July 26, 2020
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Free Of Strings...The Noose Tightens

As the judiciary grants the CBI unsolicited freedom from the Prime Minister's control and acts on the chargesheets against tainted politicians, the hawala trial begins in earnest

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Free Of Strings...The Noose Tightens
THE hawala case has finally moved into top gear. The Supreme Court delivered a momentous order, freeing the CBI from the administrative control of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, and CBI special judge V.B. Gupta took cognizance of the chargesheets against nine top politicians, including BJP President L.K. Advani, and issued non bailable arrest warrants against them. Although most of the nine accused subsequently managed to get bail, the import of Gupta's order cannot be missed. The trial can now be said to have actually begun.

However, it is the Supreme Court order to the CBI which is likely to have the bigger impact on the case. The catalyst was a petition by Prashant Bhushan, Rajinder Puri and others, and the reference of amicus curiae Anil Diwan to uncontroverted media reports relating to the prime accused S.K. Jain's claims of having met the Prime Minister nine times and paid him over Rs 3 crore. The Supreme Court division bench headed by Justice J.S. Verma felt it was necessary to free the CBI from the Prime Minister's charge "to eliminate any impression of bias and avoid erosion of credibility of the CBI court". The CBI has now been asked not to furnish information even to Rao on the details of the investigation or take instructions from him. From now on, for all practical purposes, the CBI will report only to the Supreme Court in the hawala case. The Opposition was quick to pounce on this and declare that its stand—that Rao was manipulating the probe in his favour—had been vindicated.

The Supreme Court's order was received with stunned disbelief by Rao supporters initially. How could the court take on functions which were clearly in the realm of the executive? Surely, that was taking judicial activism too far. But the party was helpless.

And Narasimha Rao's pragmatism once again surfaced. The judiciary could not be taken on—not at this point of time, with such public support for it on the hawala issue, and certainly not with elections so close. "We have not deviated even a millimetre from our commitment to a free probe," Rao told an assembly of about 250 Congress MPs. For, hadn't the Government maintained that the Prime Minister was not interfering with the case in any way? After bandying about the tiring refrain that the law must take its own course, it was best to lie low. The inescapable feeling was that Rao was becoming somewhat isolated too. The head of the executive he may be, but the law had effectively cramped his style for political manoeuvres.

There are others—besides those immediately affected—who are agitated by this judicial 'encroachment'. On the morning of February 27, President Shankar Dayal Sharma invited a group of mainly Opposition MPs—including Ramakrishna Hegde, Ram Bilas Paswan, Prem Gupta, I.K. Gujral and Kamla Sinha—for breakfast at Rashtrapati Bhavan. And at the absolutely private and informal, though no-holds-bar red discussion, Sharma was not a mere listener. He was riled by the derogatory observations TADA judge S.N. Dhingra had made about the legislature while dismissing Kalpnath Rai's petition seeking permission to attend Parliament. "The issue must be raised in Parliament," the President is said to have advised the MPs. The surprise suggestion came a day after he addressed the joint session of Parliament in which he read out a statement prepared by the Council of Ministers which did not even so much as refer in passing to the hawala case.

True, Sharma has not gone as far as Zail Singh who, as President, had begun soliciting legal opinion regarding the possibility of action against the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, when the Bofors scandal came to light in April 1987. But the very fact that even the President, an expert in constitutional law himself, has started ventilating his concern—demanding details pertaining to the hawala scam—is reason enough for Rao to feel beleaguered. This, coupled with the CBI's liberation from prime ministerial control and the revelations on the Jharkhand bribery case ( see box ) have corroded his standing within the party and the Government.

Indeed, in the bribery case, it was left to Rao himself to deny the revelations made through a public interest litigation that he paid Rs 30 lakh to Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MP Suraj Mandal and near-identical amounts to three of his party colleagues for voting in favour of the Government in the no-confidence motion of July 1993. Rao had to issue an official disclaimer to Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil in response to a notice for a privilege motion given by Arjun Singh over the alleged episode.

THE BJP was initially delighted with this new counter-weapon against Rao. It even got Shailendra Mahato—an erstwhile JMM MP who has since joined the BJP—to provide further details on the Rao JMM 'deal' at a press conference in the presence of Atal Behari Vajpayee. But Mahato's subsequent volte face in Parliament, when he insisted the money came from Mandal for party activities in his constituency in South Bihar, might have embarrassed the BJP somewhat but Rao continues to be under a cloud. For, he did benefit from JMM votes during the motion. Says Mahato: "There is no contradiction in the stand I took at the press conference and in the Lok Sabha later. I got the amount from Suraj Mandal, without knowing where it came from."

Points out CPI(M) MP and legal expert Somnath Chatterjee: "Even if it was purely political support, a minister taking JMM MPs to the Prime Minister on the eve of the no-confidence motion and trying to get their votes by promising them a Jharkhand autonomous council is certainly a case of contempt of Parliament by Rao." Mandal, on his part, has declared that the money was part of the party funds. "I am not bound to reveal the source unless it becomes a practice under law for all political parties to do so." He did admit, however, that he and his party colleagues had a meeting with the Prime Minister, prior to the voting on the no-confidence motion, in the presence of Buta Singh.

