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The CBI is a habitual offender

By Sheela Bhatt
April 29, 2009 18:37 IST
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The revived controversy over the withdrawal of an Interpol notice issued for Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi in the Bofors case is not the only example of how the Central Bureau of Investigation is subservient to the dictates of the United Progressive Alliance regime.

The CBI should be dubbed a habitual offender if one looks at the politically important cases that the agency has handled and mishandled over the years.

If one puts in sequence what all the Bureau has done in the Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav disproportionate assets case in the Supreme Court, it speaks volumes about the Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi-led UPA government's politics.

The sequence of events that took place before and after the trust vote in the Lok Sabha on July 22, 2008, regarding Mulayam Singh's disproportionate assets case leads me to believe that the CBI's actions are anything but independent.

Attorney General Milon Banerjee's advice was the legal handle in letting off Quattrocchi, an accused in the Bofors case, while in Mulayam Singh's case the CBI took shelter behind Solicitor General Goolam Vahanvati's advice to avoid filing the case against the SP leader.

In the Bofors case, Quattrocchi figured in the category of people wanted by Interpol for 12 years, but now, according to a report in The Indian Express, the CBI has asked Interpol to remove Quattrocchi's name from the Red Corner notice list, on which he had been put at India's behest. The decision was taken after getting Banerjee's legal opinion.

The Bofors case, rightly or wrongly, tainted Rajiv Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi is always edgy about this because Rajiv's name could not be cleared till his untimely death. Quattrocchi was a friend of Rajiv and Sonia, so when the UPA government came to power the CBI's moves vis-a-vis the Bofors case were obviously being watched.

As UPA chairperson, it will be difficult for Sonia to escape the charge that her government helped Quattrocchi to withdraw the tainted money that was frozen for many years.

Now, just a few weeks before the government's tenure ends, Quattrocchi is no more on the 'wanted' list.

What the CBI did while working under the shadow of the UPA government in Mulayam Singh's case is no less wicked and suggests that the Congress has not learnt any lessons from the Bofors fiasco.

When the UPA government developed serious differences with the Left parties over the India-US nuclear deal, the government came under pressure. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was hell-bent on getting the nuclear deal with America, but his government was dependent on the support of the Left parties.

The political tussle over the nuclear deal reached its climax when Dr Singh was ready to sacrifice the government, but not the deal. So started the search to manufacture a majority in Parliament since the Left parties had finally decided to withdraw support.

In a swift move that had little surprise element, the Prime Minister's Office secured the Samajwadi Party's support to win the trust motion. The government won the trust vote by 275 votes to 256 in Parliament, but the political price paid was quite heavy.

According to Vishwanath Chaturvedi, the petitioner in the case against Mulayam Singh, "The UPA government would have lost power after withdrawal of support by the Left, but for the case that is pending in the court against Mulayam Singh Yadav. Yeh case na hota to ye sarkar na bachti (The government would not have survived if this case didn't exist)."

The PIL was filed by Chaturvedi against Yadav in March 2005. Only in March 2007 did the Supreme Court ask the CBI to inquire into the allegations of enormous properties held by Yadav and his family.

The apex court wanted the CBI to ascertain whether a prima facie case of corruption should be made out against Yadav and his family with direction to submit its reports to the Union government which was to decide the further course of action in the matter.

By October 2007, the CBI completed its preliminary inquiry and asked for permission to file a case against Mulayam Singh. At that time the stalemate with the Left parties over the nuclear deal was not expected. Soon the Congress cajoled the Samajwadi Party so that it could get rid of the Left parties who were a hurdle in the smooth passage of the deal.

By December 6, 2008, the CBI took an unbashed U-turn.

It filed an application in the Supreme Court, seeking permission to withdraw its application to register a case against Mulayam Singh. The CBI said 'representations were received from the respondents and legal advice was sought. In view of the legal advice and direction from the Union of India, the interlocutory application may be allowed to be withdrawn.'

Between October 2007 and December 2008 falls July 22, 2008.

On that day, when the Manmohan Singh government won the trust vote in the Lok Sabha, the heroes were Samajwadi Party general secretary Amar Singh and his leader Mulayam Singh Yadav.

But inside the court on December 6, 2008, the judges questioned the CBI on the legality of its stand.

When Additional Solicitor General Mohan Parasaran told the court that the CBI was acting to withdraw its application to register a case against Mulayam Singh on legal advice from the law ministry, the division bench consisting of Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice Cyriac Joseph remarked, 'It means that you are not acting independently. You are acting on behalf of the central government.'

The CBI allegedly 'diluted' the case against Yadav from around Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million) to Rs 1.25 crore (Rs 12.5 million). The CBI stand made the headlines when the bench said: 'It was quite incomprehensible what it has done (in the probe). And (if) what it has done is true, only god will save us.'

The judgment on the CBI's plea not to file a case against Yadav is reserved for now. The hearing was completed in February. Public memory is short and that helps institutions like the CBI to repeatedly indulge in trickery to serve the vested interests of their political masters.

Chaturvedi has seen the CBI's functioning from close quarters. He is also running around to get legal help in the case relating to the food grain scam.

In 2005, SP MLA Yogesh Pratap Singh had written a letter to then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, requesting an inquiry into the distribution of food grains in Gonda district, UP. Yadav forwarded the letter to principal secretary Prabhat Chaturvedi.

When Chaturvedi wrote to the railway ministry he discovered that there were abnormalities in the movement of food grain in the state. It was also found that food grain was probably being smuggled out of UP and reaching Bangladesh.

A further inquiry by Harishanker Pande of the state food and civil supplies department suggested that in Gonda district alone, food grain worth Rs 400 crore (Rs 4 billion) were being smuggled out. This was sensational by any standards. In an informal inquiry it was found that this scam may be widespread and could amount to several thousand crores of rupees.

Yadav announced a CBI inquiry into the matter, but later withdrew the order. Chaturvedi went to court against Mulayam Singh's decision. The Lucknow high court responded to Chaturvedi's plea and said the CBI should conduct an inquiry into the food grain scam, but the Bureau told the court it did not have the resources to investigate such a massive fraud.

A week before July 22, 2008, when Mulayam Singh's party saved the Manmohan Singh government, a letter he wrote, listing a seven-point demand for the Dadri power project, was signed and forwarded by Ashish Gupta, a director in the Prime Minister's Office, to the petroleum ministry.

Yadav wanted the Government of India's intervention to ensure two things:

a. The gas utilisation plan for Reliance Industries's Krishna Godavari Basin gas would be modified to accord highest priority in the allocation of gas to all gas-based projects which are in an advanced stage of development, including the Dadri project.

b. The ministry of petroleum and natural gas be directed to approve the gas price for the Dadri power project immediately.

PMO officials Gupta merely forwarded Yadav's demands, telling the ministry that 'action as appropriate may be taken under intimation to this office.'

The Dadri power plant belongs to the Anil Ambani group while the Godavari gas project belongs to elder brother Mukesh Ambani's group. Against the backdrop of the trust vote, the Samajwadi Party had forwarded the 'business interests' of friendly industrialists.

But natural justice came into play. After the trust vote the arrangement between the Congress and Samwajwadi Party did not work out. Both parties could not forge an alliance for the Lok Sabha election. Now, Amar Singh is crying foul, saying that the Congress does not believe in relationships.

Ottavio Quattrocchi won't have the same complaint.

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Sheela Bhatt