Delhi’s landmarks are changing. And it is not just the Rs. 20,000 crore Central Vista Redevelopment Project, which is fast altering the face of the national capital.
These days, the Gandhis for example, are more visible at APJ Abdul Kalam road, headquarters of the Enforcement Directorate, rather than 10 Janpath, an address associated with Sonia Gandhi and the Congress.
The residence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, 10 Janpath was once the epicentre of activity and strategy, when the United Progressive Alliance government was in power. Gandhi, now an interim head of a party whose political fortunes appear to be floundering, was the alliance’s guardian angel for nearly 10 years.
Over the last few weeks, the Gandhis, Sonia, Rahul, have been regularly summoned to the ED headquarters over a case filed under the Prevention of
Money Laundering Act (PMLA), in connection with alleged financial irregularities related to a company Young Indians Private Limited, that owns the newspaper, National Herald. Among several other Congress leaders, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are directors in the company.
Rahul Gandhi has so far been summoned five times by the enforcement agency, Sonia Gandhi has been summoned thrice. Each time, the duo have been questioned for hours at a stretch, with the interrogation sometimes spilling over after a lunch break.
On Tuesday, Rahul Gandhi and other Congress MPs were detained by the police while staging a protest march from Parliament to Vijay chowk to protest against the ED’s decision to summon his mother and Congress’ interim chief for questioning.
“Congress MPs were released after a seven-hour detention at around 6:45 pm to the news that Smt. Sonia Gandhi has been summoned by the ED for a 3rd day tomorrow. This is Vishguru's political vendetta with a vengeance. Atrocious is the mildest word to describe it!” Congress leader Jairam Ramesh tweeted.
For the Gandhis, respite from the Enforcement Directorate doesn’t appear likely for now, just like leaders and heads of other opposition parties in the country, who have accused the central agency being subverted to the role of preferred political battering ram by the ruling dispensation.
When Maharashtra’s new government headed by Chief Minister Eknath Shinde was sworn-in on June 30, chairman of the All India Congress Committee’s (AICC) media and publicity department Pawan Khera tweeted: “Introducing the new ED Sarkar. #Maharashtra”. A photo-graphic suggested that the abbreviation ED referred to Eknath and Devendra, after Shinde and his deputy, senior BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis.
Khera need not be blamed for linking an ED trail to the fall of the Maharashtra alliance government comprising Shiv Sena, Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party.
Much before some rebel Shiv Sena leaders slipped out to Gujarat and then to Guwahati, several lawmakers – from both Shinde and Uddhav Thackeray camps -- were already on the radar of the enforcement agency.
Anil Parab, a Thackeray loyalist, for example had been raided by the ED in connection with an PMLA case. Pratap Sarnaik, a rebel MLA also faces an ED probe linked to a Rs. 175 crore money laundering complaint. Other Sena lawmakers who are being probed by the ED include Yashwant Jadhav, Arjunrao Khotkar and Bhawna Gawali.
Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, who has been heckled by rebel party leaders for his outspokenness, has also been issued summons in connection with an alleged PMLA case linked to a property in Alibaug in coastal Maharashtra. Former Maha Vikas Aghadi government Ministers Anil Deshmukh and Nawab Malik are already behind bars in connection with PMLA cases filed by the ED.
ED trail Elsewhere
It is not just Maharashtra, where an ED infestation in opposition camps has led to political upheaval.
Aam Aadmi Party’s Delhi Health Minister Satyendra Jain is currently behind bars in connection with a money laundering case. Former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and his son Karti have been booked and arrested by the central agency for alleged money laundering.
Sonia Gandhi’s key aide and former Rajya Sabha MP late Ahmed Patel was also being probed by the ED in a money laundering case.
Beyond the borders of the national capital, in Haryana, former Congress chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda has been booked in connection with an alleged money laundering case linked to a real estate deal in Gurugram.
Former Goa chief ministers of Goa Digambar Kamat and Churchill Alemao have also been booked by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with an alleged bribery scam related to an international consultancy firm. Kamat, a Congress MLA, was linked with a move to the BJP earlier this month.
Karnataka Congress president DK Shivkumar was arrested by the ED in 2019 in an alleged money laundering case. A former Chief Minister of the state HD Kumaraswamy of the Janata Das (Secular) claimed in 2018 that the ED was being used to stop him from forming a government in the Southern state with the Congress.
“An ED official called me and said they are going to file a case against you about property that you hold in Malaysia if you go with them. The Centre is capable of creating documents in this direction also. This is the first time in 70 years a that Centre is using Income Tax and ED in this fashion,” Kumaraswamy told the Karnataka state assembly then.
In Tamil Nadu, Anitha R. Radhakrishnan Fisheries minister in the DMK-Congress alliance government had also been booked under PMLA for alleged money laundering, even as the Madras High Court for now has stayed the proceedings.
Earlier this month, former Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac was also issued notice by the ED for alleged financial violations in the dealings of the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board, when Isaac was a Finance Minister.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinayari Vijayan is also in the ED’s radar in an alleged gold smuggling case, also being probed by the agency.
