February 20, 2020
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Trap In Reverse

Despite arrests, stasis stalls the cash-for-votes scam probe

Trap In Reverse
Sanjay Rawat
Trap In Reverse

Delhi’s Tihar jail welcomed another high-profile detainee when former L.K. Advani aide Sudheendra Kulkarni, described by the police as the “mastermind” of the July 2008 cash-for-votes scam, was arrested on September 27. However, many will argue that the story of what actually happened in the run-up to the nuclear deal trust vote is nowhere nearer to completion despite this sixth arrest in connection with the scam. Kulkarni, who had admitted his role in trying to arrange a TV sting operation to capture the frenetic vote-buying that was allegedly taking place in the days before the trust vote, was arrested when he finally appeared before a local court in Delhi after his return from a long personal visit to the US. He had little choice; the court had threatened to issue an arrest warrant after he failed to appear before it in response to two earlier summons.

Soon after his arrest, Kulkarni reiterated his stand that he was merely a whistle-blower. “I am ready to go to jail if exposing corruption is a crime,” he told reporters outside the court. He was sent to Tihar, where he joined Sohail Hindustani, who’s been described as a middleman, former Amar Singh aide Sanjeev Saxena and ex-BJP MPs Mahabir Singh Bhagora and Faggan Singh Kulaste. The third man involved in the case, Ashok Argal, is still an MP and hence enjoys immunity (till the LS Speaker sanctions proceedings against him). Former Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh, also arrested for his role in the scam, is undergoing treatment in Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

Cash-for-votes TV grab, July 22, 2008

“The case has progressed more or less true to hype. The probe hasn’t brought something new, has it?”
J.M. Lyngdoh, Ex-chief election commissioner

While the Congress believes Kulkarni’s arrest has brought out the aspect that the BJP was involved in a plot to destabilise UPA-I, the BJP’s top leaders, including Advani, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, rushed to Tihar to meet Kulkarni in a show of support. The party has said it would “legally and politically” challenge the arrests to expose “the scam on which the UPA-I regime survived”. The BJP has been arguing that what Kulkarni and its MPs did was part of an act of entrapment rather than a plain case of bribe-taking. “False entrapment cannot coexist with bribery and whistle-blowers cannot be treated in the same manner as bribe-givers,” Arun Jaitley, leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, argues, pointing out that 19 MPs had cross-voted amidst “open allegations” of use of money for that aim.

The Delhi police, on the other hand, alleges in its chargesheet that Kulkarni was an abettor in touch with all the conspirators, including Samajwadi Party leaders, was present when the “illegal gratification” was taking place, and did not notify the police. Investigating authorities had conveniently mothballed the case. The police was finally forced to act after a strong rap from the Supreme Court. This in turn followed a Wikileaks disclosure—a leaked cable from the US embassy in New Delhi that mentioned how Nachiketa Kapur, a political aide to Congress leader Satish Sharma, showed an embassy employee “two chests containing cash” meant to bribe MPs.

The BJP has constantly demanded that it’s the “real beneficiaries” of the scam—to wit, the Congress leadership—who have to be investigated, and the SC has twice directed the police to go to the source of the cash displayed in Parliament. “You have made substantial progress.... But still the source of money has not been found. You (Delhi police) have not done what we said earlier. Find out the source of money. You can do it, if you want to do it. You are capable of doing so,” a bench of Justices Aftab Alam and R.M. Lodha observed bluntly during a court hearing. The police argues the money came from Amar Singh’s house, and was allegedly sent via Saxena, but hasn’t established this provenance beyond doubt. In its defence, the police has stated that there is no practice of recording the serial numbers of currency notes issued to customers by banks, making it impossible to retrace the money to the sponsor of the scam.

Solidarity L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley arrive at Tihar jail to meet Kulkarni on Sep 28

Away from all the politicking, following the turn of events closely are members of the India Rejuvenation Initiative, a group that petitioned the Supreme Court following shoddy investigation into the cash-for-votes scam and the Wikileaks cable. It comprises eminent personalities like former chief justice of India R.C. Lahoti, former CEC J.M Lyngdoh and former comptroller and auditor-general V.K. Shunglu. Asked how he saw developments so far, Lyngdoh told Outlook, “The case has progressed more or less true to type. The investigation has not brought out something new, has it?”

Jasvir Singh, an IPS officer and a founding member of IRI, says the group might plead for the appointment of an autonomous special investigation team monitored by the court, like in the one set up by the SC in the case of black money stashed away in Swiss banks. Given the tardy and lopsided progress in the case, they cannot but profess “lack of faith” in the few “handpicked” officers of Delhi police investigating it, he says. According to him, there is “enough visual evidence” to convict the real offenders, who, the group feels, are being shielded deliberately. “It’s evident the chargesheet has failed to make the simple distinction between bribe and entrapment. It’s only the small fry who’ve been touched, not the real beneficiaries,” he adds. “A lot of crucial evidence, including call detail records of some of the bigger names featuring in the case, were not collected in time. They appear to have been destroyed by strong vested interests.”

The way things have progressed so far in this case, many wonder if there is any hope even for an independent investigating agency. The question of who will ‘police the police’ in high-profile cases like this, where the government itself can be a party, is still up in the air.

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