The Supreme Court's intervention asking re-investigation of the Cash for Vote scam is a welcome move.
That the UPA government, under the helmsmanship of “clean” ex-bureaucrat Manmohan Singh, is among the most corrupt governments ever in the history of India is an uncontested fact. The Congress party which leads the UPA coalition has tried to spin this fact around suggesting that it has been the most responsive government to allegations of corruption considering the sheer number of resignations and trials of ministers and bureaucrats accused of malfeasance. Yet a quick perusal of the process of trials would reveal the role of the Supreme Court and the higher judiciary in forcing the hand of the Congress to constitute steps for procedural justice – a consequence of public pressure and judicial activism rather than any sudden discovery of political morality by the ruling coalition.
The same story is being played out in the recent spurt in investigations in the “Cash-For-Votes-Scam” of 2008. An overview of the nearly forgotten mega-scam that shamed Parliament is in order before one comments on the present stage of the “investigations”. On July 22nd, 2008, three parliamentarians belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party – Faggan Singh Kulaste, Ashok Argal and Mahavir Bhagora showed wads of cash while on the floor of the Parliament even as the debate on a trust vote for the government in light of the Indo-US nuclear deal was on. The legislators had alleged that they were paid these bundles of cash in lieu of support for the government in the trust vote. And that the Samajwadi Party (which had since then pledged support to the government and had taken a volte-face in their positions on the nuclear deal) general secretary Amar Singh was the person who had been paying them.
The legislators had expected to create a even greater furore because they thought they had incontrovertible proof of the payoffs being made – they had enlisted the help of the CNN-IBN channel in taping the receipt of cash paid out to them. Instead, the channel did not play the video that they had obtained – in fact they had only telecasted the proceedings days after public outcry over the issue and after the Speaker of the Lok Sabha had ordered the constitution of a parliamentary committee to examine the claims of bribes paid out to the legislators.
The committee's investigations were clearly a sham, as this editorial in the Economic and Political Weekly pointed out and the prima facie evidence was interpreted in a manner that established that the actual culprits were small time operators who played the role of couriers and middlemen. And all the “prime” names in the scam – were let go scot free based on dubious interpretations of the evidence and on the basis of technicalities. The final call by the Speaker for the Home ministry to investigate the matter further seems to have never been heeded and the matter came up again in public debate after the Wikileaks revelations of US diplomatic cables in The Hindu newspaper that provided more prima facie evidence of cash payouts by Congress party hangers-on. A cable reports that a diplomatic attache in the US embassy was told about and shown chests of cash used as payouts and bribes by Nachiketa Kapur, an aide to Congressman Satish Sharma. No further investigations have been taken up on this matter as well.
Thankfully after a PIL was filed by ex-election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh, the Supreme Court has put in some wheels into the investigation and some of the figures involved in the original scam – Sanjeev Saxena for e.g. who was an associate of Amar Singh and who was seen on camera handing out the cash – have been arrested.
In the parliamentary committee itself, the conclusions were questioned by opposition legislators Mohammad Salim of the CPI(M) and Vijay Malhotra of the BJP. Both appended dissent notes to the investigation report (details are provided below) pointing out inconsistencies and deep flaws in the manner the investigation was done, how prima facie evidence was ignored and procedures were avoided to get at the truth. Salim's dissent note was also dubiously altered by the committee chairman Kishore Chandra Deo "under the provisions of Direction 91(1) of the Directions by the Speaker". Other protagonists in the sting operation that highlighted the scam, such as one of the “organisers of the sting operation”, Sudheendra Kulkarni also alleged that the full extent of the video scenes that provided even more incriminating evidence had not been submitted by CNN-IBN.
Inconsistencies in the KP Singh Deo Committee Report
One of the alleged protagonists in the whole scam – Amar Singh did not even depose in front of the committee. This was not done based on a technicality that Amar Singh was a member of the Rajya Sabha. No action was recommended for the Rajya Sabha to do the needful on the investigations based on the prima facie evidence that was available. In essence, Amar Singh was left to go scot free.
Similar is the case with allegations against Rajya Sabha member of the Congress – Ahmad Patel.
The driver of the car which escorted the BJP legislators to Amar Singh's residence was never interrogated.
Enough attention was not paid to the call detail records that provided a clear trail of evidence against Sanjeev Saxena and established links with Amar Singh.
Investigations into the cash trail – based on tracing withdrawals of high amounts of money, already possible to be tracked because of the Banking Transaction Tax mechanism – were never done.
Paragraph after Paragraph in the report considering evidence against SP legislator Reoti Raman Singh for example - who is quite clearly caught red handed suggesting the switch of sides to the BJP legislators in lieu of an “amount”- is framed in a manner that tries to circle around the job of finding the truth and instead establish counter-possibilities. Attempts seem to be made to hide clear interpretations of what seems to have transpired.
Finally, based on the shoddy investigation done, the recommendations for further investigations were reduced to bit players and the scope of the investigation was limited.
When one looks back at the 22nd July 2008 trust vote, it clearly marks a sorry chapter in the history of India's parliamentary democracy. Just on the basis of individual party positions on the nuclear deal, one would have concluded that the majority of the parliament were opposed to the deal and therefore had lost trust over the then UPA government. Yet, boosted by a spree of cross-voting and defections from opposition parties – and clearly by the use of various incentives – ministerial berths for some, pure cash for others, help in getting tickets lost out because of delimitation and so on, the UPA managed a dubious victory. And a Pyrrhic one, for as one commentator in The Hindu says, this enabled a permissibility to corruption, malfeasance and misgovernance of an order that was not evident before, plunging the polity and institutions of Parliament to outright public ridicule and loss of confidence.