In Uttar Pradesh, Samajwadi party leader Azam Khan, his wife and son have also been linked to a PMLA case. Ahead of the 2019 general elections, the Enforcement Directorate also conducted a series of raids under the PMLA act in connection with the Gomti Riverfront development project in Lucknow. The project was undertaken by a Samajwadi party-led government led former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal’s bitter political relationship with the Centre has also been defined by central agency’s actions in the Eastern state, especially ahead of the 2021 assembly elections, which witnessed a spate of cases filed against TMC leaders. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, among other TMC leaders, have also been questioned by the ED in connection with an alleged coal scam case.
Two years ago, the ED also seized properties of former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and has subsequently also questioned his son Omar in connection with an alleged money laundering case linked to the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association.
What is ED?
Founded in 1956 to keep tabs on foreign exchange-related offences, a combination of Congress and BJP-led governments at the Centre gave the Enforcement Directorate more potent fangs through the decades since. Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee-led government in 2002 passed the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, but it was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-led government that framed the legislation’s rules after the United Progressive Alliance came to power in 2004.
After a few relatively uneventful years, crackdowns on money laundering cases by the agency, which functions under the aegis of the Union Finance Ministry, picked up pace in 2019.
According to a written reply tabled in Parliament by Union Minister of State for Finance Pankaj Chaudhary, the ED had registered around 25,000 cases under the Foreign Exchange Management Act and around 4,000 cases linked to PMLA.
From 2012-13 to 2018-2019, the count of cases filed by the agency in the intervening fiscals ranged from 111 to 221 under the PMLA. The numbers however shot through the charts from 562 cases in 2019-20 to 1180 cases in 2021-22 under the same act.
The ED has been empowered by 29 laws and 160 varying sections, under which it can file complaints related to money laundering. And Indian opposition parties feel that this bouquet of “draconian laws” which the ED is empowered with, is what is doing them in.
While the ED’s powers have been described as draconian by opposition lawmakers, the latest order of Supreme Court of India, which was hearing a petition challenging the constitutional validity of some provisions of the PMLA, would be a shot in the arm for the agency.
In its order on Wednesday, the apex court has upheld nearly all the contested provisions of the PMLA related to arrests, nail, attachment of properties of accused persons, conducting searches, among others.
BJP national president JP Nadda has now taken a dig at the Congress following the SC order.
“Congress protests not 'Satyagrah', but an attempt to hide the truth. They are protesting to protect a family, not the country. Gandhis required to answer the investigation agencies, but they think they are above the law,” Nadda said.
Such is the confidence in the BJP’s state and central leadership in the political impact of the ED’s powers, that state Bharatiya Janata Party president Bandi Sanjay Kumar from Telangana on July 22 this year, warned Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao, head of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi that he would be probed by the central agency soon. Rao’s son, KT Rama Rao responded to the retort by questioning why ED was not in a position to book cases against BJP leaders.
TN Chief Minister MK Stalin last month also slammed the BJP for using ED against opposition leaders. The Congress party and the Gandhis too have received support from other opposition parties over their latest encounters with ED in connection with the National Herald case.
“The case pertains to repayment of a loan which cannot be called money laundering. It wouldn't be surprising of ED summons Nehru too in the case and pastes a notice on his memorial,” Shiv Sena spokesperson Raut said recently.
Congress and the CBI
While the Congress has accused the ruling BJP of carrying out vindictive politics and trying to stamp out the opposition, the party when in power was also accused of victimising opposition leaders. Not the ED, the CBI was the weapon of preferred choice by the Congress party then.
In an interview to The Economic Times in 2014, then serving Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation Ranjit Sinha, had said that the United Progressive Alliance government would have been very happy if Narendra Modi and Amit Shah could be indicted in a fake encounter cases involving Nusrat Jahan.
“There were political expectations... The UPA government would have been very happy if we had charged Amit shah... But we went strictly by evidence and found there was no prosecutable evidence against Shah,” Sinha said in the interview. The statement was made just before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, which the UPA lost.
In the same year, former Union Finance Minister late Arun Jaitley, then in the Opposition, had also penned a blog in which he claimed that the Congress had “mastered the art of manipulating the CBI”.
“The UPA during the period 2004-2014 mastered the art of manipulating the CBI. The CBI during this period was not controlled by the government. Worse still, it was controlled by the ruling party. A pliable person was selected to become director of the CBI. The CBI as an organization is driven by the director. He has the last word,” Jaitley said.
During the BJP’s regime, however, opposition chorus as well as the sustained action against non-BJP politicians by the ED, could beg the question what makes the central agency the go-to enforcement outfit to gun political rivals.
According to veteran journalist Kajal Basu, the reason is the agency’s mandate to attach properties in course of their investigation; something that can financially impair political opponents.
“As for why the ED is the preferred tool of punition over the CBI: it's just that the ED has jurisdiction to investigate money laundering cases and attach properties, under the Prevention of Money-Laundering Act, even when there is no conviction. That makes it way more powerful an instrument than the CBI. It is ironic that the powers that the ED wields were brought into force and the PMLA implemented during the UPA,” Basu said.
With the 2024 Lok Sabha polls still some distance away, Sonia Gandhi’s scheduled visit to the ED headquarters once again on Wednesday may not signal the end of her ordeal.
And with the Supreme Court’s order on Wednesday, upholding ED’s powers to conduct arrests and seizure of property under the PMLA, the APJ Abdul Kalam road, the address of the Enforcement Directorate would be a path which many opposition politicians may well have to tread on as a rite of passage ahead of general elections.
(With inputs from Peerzada Muzamil)