Though he later retracted, Mahato's revelation has already done much harm to the Congress and the Prime Minister. Nothing was more indicative of Rao's demoralisation than his conciliatory approach towards hawala tainted Congressmen in his March 1 address to the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP). There he noted that being accused in the hawala by no means disqualified anyone from getting Lok Sabha tickets.

Two days earlier, Rao had asked party general secretary Madhavsinh Solanki to provide necessary legal assistance to all those chargesheeted if they so desired. This gesture was a far cry from Rao's aggressive statement before the captive CPP executive meeting last fortnight to the effect that hawala-tainted Congressmen would have to fend for themselves.

Not many were taken in by Rao's new-found concern. The charge sheeted Congressmen seem to be in no mood to trust Rao. Not only did they decline the party's legal assistance, saying they had already got anticipatory bail from the Delhi High Court after the non-bailable warrant issued by the special CBI court of V.B. Gupta, their indifference towards Rao has been clearly visible in Parliament. V.C. Shukla, Madhavrao Scindia, Balram Jakhar, Kamal Nath and Arvind Netam made brief appearances. R.K. Dhawan is still sulking and refuses to attend the Rajya Sabha.

Buta Singh, the alleged conduit between the Prime Minister and the JMM MPs, even admitted having arranged a meeting between them. Of course, he says the meeting was purely designed to mobilise political support. He denies any role in bribery but refuses to give a clean chit to the Prime Minister. So agitated is Singh over Rao's 'betrayal' that he is believed to have told one of the JMMMPs: "I did everything for this man (Rao). But he was so ungrateful. Why should I or you defend him?" Dhawan's predicament is no different. Soon after his resignation, he began shuttling between the fence-sitters and the anti-Rao elements in the Congress Working Commitee (CWC) led by Industries Minister K. Karunakaran, demanding an immediate CWC meeting. Rao has been ignoring this demand.

The resentment in the Congress is growing beyond Rao's own assessment. Indeed, many see him as the party's biggest liability. Says an agitated AICC joint secretary: "Rao has proved to be the biggest loser in the clean-up operation. With the St Kitts case raked up in Parliament andthe Prime Minister projected as a forger, we have lost face. We can't face either the public or our own party workers. So far, Rao has only chosen to ignore the charge. He has never denied it".

Congressmen also fear that the Chandraswami case before the Supreme Court could open yet another Pandora's box. Indeed, Rao's last days as Prime Minister—as many in the Congress believe these to be—are going to be the most "ignominious" for himself and the party. "If this trend continues, our strength will decline to less than 100 in the Lok Sabha after the elections," says a party general secretary. Rao's attempt is to blunt this pointed personal attack by generalising the corruption malaise. He also promised at the fag-end of this session in Parliament that provisions would be made to set up the 'Lok Pal', which will make even the Prime Minister answerable under the proposed Act. "This might satisfy us (politicians). But can Rao get away from the court?" asks Srikant Jena, Janata Dal leader in the Lok Sabha. Incidentally, this is the fifth time since 1968 that the Lok Pal has been promised.

THE judiciary's activist role and the executive's seemingly deliberate lack of accountability towards Parliament has muddied the political waters. That the court wants to be fair and be seenas fair became clear when the PMO—reportedly under instructions—took extra effort to clarify the reason behind the Prime Minister's meeting with Chief Justice A.S. Ahmadi at the latter's residence in the last week of February. Rao, it seemed, had gone to hand over an invitation card to the Chief Justice for his grandson's marriage on March 8. But the speculation would have been harmful for the judiciary's image. The meeting had already become a talking point when the 'unofficial clarification' came from the PMO.

Parallel to the judiciary's crusade, the Lok Sabha debate on hawala and the JMM pay-off issue yielded little in terms of the demand for permanent CBI autonomy and Rao's resignation as Prime Minister to facilitate a fair probe. And unlike the court, which acts on evidence, Parliament goes by party affiliation and 'floor-management'. Rao had a qualified success on this front, when he designated Ghulam Nabi Azad, S. S. Ahluwalia, Rajesh Pilot and Matang Singh for the task. Opposition support was secured and a constitutional crisis was averted when the Railway budget and the vote-on-account were allowed to be tabled, along with the motion of thanks to the President's address. Here, a hostile stand by former Cabinet colleagues would have posed a real threat to the Government's sur-vival at the time of voting. Ironically, to avert precisely such a crisis, the Prime Minister had to mellow his stand and approach the onetime lieutenants he had recently given a short shrift to. To begin with, he even found time to call former Union minister V.C. Shukla in Raipur to enquire about his health. Coinciding with this was a CBI decision not to proceed against certain politicians, including Shukla's elder brother and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister S.C. Shukla, whose name figured in the Jain diary.

It was because of this pressure that the Prime Minister was forced to call the CPP on March 1 to "take party MPs into confidence". This was a departure from style: in the last two years, Rao had done away with the practice of holding customary CPP meetings at the beginning and end of each Parliament session. There was no avoiding it this time. Observes one of the four ministers involved in managing the Opposition: "The mood atthe CPP meeting was the only barometer of their support or antagonism towards Rao. A hostile atmosphere in the CPP would have left Rao with no option but to give way".

Rao's brief victory—in that he stays afloat—has an element of defeat as well. And that's where the problem begins for the beleaguered Prime Minister. After all, one can't be a half-hearted dictator in a democratic setup.

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