CONTROVERSIAL godman Chandraswami could well have been holidaying in the south of France. But for a timely order on May 1 by CBI Special Judge Ajit Bharioke who has been hearing the Lakhubhai Pathak cheating case—and in whose court the swami had moved an application for permission to travel to France and the US for 'medical treatment'.
Till then, Chandraswami's plans for a getaway had appeared to be moving with clock-work precision. Just a fortnight back, on April 17, the Directorate of Enforcement (DOE)—which is trying him for five cases of foreign exchange violations amounting to Rs 2,100 crore—had told the metropolitan magistrate hearing the cases that it had no objection to his travelling abroad. In a matter of days, the court gave Chandraswami the green signal.
The two dichotomous moves have exposed a simmering controversy within the government on the future of the godman. And has exposed the power he continues to wield. This time round, Chandraswami derives his strength, not only from his proximity to BJP leaders like Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, but also from his closeness to Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy. And it is the Swamy-faction—represented by AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha and her minister of state for banking, R.K. Kumar—who appear to be indirectly involved in soft-peddling the cases against Chandraswami. Says Ram Jethmalani, minister for urban development, who has had clashes with both the godman and Swamy: "The attempts to go soft on Chandraswami seem quite obvious."
The stand adopted by the DOE—a letter from Kunal Singh, assistant director of investigation, Delhi zone, had informed the court that it had "no objection" to Chandraswami's travel plans—which literally gave him permission to flee the country, has clouded the entire proceedings with suspicion. The enforcement agency holds that since both investigation and adjudication proceedings were completed in the four cases, they had technically no reason to oppose his application. However, legal experts argue that the move amounts to a major concession towards Chandraswami by the department. The move seems suspicious since investigation is still pending in one case—involving foreign exchange transactions worth $200,000 with his then New York-based disciple Bina Ramani in 1981—and there are apprehensions that if he does travel abroad, he could tamper with witnesses and crucial evidence.
The fact that the metropolitan magistrate had first asked for the DOE's stand on the accused in writing and also demanded Chandraswami's status in the CBI cases, possibly indicates the DOE's influ-ence over the court's decision.
What made the DOE's stand even more dubious was the fact that yet another sister agency, the CBI, which when confronted with a similar move in the Pathak case—the agency is presently handling two cases against the godman, the St Kitts Forgery case as well as the Lakhubhai Pathak cheating case—had categorically opposed the godman's application to travel abroad. According to sources, Cha-ndraswami is likely to move the high court in appeal against the rejection of his application by Bharioke.
THE godman's moves are getting desperate. And in the process, the dichotomy in the government's stand is being further exposed. In a spate of curious developments, even as the DOE appeared to be giving Chandraswami a free rein, a definite lobby within the government, headed by L.K. Advani in the home ministry, appears all set to nail him. The main motive being to get at the BJP's principal foe, Subramanian Swamy. Says Supreme Court senior counsel, Ashok Panda: "What is required is a comprehensive approach by the government as a whole and not diverse actions by individual agencies. "
Within a matter of days of the DOE move, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) gave its approval to prosecute the god-man under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). The case had come to light when the CBI, while inspecting the accounts of Chandraswami's Vishwa Dharmayatan Trust, found that it had not intimated the MHA of its foreign contributions ever since it was formed in 1985. The agency subsequently filed a chargesheet and moved the MHA for sanction to prosecute the godman
. Recently, an interim Income Tax report evaluated the total assets of Chandraswami and the Trust at Rs 2,300 crore, a substantial amount of which came from foreign donations. The report, which gives a detailed break-up of foreign donations received by the Trust till June, 1996, shows that, among others, NRI businessmen Somchai Chawla of Hong Kong, Abdul Ismail from the UK, Adnan Khashoggi and Rakesh Khanna from Canada, had made substantial contributions in dollars.
The income tax department's inquiry into the godman's living expenses also shows that he had spent nearly Rs 200-300 crore on foreign trips undertaken between 1985-95. The report also mentions Vikram Singh as Chandraswami's closest confidant and states that he is the director of five companies—Ambassador Construction Pvt Ltd., Neptune Estates Pvt Ltd., Nav-Abhiyan Publication Pvt Ltd., Scorpion Finlease Pvt Ltd., and Genesis Financial Services Pvt Ltd.
But, despite all the probes into the god-man's murky financial affairs—which followed after the public interest litigation was filed in Supreme Court in December, 1996—what has emerged most clearly is that the swami is neither down nor out. After nearly two years of heated legal battles and after languishing for eight months in a dingy Tihar cell, Chandraswami appears to have staged a dramatic comeback. Political circles are abuzz with news of his having returned to his favourite occupation: power-broking.
What has aroused even greater suspicion within certain sceptics in the DOE circles is Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's recent announcement to "introduce drastic changes" in foreign exchange regulations by the next session of Parliament. Insiders fear that this will spell a dilution in powers of arrest as well as major concessions to FERA offenders. Realistically, this may imply that the charges which Chandraswami presently faces may not constitute offences at all by the time a new enactment on FERA is brought about.
Political pundits see a deeper conspiracy behind the recent moves to go-slow on Chandraswami. The fact that both Chandraswami and Subramanian Swamy have allegedly been named in Justice M.C. Jain's final report on the larger conspiracy behind Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, and that the government has a mere six months to place it before Parliament along with an Action Taken Report is one of the reasons for Chandraswami's desperation to flee the country. According to sources, former cabinet secretary Zafar Saifullah had told Jain of having personally read certain wireless intercepts of conversations between the LTTE, Chandraswami and Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in early 1991. And these had allegedly showed their involvement in the wider international conspiracy.
With the underlying pressure to make the report public, the speculation is that certain factions in the government are eager to free Chandraswami and would prefer to turn the heat on the Janata Party leader—who is, in any case, causing problems for the ruling combine. Legally, too, experts argue that a case of embezzlement and foreign exchange regulations is not as serious as the findings of the Jain Commission report. For, once a special team is constituted to further investigate the Jain Commission recommendations, it will lead to a serious probe into an even murkier case of money laundering, and involvement with foreign intelligence agencies in an assassination.
But given that Advani has constituted a team of home ministry officials to recommend further action on the basis of Jain's recommendations and an internal report is to be submitted to him within a month, the heat on the godman seems back on. Yet, knowing Chandraswami, he will do his bit to use every likely political contact to wriggle out of a sticky situation.