The Hindu

Last week, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) national president N. Chandrababu Naidu was arrested by the Crime Investigation Department for his alleged complicity in the ₹371-crore A.P. Skill Development Corporation ‘scam’, which reportedly took place during his term as Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister between 2014 and 2019. The TDP termed the arrest a “political vendetta” against Mr. Naidu by the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) government. The ruling party argued that there is “clinching evidence” in the case. Are corruption cases against politicians driven by political rivalries? Trilochan Sastry and Sanjay Hegde discuss the question in a conversation moderated by Sumit Bhattacharjee. Edited excerpts:

In recent times, many leaders have been arrested on charges of corruption including Mr. Naidu in Andhra, Manish Sisodia of the AAP in Delhi, and V. Senthil Balaji and K. Ponmudy of the DMK in Tamil Nadu. Are agencies following the law or is there an element of political vendetta in these cases?

Sanjay Hegde: Such cases are not unknown or new; they have been part of Indian politics for a long time. The first issue to be considered when such a move is made, whether by the Central government or any State government, is the timing of the case. Mr. Naidu’s arrest has taken place just as general elections and Assembly elections are due in the State. But in the case of Mr. Sisodia, it was different; there was possibly an attempt to put pressure on the Delhi government. There is also a link to a southern State in that case.

Trilochan Sastry: This is targeted arrest of people from the Opposition parties. Data show that 43% of MPs and 44% of MLAs have criminal records. Many of them have serious cases of murder and rape against them. So, these arrests are only of a few people. Even if we concede that they are justified, the question is, why have all the others who have got such serious cases against them not been arrested? Charges have been framed against them and cases have been going on, but they are not being arrested. Why are leaders from the ruling parties not being arrested? All this clearly indicates that this is a political game rather than a desire to maintain law and order.

Many of the cases get picked up only when a party goes out of power. This leads to the allegation that ruling parties use investigative agencies for political purposes instead of genuinely tackling corruption. Is there any truth to this?

Trilochan Sastry: That has been the case for a long time. Officers of choice are posted or retained just to serve the goals of the ruling parties. The director of the ED (Enforcement Directorate) got three extensions.

Sanjay Hegde: It appears that the enforcement agencies such as the ED and the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) have become all-powerful. There is an obvious reason for digging into the ‘scams’ of the previous government. There is no doubt that there is no smoke without fire, but how far the investigating agencies are allowed to function independently is the question.

Are law-enforcement agencies allowed to function independently at the Centre and in the States? There are allegations that officers heading such agencies are posted to carry out the agenda of the ruling parties at the Centre and in the States.

Trilochan Sastry: The important point is whether all the law-enforcement agencies are supposed to follow the verbal orders of those in power, or the law and the Constitution. In a scenario in which the ruling party loses an election and another party comes to power, we may find the other bunch of people being arrested. It may be a little harsh to say this, but there is a breakdown in the law-and-order system.

Sanjay Hegde: The Supreme Court ruled in the Parkash Singh Badal case that you must separate the investigative machinery of the police from the routine law-and-order functions, to ensure a fully independent investigative machinery. But at no point of time or at any level has there been an independent investigative machinery installed. So, the police at the end of the day are answerable to some Minister, usually the Home Minister in the State or at the Centre.

When the reins of power change, the investigating officers are either at the receiving end or are forced to change sides. This type of politicisation is not healthy. Officers get marked as men of some ‘X’ or ‘Y’ politicians.

Going by the constitutional powers bestowed on the enforcement agencies, do you think they can refuse to play to the tune of ruling parties, and that institutions such as Lokpal and Lokayukta can come into play?

Trilochan Sastry: They have constitutional protection; you cannot sack an officer. The worst you can do is transfer him. Whether that officer can be harassed or not, that is the question. There are various perks, privileges, promotions, postings and perquisites that an officer can get if he follows the verbal orders of the powers that be. If he is hankering for them or if he succumbs to those, you will see the law-and-order mechanism that we have today.

Sanjay Hegde: Adding to Mr. Sastry, let’s take the case of an earlier CBI Director, Alok Verma. He had a certain measure of protection. But then, elections were coming up and Opposition leaders submitted a memorandum to him with regard to the Rafale deal. There were questions on whether he was going to file an FIR or not. He was thrown out of his office overnight. He had to fight a case in the Supreme Court and the apex court restored him, but it left enough leeway for the government to see to it that he never got back into his office. After retirement, the man has been fighting for what has been legitimately due to him (pension). He is being harassed. So, there is also a great disincentive if an officer threatens to perform his role in a manner which is not to the liking of the government of the day.

Will empowering institutions such as the Lokpal or Lokayukta help?

Sanjay Hegde: Well, I don’t see the Lokpal being active or effective currently.

Trilochan Sastry: The basic question is, can investigation agencies function independently? They cannot function with the strengthening of Lokpal. So, why are they not functioning independently? Basically, under the threat of punishment and even post-retirement punishment, people are made to fall in line. There is a careful selection of people as to who will toe the line. They (the powers that be) don’t want honest, upright, independent people heading these agencies. They prefer people who will investigate those cases which they want investigated.

Are corruption cases being filed to intimidate politicians to join the ruling party?

Trilochan Sastry: In the case of Mr. Naidu, I don’t think they are trying to get him to join the ruling party. There is no way he can join the ruling party (YSRCP). But in other States, we are aware of such things happening. The lesser-known leaders or not-so-tall leaders are given a choice: either you join us or we will send the ED. We saw this in Maharashtra. And many people jumped ship because they would otherwise land up in jail. The simple thing is, how do people remain in power? They often use whatever means they have at their disposal, including the police, the ED, the Income Tax Department, and other investigation agencies.

Sanjay Hegde: These kinds of prosecutions to bring down somebody’s image just before an election or to take revenge on the previous incumbent just after an election are not unknown in India. But what is new is that in the past few years, agencies are being used to break up parties and secure defections. The ability to administer ‘dand’ (punishment) has been weaponised. This is even more dangerous for the agencies because if the agencies get to a stage where they say, ‘okay somebody has ordered us to make a case out of anything, whether true or false, whether right or wrong, we will just follow the instructions and let people sort it out in the courts’, they are divesting themselves of any independent judgment or any claims to independence whatsoever.

Trilochan Sastry is chairman of the Association for Democratic Reforms and former Dean at the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru; Sanjay Hegde is a senior advocate in the Supreme Court of India

© Association for Democratic Reforms
Privacy And Terms Of Use
Donation Payment Method