EVER since the then minister of state for internal security, Rajesh Pilot, ordered the arrest of Chandraswami, the question which is being increasingly asked is whether this marks the end of the road for the controversial godman. Senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office say PV. Narasimha Rao has given the go-ahead for the law to take its own course. But as investigating officials plod through the plethora of charges against the globetrotting godman, it is becoming clear that it will be extremely difficult to nail him.
For one, except for the charges emanating from the confession of Babloo Srivastav, a hired killer recently extradited from Singapore, almost all the charges against Chandraswami relate to alleged frauds committed outside the country. Investigating officials admit that frauds are difficult to prove in court. It is also not that easy to conduct investigations in foreign countries.
In one country, however no real probe is needed to begin with. The Thailand police have already issued a warrant of arrest against Chandraswami for allegedly duping a businessman of that country, Somachandra Chaisiri Chawla. Chawla had complained to the Indian Prime Minister about the fraud perpetrated on him by Chandraswami way back in March this year, and Pilot's arrest order was based primarily on it. But even in this case there are doubts whether the arrest warrant can be executed because India and Thailand do not have an extradition treaty.
Along with his complaint to Rao, Chawla had also sought protection from the Delhi Police. He wrote to Commissioner of Police Nikhil Kumar: "I have been receiving threatening calls/messages from one Shri Vikram Singh, who is a close associate of Shri Chandraswami...they have been claiming that in case I do not succumb to their illegal demands and do not pass on funds/donation to a political party, I shall not be able to set up any project in India." He also claimed that Singh threatened to implicate him in false criminal cases.
The Thai warrant was more specific. Issued against Chandraswami and Vikram Singh, his Man Friday, it said that Rs 2.4 crore had been paid to the duo for 'getting' work done on Chawla's Rs 1,000-crore ventures with the Bangalore Development Authority and the Bangalore Water and Sewage Board for promoting housing projects and water supply schemes in Bangalore.
While ordering an inquiry into Chawla's complaint, Pilot asked the CBI to delve into the entire gamut of cases against Chandraswami, including his alleged links with the prime accused in the Bombay blasts case, Dawood Ibrahim. The links had been disclosed during the CBI's interrogation of Srivastav. But proof of any such link can be extremely elusive. Though the CBI is reportedly examining his passport, it does not rule out his having used several identities and passports. The Foreign Registration and Recording Office in Delhi is looking at all his photographs taken since 1982.
Former minister Arif Mohammed Khan, who first levelled charges against Chandraswami when his premises were raided in connection with the Jain hawala case, claims he has pictures of Chandraswami with Dawood Ibrahim's hitmen at an American airport. But he says he will only release these pictures at an appropriate time.
As for Srivastav's claim that he had stayed at Chandraswami's ashram in February 1992, it should not ruffle the probing the cases against Chandraswami.
Most of the cases abroad relate to frauds. Chandi Suryavali, a local leader of Indian origin from Paramribo in Surinam, had registered a case of alleged fraud against the godman in 1986. According to the details of the Intimation of Unlawful Activities--the Surinamese version of an FIR--Suryavali had paid him $1 million for setting up business ventures in India under the aegis of the Surinam Non-Resident Indian Association. But once he got the money, Chandraswami reportedly did the vanishing act. The complaint was sent to the Ministry of External Affairs n 1987 but did not evoke much response from the Indian Government, except for a cursory "we are examining the issue".
But Pilot's offensive has certainly set the cat among the pigeons. This round of dirt-digging exercises includes an investigation into Chandraswami's apartment at Olympic Towers Officials say the apartment may have been used to entertain influential guests from India, which may explain the godman's political clout.
The CBI is also chasing up another old case of cheating, this time in London. According to the details of the case, Chandraswami and his secretary, K.N. Agrawal, known as Mamaji, cheated an NRI, Lakhu Bhai Pathak, of $100,000 on the pretext that the accused would use his influence to secure newsprint and paper pulp supply contracts from the Government of India. "Even after long persuasion, there was no response from the accused either to secure the contracts or to return the money given by the complainant (Pathak)," the CBI document says, admitting that any further progress would be very difficult. "It has not been possible to complete this investigation due to the refusal of foreign witnesses for examination and non-receipt of relevant documents," it notes.
The catalogue of the thorns in the swami's side is growing. Babloo Srivastav's lawyers, V.K. Ohri and H.A. Alvi, are especially keen to see him implicated in a 1991 case of a fatal bomb attack on Delhi-based Journalist Ravindra Jain. The Jain commission probing the Rajiv Gandhi assassination decided to look into an Akali leader, Mahant Seva Dass' claim that the godman was one of the main conspirators.
In the welter of charges that are now seeing the light of day, people remain cynical as to what the CBI or any other agency can really do. Especially if the St Kitts investigation is anything to go by. "This man has known all prime ministers except V.P. Singh," says the Janata Dal's Ram Vilas Paswan. Former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, however, maintains there is not much behind the screaming headlines. "The law takes its own course. It is not dictated by headlines," he says.
The experience of former joint director of the CBI, N.K. Singh is quite different though. Singh remembers how he was abruptly taken off the case and transferred out of the agency when he started issuing notices to Chandraswami in early 1991. In his special leave petition before the Supreme Court, Singh recalls the number of times Chandra Shekhar and the then law minister, Subramanian Swamy, personally intervened to have the case scuttled. And that is exactly what happened in the end.
Chandraswami's saviours, if a list is drawn, far outnumber those gunning for him. So if liquor baron Vijay Mallya offers his personal aircraft for the godman's use, Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, despite Iris all-out war against corruption in high places, thinks nothing of meeting him publicly.
Leading saffron lights Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Vijayaraje Scindia also, count among his ardent camp followers. And earlier this year the Communist Party of India (M) publicly ridiculed its high profile MP, Amal Dutta, for attending the godman's birthday bash; Dutta, who is West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu' nephew, is unlikely to get a party ticket in the next general elections. Chandraswami's relations with arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi extended to the Iran-Contra deal, details of which became public later once American involvement in it was established.
As Vineet Narain, owner of a video-magazine and one of the first to carry exposes on the godman, says: "it something still happens to Chandraswami, all I can say is that the Prime Minister has given up on him. But to see that happening is wishful at this stage."
A telling example of Chandraswami's clout is that the team of CBI sleuths is 'interrogating' him at his ashram, and not at the CBI headquarters. And at the doorsteps of the ashram, Janata Party President Subramanian Swamy beams: "No charges can be proved. It is all being engineered by the Congress(T)." If that confidence is anything to go by, the godman seems to be oil a good wicket.