There were many who thought that the UPA-II, maybe resuscitated after a cabinet reshuffle earlier this month, was going to put in place some governance norms to heal its bruised and battered public image. But it turns out there is little leeway yet for any such positive recasting. Still reeling under the 2G and CWG scams and the vexed black money issue, the Congress-led government finds it has yet another beast to grapple with—the resurrected cash-for-votes scam that had been given a quiet burial but has now been exhumed following the Supreme Court’s intervention.
The scam allegedly involved the bribing of opposition MPs to vote in favour of the UPA-I government during the nuclear deal trust vote in the Lok Sabha on July 22, 2008. In scenes that few have forgotten, three BJP MPs—Ashok Argal, Faggan Singh Kulaste and Mahavir Bhagora—flashed wads of notes in the LS as “evidence” of being paid to defect. The Delhi Police, within the past week, have arrested Sanjeev Saxena and Suhail Hindustani, both of them central characters in arranging the money paid to the three MPs. Saxena, described by the police as former Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh’s aide, has reportedly told interrogators that he got the money from Amar, who may have been trying to win support for the UPA-I government before the crucial vote. Hindustani, on the other hand, has been more direct in his allegations; he claims he received phone calls from Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel, and those close to PM Manmohan Singh.
This hurried spate of interrogation and arrests comes after three years of feet-dragging by the police and less than a week after the SC’s indictment of the Delhi Police on July 15. The court was hearing a petition by former cec J.M. Lyngdoh who sought the setting up of an SIT to probe the scam.
TV grab of BJP MPs showing wads of cash in Parliament
Earlier, a parliamentary committee headed by Congress leader and now Union minister of tribal affairs and panchayati raj, Kishore Chandra Deo, had conducted a probe into the events that preceded the trust vote. It submitted its report in December ’08 but failed to unravel the case—and Deo had been accused by other members of “defending individuals rather than finding out the truth”. This, incidentally, refers to the fact that the committee did not question Amar Singh.
“I was present when the money came from Amar Singh’s house for the BJP MPs,” Sudheendra Kulkarni says.
Right-wing ideologue Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was involved in the sting operation that claims to have laid bare the scam, points out, “It is baffling that Amar Singh has not been questioned even once, either by the parliamentary committee or by the police. This is proof enough that he has had spectacular protection...and this is because he helped the government survive.” While Kulkarni says he has been questioned twice and is ready to face interrogation as many times as required, he insists there is “no question that Amar Singh had a role”. “I was present when the money came from Amar Singh’s house through his emissary to the three BJP MPs. All this has been captured on camera.”
Mohammed Salim, former CPI(M) MP who was part of the parliamentary committee along with the BJP’s V.K. Malhotra, says he too had asked that Amar be called in and questioned for a thorough probe in his dissenting note in the final report. “But it was edited out, something that has happened for the first time in the history of our parliamentary democracy,” he says. One of the sections from his original note cut out by the parliamentary secretary talked about the “reluctance shown by the committee to summon and critically examine Amar Singh and Ahmed Patel”. “It will be most unfortunate if we fail to uncover the entire truth behind the scam...if the culprits remain at arm’s length because of a lack of political will,” he says.
Amar Singh.(Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Deo has argued that it was difficult to summon Amar Singh, a Rajya Sabha member then and now, to a panel of the Lok Sabha without prima facie evidence against him. Arguing that the Delhi Police investigation is a logical step forward from his report, Deo told reporters, “Had I given a clean chit (to Amar), then why would I have recommended further investigation into the matter? The current investigation would not have happened without my recommendation. It was clear that something was wrong but a parliamentary committee is not an investigating authority.”
The committee indeed had asked that the scam “be probed further by an appropriate investigating agency” and had called for a review of the procedures followed to get a member of one house of Parliament to depose at the hearing of a committee of the other house.
Meanwhile, as we go to press, Amar Singh looks likely to be finally questioned around Friday. This is not the first time that the cash-for-votes scam has been resurrected. It was claimed through a leaked WikiLeaks cable in March this year that a diplomat at the US embassy here was shown “chests of money” by a political aide to Congress leader Satish Sharma. The money was supposedly to be used for buying political support from opposition MPs and organising defections. After fierce criticism from opposition parties, PM Manmohan Singh defended his position, stressing that he had not authorised anybody to purchase votes.
The Opposition, obviously, has latched on to the latest developments to attack the government. BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman says, “It is a government that is hamstrung by its misdeeds, always reacting to situations rather than being proactive about redressing problems.” She adds that the government’s tactic of “attacking the whistleblowers” instead of getting down to exposing the truth is no longer tenable. “The BJP MPs along with others clearly exposed the government’s intent to buy votes...this is something that will touch a raw chord and hit the moral fibre of the government.” As investigating authorities get cracking on the case (under the constant, fierce gaze of the Supreme Court), the one question everyone is asking is: when will Amar Singh speak and how much will he reveal?