Swept under the Carpet
On January 11 this year, a Supreme Court bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Amitava Roy dismissed the public interest litigation by Common Cause that demanded the constitution of a Special Investigating Team (SIT) to look into what is now known as ‘Birla-Sahara papers’. These papers contain an assorted set of spreadsheets, emails, diaries and notebooks that provide detailed accounts of the payments made to people holding public offices. This is perhaps the first case in which allegations of kickbacks have been made against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It were these Birla- Sahara papers that were used by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to make allegations of corruption from the floor of the Delhi Assembly against the PM. Rahul Gandhi’s veiled threat of unleashing a proverbial political earthquake if he opened his mouth was also linked to the same Birla-Sahara papers. The Congress Vice-President eventually delivered a monologue on these papers, but the matter did not get the necessary traction. Perhaps, both these leaders as well as the litigants and their lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, were expecting the Court to be pro-active in ordering a SIT probe into these damaging allegations against many politicians. To their utter dismay the SC was no longer sympathetic towards the PIL that made allegations against people in high places. The response of the SC to this issue was in stark contrast to the time when it oversaw the investigation into the black money scandal that I unearthed way back in 1991. The scam involved surreptitious bribes to politicians that also included the former President, Prime Minister and scores of ministers and bureaucrats. The details of pay-offs were made in a diary that was seized during a raid at a farm house of a hawala dealer. Famously known as the ‘Jain Hawala scandal’, the prime evidence in the scandal that saw politicians like L K Advani, Yashwant Sinha, Moti Lal Vohra and Narain Dutt Tewari besides many more coming to grief was a diary that contained initials of these individuals with some numbers written against them. When the diary surfaced during the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, the Central Bureau of Investigation ( CBI) after ascertaining that there was no mention of the then Prime Minister Chandrashekhar, quickly hid it in the agency’s godown or maal khana. The existence of the diary was made known to me and I managed to find the officer who was investigating the case and was later eased out of it on charges of corruption. It was a big story that my earlier publication, Blitz, carried it on its cover. Nothing really happened for a while except that a senior SC lawyer kept calling me up and telling me that an expose like the ‘ Jain Hawala scandal’ could destabilise the country. Coincidentally, even the earlier bench of Justice Khehar and Justice Mishra had expressed fears about such a calamity occuring if the probe was allowed.
My reportage in Blitz became a reason for a PIL that was supported by late socialist leader Madhu Limaye amongst many others. Justice J S Verma oversaw the investigation through an in-camera hearing of the CBI Director, ED Director and Revenue Secretary of GOI. Many questioned the SC tactic of resorting to in-camera hearings and undermining the freedom of the trial court, but the fact is that the probe indeed impaired the Congress and brought the issue of corruption to the fore in the national discourse.
Even a cursory reading of the Birla- Sahara papers will show that they are not something that can be taken lightly. Quite like the ‘Jain Hawala scandal’, the cache of documents were found after a raid at Birla premises where Rs. 25 crore unaccounted cash was discovered. The CBI raid was again an outcome of the SC guided probe into the coal block allotment scam. The spreadsheet had dates and also the names that were handed out under-the-table payments. Another raid by the Income Tax department at a Sahara office led to discovery of printouts with details of pay-offs to the PM amongst many others. The pay-offs were made in 2013-14, but the IT department did not refer the diary to the CBI. Sahara tried to show that the details in the printout were forged; this was denied with the department, but after some clever foot work and manipulation Sahara’s case was disposed-off speedily by the election commission.
Like it happened in the Jain Hawala case, where the seized documents were not treated as books of account and the matter thrown out after a perfunctory examination, the Birla Sahara papers have also met a similar fate. What has not been kept in mind by the SC is that all the accounts are maintained by Tally and there is also cloud-based databases that can be looked into. The SC’s order will change the way bribery is treated in the future by law enforcers.