a clean-chit in the Vyapam scam by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in 2017. The scam related to medical entrance tests and recruitments in other state government services.
Similarly, Suvendu Adhikari was investigated by the CBI for his role in the Saradha scam in 2014. This was after the BJP had come to power and it was followed by his interrogation by the ED in 2017. It was the time when he was a member of the TMC. But, after joining the BJP in 2020, Adhikari was not hounded any more by any of these agencies though millions of small depositors lost their savings in the scam. Today, he is the BJP leader of Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly.
Adhikari had apparently switched sides to escape a possible action by CBI and ED against him. Similar motivation seems to have worked in the case of Shiv Sena MLAs, who revolted against their former CM Uddhav Thackeray and joined hands with the BJP to form another government. The rebel Sena leader Eknath Shinde became CM with BJP support.
This has led the Uddhav group in the Sena, besides the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) that supported the former CM, to allege that ED has been “weaponised” by the Union government. These parties claim that the BJP-run centre calls the shots from Delhi in several state capitals to put Opposition-run provincial governments in trouble at anytime or as per the Centre’s needs.
With Uddhav’s government in Maharashtra gone, the fate of Jharkhand’s coalition government too started looking uncertain. Many fear the worst for the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)’s CM Hemant Soren, who woke up a couple of days ago to find that three Congress MLAs supporting him were caught by West Bengal police at Howrah with nearly five million rupees in the car they were travelling in.
All three were promptly arrested. Their crossing over to Bengal with stacks of hard currency bills has led one of their party peers to lodge a complaint in Ranchi with Jharkhand police. Per the complaint, the three had wooed a few other Congress MLAs with Rs 10 crore in cash and a ministerial berth for bringing down Soren’s government and supporting the BJP’s nominee for the CM’s post.
The arrest of Jharkhand MLAs in Kolkata points to a possible Opposition plan to use the state police the way the Centre has been using the ED. And, this is how the government agencies run the risk of getting politicised. More so, since these look so far to be selectively used to suit the politico’s needs.
Some of the top guns holding power today, like Modi and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, are direct beneficiaries of an anti-corruption drive of the past. But, what was once promised during Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption (IAC) siege of Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds was a fair and autonomous anti-corruption watchdog in the form of Lokpal rather than deflecting agencies from their course set by the law.