Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad knows Delhi and its workings well, so it was a surprise when he asserted that the Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up on 27 May by the Narendra Modi government will ensure that the menace of unaccounted money gets exterminated. The Supreme Court has followed past precedence in reserving the two top slots on the SIT for retired judges, the pool of individuals that the Bench knows best, and in whom judges have the fullest confidence in. The head of every investigative agency of consequence in the government has been empanelled in the new SIT, which will no doubt have an impressive office as well as a truckload of staff in order to enable members to do their work. While retired judges of the Supreme Court of India are blessed with a cornucopia of diverse talents, specialised knowledge of financial fraud as well as familiarity with fiduciary sleuthing are not usually among them.As for the senior officials who will be ex-officio members, each of them will have a full plate of routine duties to attend to, even if they each be untainted themselves by corruption or by the “Chalta Hai” spirit towards corruption, which has marked governance in India since the 1950s. This columnist is among those who believe that the SIT created as a consequence of the Supreme Court order will go the way of countless commissions, labouring mightily but producing little in the way of sending the principal perpetrators of frauds to prison or recovering their illegal assets.
Prime Minister Modi secured a mandate from more than 40% of the electorate, if we include the votes polled by all those candidates who publicly backed his bid for the top slot in South Block. This was because of the confidence that he would deliver results on the economic front, such as sharply reducing price rise and graft, as well as boosting employment totals. The SIT that has been created to tackle the gargantuan problem of black money in India, not to mention the trillion-plus dollars in illegal accounts held abroad by Indian nationals and their close relatives, is likely to come up with disappointing findings in a few years’ time, so that critics of Mr Modi can argue that he is not serious about confronting the problem of unaccounted money. At least a few very big fish need to get snared in the accountability net before 2019 for Prime Minister Modi to show that, unlike his predecessors, he is sincere about ending corruption.
While the Congress may not be overly anxious to unearth those who have accumulated huge cash hoards in India and abroad over the years, the Aam Aadmi Party is unlikely to be as unforgiving. From the start, Arvind Kejriwal and his most impressive associate, Prashant Bhushan, can be expected to focus on perceived ethical weaknesses in Team Modi. Apart from the expected AAP attack, it needs to be remembered that the new Prime Minister represents a complete break from a Nehruvian system that has ensured the comparative stagnation of this country since 1947. It is, therefore, a given that the hordes in high positions who have been the beneficiaries of the Nehru system will do their utmost openly or covertly to ensure his disgrace and downfall. Narendra Modi cannot afford to rely overmuch on the advice of the Delhi Durbar on staff selection and policy formulation, for he and his style of governance — the Modi Model — is the very antithesis of the Durbar system. Indeed, this contrast with the Nehruvian system is what is responsible for his immense popularity within the 99% of citizens who are outside the shoddy system of patronage nourished and maintained over the decades by successive governments.
Now that Arvind Kejriwal has been singed by a dart thrown from the quiver of Senior Minister Nitin Gadkari, it is likely that several return darts will get fired at him and at other prominent members of Team Modi in the coming months, especially should (as those opposed to Mr Modi hope) prices continue to gallop and the economy keeps sputtering due to high taxes and interest rates by a newly-emboldened (after his meeting with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley) RBI governor.
A single SIT headed by two retired judges, no matter the eminence of the personages included in it, cannot by itself be expected to succeed in unearthing large caches of black money. The Shah SIT must be supplemented by other SITs, each headed by eminent persons with a proven public record of fighting against graft.
These SITs should be tasked with looking into allegations against specific individuals, and should have the power to ensure that all relevant agencies assist them in such a task. Subramanian Swamy and Ram Jethmalani have repeatedly made allegations against both Sonia Gandhi as well as Palanipappan Chidambaram. They should now be given the chance of proving these charges. Prime Minister Modi is known to be decisive. Hence he should constitute a Cabinet-level SIT headed by Subramanian Swamy to investigate allegations against Sonia Gandhi, while another of equal status headed by Ram Jethmalani should zero in on Palaniappan Chidambaram. Rather than the blunderbuss approach that the just-constituted Shah SIT will follow, there needs to be a targeting of specific individuals, and the time to start is now, by setting up the Swamy and Jethmalani SITs to supplement the work being done under Justices M.B. Shah and Arijit Pasayat.