New Delhi: The “long arm” of law has so far not been able to catch up with the influential legal eagle and Congress bigwig Palaniappan Chidambaram of Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu. Ever since the cat-and-mouse game began between P. Chidambaram, who was the Finance Minister in the previous Manmohan Singh government, and various law-enforcing agencies of the country like Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Congress veteran has outsmarted investigators and remained a step ahead of them. The agencies have thus far failed to get custody of this very powerful politician who is tipped for even the Prime Minister’s chair if the Congress Party gets enough Lok Sabha seats.
Not that the agencies are falling short of any intent, sincerity or competence, but Chidambaram has managed to escape the clutches of law by a whisker every time the sleuths are about to lay a hand on him. This has triggered speculation that someone in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy is protecting the Chidambaram family and sabotaging the agencies at the last minute. However, this remains a conjecture.
There is also a major flaw in the strategies being adopted by the investigating agencies for pinning down the Chidambarams. They are only focusing on two cases—Aircel-Maxis and INX Media—where the accused are facing trial in court. The agencies are not simultaneously digging into a host of other cases the Chidambaram family is involved in. Political observers are baffled over who is stopping the agencies from going full throttle against the Chidambarams by investigating the numerous other activities of the father-son duo.
LIST OF OFFENCES
Let us examine the status of each of the cases pending against the Chidambarams:
- AIRCEL-MAXIS CASE: It is basically an offshoot of the 2G spectrum scam. The CBI first examined Chidambaram in December 2014 in connection with the case. He is alleged to have played the key role as Finance Minister in giving Malaysian company Maxis the approval of Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) to acquire 74% stake in Aircel. The deal was worth over Rs 3,500 crore and hence it should have been referred to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) as he had authority to clear FDI approvals only up to Rs 600 crore. According to the charge-sheet, Maxis has paid huge sums to his son Karti for the job through a company and a sports body controlled by him.
The charge-sheet has also named five senior bureaucrats as co-accused in the case. Three of them are retired now—Ashok Chawla was Additional Secretary in the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) when the FIPB approval was given, Ashok Jha was its Secretary, and Ram Saran an Under-Secretary. Presently, Chawla is the chairman of National Stock Exchange. The two incumbent IAS officers are Kumar Sanjay Krishna of the Assam cadre, then Joint Secretary in the department, and Deepak Kumar Singh of the Bihar cadre, then its Director. These bureaucrats are accused of going out of the way in clearing the Aircel-Maxis deal. Thus far, permission has not been received for their prosecution, in the absence of which Chidamabaram may walk free.
The father-son duo has availed anticipatory bail in this case while the agencies are seeking their custody for interrogation. They may also be investigated in certain other cases arising out of the probe. The ED has sent references about at least two other companies to CBI, which allegedly received FIPB approvals from Chidambaram around the time they made payments to companies associated with Karti. Neither case has been followed up. Instead, the ED’s investigating officer has himself been slapped with an inquiry.
- INX MEDIA CASE: In this case, the ED has said that following investigations, it was revealed that INX Media owners Peter and Indrani Mukerjea had met Chidambaram to clear the loopholes in their FIPB approval worth more than Rs 305 crore. It alleges that Karti facilitated foreign investment approvals for the television company and was paid kickbacks for it. Corroborating the charges, Indrani has told in her statement to CBI that when she approached the then Finance Minister, he had directed her to his son. During searches too, agencies found documents that showed Karti’s companies did have a role in the FIPB approval.
However, this case too is hanging fire as only a first information report (FIR) has been filed, but a charge-sheet is yet to come. While Chidambaram has availed an anticipatory bail, Karti is out on bail now after being behind the bars for 25 days. The CBI had arrested Karti at the Chennai airport upon his return from London on 28 February this year. ED has so far attached Karti’s properties in India, Spain and the UK worth Rs 55 crore, whose market value must be around Rs 300 crore.
3&4. The father-son duo is facing two cases each—one each from CBI and ED, so the number of cases they are facing is four. While the Ministry of Finance has not yet given the agencies the mandatory sanction needed to prosecute them, the court hearing these cases has given bail to them time and again because it is not convinced of the government’s case. The court is empowered to send the duo to the agencies’ custody and eventually to judicial custody if the charges are better proven. The agencies are waiting for what happens when one of the cases come up for next hearing on 11 January, by which time sanction for the prosecution of the five officers linked to the Chidambarams is essential for the case to succeed.
OTHER MAJOR CASES
When these four cases have got all the attention, many other serious charges against the Chidambaram family are not being looked into at all. Here is a lowdown on such cases.
- ISHRAT JAHAN CASE: This is an astonishing case that illustrates how people sitting in high positions misuse their power to implicate their political rivals in false cases even if it means endangering the country’s security and sovereignty. As it has turned out, Chidambaram is claimed by some officers to be personally involved in drafting the affidavit filed by the government in the case when he was the Home Minister.
He submitted two different affidavits, the first one truthfully claiming that Ishrat was a Laskhar-e-Tayyaba terrorist, who was on a mission to eliminate Narendra Modi when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. However, within weeks, another affidavit was filed with the references of her being a terrorist omitted. The matter came to light when Pakistani-American double agent David Coleman Headley spilled the beans while being interrogated by US security agencies.
Instead of commending the Gujarat Police, the Congress government engineered a case of false encounter and tried to give Ishrat “martyr” status, with the aim to trap Modi and then Gujarat Home Minister Amit Shah, to please the political bosses at 10 Janpath. However, after a committee headed by an Additional Secretary-level officer found the role of Chidambaram in the matter, the Home Ministry filed an FIR with Delhi Police. Strangely, however, the case has since made no headway as it has been put on the backburner and Chidambaram is still not being held to account for this.
- 80:20 GOLD IMPORT SCHEME: Chidambaram as Finance Minister had introduced this scheme in August 2013 most likely under pressure from jewellers. Liberalising norms, private agencies were allowed to import gold under the scheme that mandated traders to export 20% of all gold imported while retaining 80% for domestic use.
It hugely benefited diamond traders like Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksi, but caused revenue loss to the exchequer of around Rs 1.3 lakh crore. Interestingly, the scheme came into effect on 16 May 2014, the day the results of the parliamentary elections were declared, and then RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan gave it the green signal on 22 May when there was virtually no government in power and Modi was to take oath as PM just after four days. But this case too is in cold storage despite the huge loss to the exchequer as a consequence of the policy decision.
- AIRCRAFT PURCHASE: Chidambaram’s role in the controversial purchase of aircraft for Air India and erstwhile Indian Airlines too has come under question. The Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) headed by Chidambaram had approved all the purchases that led to charges of kickbacks. Every purchase of aircraft and allied equipment Boeing and Airbus was approved by him as Finance Minister Chidambaram. But no action has been taken to probe the allegations so far.
- HOTEL GRABBING CASE: The CBI has registered a preliminary enquiry (PE) against Nalini and her younger sister Padmini for grabbing a hotel in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, in connivance with Indian Overseas Bank (IOB) officials, acting on a complaint filed by the hotel owner, Dr Kathirvel. Though he had paid Rs 65 lakh as loan instalment, the bank officials declared it as a non-performing asset (NPA) under pressure from Chidambaram family and put it on auction.
The hotel worth around Rs 10 crore was then handed over to Padmini for a paltry sum of Rs 4.25 lakh. The case is now pending in Delhi High Court and Kathirvel has produced an audio tape wherein it is alleged that Nalini Chidambaram is heard threatening him to accept Rs 2 crore to settle the matter and withdraw from the scene. The complainant has accused the CBI of deliberately delaying the probe under pressure. Meanwhile, Padmini has passed away, while her son-in-law was found murdered in mysterious circumstances. No investigation into these events has taken place, for reasons that are unclear. It must be added that those close to Nalini Chidambaram refute any charge of wrongdoing.
- BLACK MONEY CASE: The Income Tax Department had filed four charge-sheets against Nalini, Karti and his wife Srinidhi under the Black Money (Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets) and Imposition of Tax Act for allegedly not disclosing their foreign assets. The law was brought by the Modi government in 2015 as part of its drive against black money and to prosecute those Indians who have secretly stashed illicit wealth abroad.
The Investigation Unit of Income Tax Department’s Chennai office had submitted a 200-page report on the wealth that has been amassed by the Chidambarams, especially the huge assets owned by Karti and his companies in more than 14 countries through 21 foreign bank accounts. However, when approached by the accused, the Madras High Court quashed the criminal prosecution against them clearly because of lack of clinching evidence in the documents made available to the court.
BJP MP Subramanian Swamy made public a portion of the report more than a year ago and has also written to his own government many times about it, but all in vain. Many more cases of misuse of power and money-laundering are there against the family. But the pertinent fact is that the stars seem to be favouring the mighty family headed by P. Chidambaram, who himself has so far led a charmed existence
PRIME MINISTERIAL AMBITION
Chidambaram’s political future looks bright. Political pundits suggest that he might become the next Prime Minister of the country in case BJP performs poorly in the upcoming parliamentary elections. They say if Congress manages to fare well and garners more than 100 seats but falls short of the 150-mark, the party will not push Rahul Gandhi for prime ministership.
Sonia Gandhi would then be interested in running a remote-controlled Congress government led by one of her trusted acolytes. In such a scenario, Chidambaram could be the first choice of 10-Janpath. Another of the Gandhi family confidants, Sushil Kumar Shinde’s name is also doing the rounds, but southern allies may prefer Chidambaram if a Congress government is certain to happen sans Rahul as PM. The wily Tamil leader has done a good job for the party by winning over DMK’s M.K. Stalin in the meantime.
While Stalin, TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu and RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav are already pitching for a Congress-led government at the Centre, other ambitious regional satraps like BSP’s Mayawati, SP’s Akhilesh Yadav, TMC’s Mamata Banerjee, JDS’ H.D. Deve Gowda and BJD’s Naveen Patnaik will fall in line if the seat situation so warrants. So, Chidambaram is looking at a situation wherein he can be anointed as the common prime ministerial candidate, and once he manages to occupy the high post, whatever cases there still are, which are anyway limping along rather than being vigorously prosecuted, could be made irrelevant.
It is clear that Chidambaram is a formidable opponent for the agencies, with his network of contacts and his mastery of the law. Eventually it may all be a case of “much ado about nothing” in a situation where those close to Chidambaram, Nalini and Karthi aver that they are spotless in obeying the law.