How the ED became a political player

Ashraf Engineer

July 8, 2023


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

Recently, when Ajit Pawar and a large number of Nationalist Congress Party MLAs switched loyalties to join the BJP-led government in Maharashtra, many called it an Enforcement Directorate-led operation. Several of those sworn in as ministers had ED cases against them and it was speculated that it was the fear of the agency that prompted their decision. In recent years, the terror of the ED has increased manifold – especially because it is being unleashed against political opponents of the Union Government. In fact, just days ago, senior advocate Harish Salve told the Supreme Court that the ED has been given “drastic powers” in investigating money laundering cases and these powers need to be reined in. This was not in relation to a political case but the logic holds even for such matters. Salve told the court: “These are drastic powers given to the ED. If the court does not rein them in, no one is safe in this country.” So, what exactly is the ED? What powers does it have? And what makes it such a potent political weapon in the hands of the government?


The ED was founded in 1956 to fight foreign exchange-related offences. Later, both Congress and BJP-led governments, gave it more powers. The NDA government in 2002 passed the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, or PMLA, and the UPA government framed the law’s components in 2004. The ED changed colour in 2019 under the Narendra Modi government.

From 2012-13 to 2018-19, the agency filed cases in the 111 to 221 count range under PMLA. But in 2019-20 that number changed to 562 cases and 1,180 in 2021-22.

The ED acts on three major laws: the PMLA, the Foreign Exchange Management Act (1999) and the Fugitive Economic Offenders Act (2018). However, in recent times, it has focused on PMLA and this coincides with it picking up pace in 2019. That was when the government enforced various amendments to make the scope of anti-money laundering legislation wider to include properties and assets created, derived or obtained through criminal activity, even if not under PMLA. This makes anyone fair game and is perfect for targeting political rivals. No wonder that the Opposition feels the ED has been given draconian powers.

Last year, however, the Supreme Court upheld the PMLA provisions related to arrests, attachment of properties, searches, etc.

This has the Opposition on the back foot. When the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government fell and Eknath Shinde was sworn in as chief minister last year, many called it the ‘ED sarkar’. That was because many of the Shiv Sena leaders who broke away from the party to become part of the government were on the ED radar. For example, the ED had raided Uddhav Thackeray aide Anil Parab. Pratap Sarnaik, also among those who switched loyalties, faced an ED probe linked to a Rs 175-crore money laundering case. There were other leaders too.

Another Thackeray aide, Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, faced a PMLA case related to a property in Alibaug. Former state ministers Anil Deshmukh and Nawab Malik were jailed in connection with PMLA cases.

Elsewhere, the Aam Aadmi Party’s Satyendra Jain, the Delhi Health Minister, was jailed in connection with a money laundering case. Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s closest aide, the late Ahmed Patel was being investigated by the ED for, you guessed it, money laundering. As were former finance minister P Chidambaram and his son Karti.

Former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda was also booked in a money laundering case and former Goa chief ministers Digambar Kamat and Churchill Alemao were booked in a bribery case.

DK Shivkumar, who is now Karnataka deputy chief minister, was arrested by the ED in 2019 for, you guessed it again, money laundering.

Karnataka’s former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy, who leads the Janata Dal (Secular), said in 2018 that the ED was deployed to stop him from forming a government with the Congress. He said in the Assembly: “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 that the Centre is using income-tax and ED in this fashion.”

In Tamil Nadu, Fisheries Minister Anitha Radhakrishnan in the DMK-Congress alliance government was booked for, again, money laundering. Later, the Madras High Court stayed the proceedings.

And there are innumerable other instances across the country – in Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Kashmir…

So brazen is the BJP about using the ED to target rivals, the party’s Telangana chief Bandi Sanjay Kumar warned Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao that he would be probed by the agency soon.

The way the agency functions is as intimidating as the cases. The objective is to humble the person being targeted, treat them in ways they are not used to. As the accused enters the ED office, they have to state their name and other details. This applies for everyone, even those holding high office. Everything they do or say is recorded on camera. Even the answers to the questions must be hand-written and signed in view of the camera. I suppose the only courtesy is that they are offered lunch or allowed to go outside for it.

Of course, the Modi government won’t have been the first to use a central agency for political ends. The Congress’ favoured agency was the Central Bureau of Investigation.

BJP leader, the late Arun Jaitley, had said: “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.”

However, no agency has been used so frequently or with such malice as the ED has been by this government. And the ED is a more potent tool because it has the capacity to financially destroy whoever it targets by attaching properties, freezing bank accounts, etc – even when there is no conviction.

To do its job, the ED deploys high-end technology that facilitates surveillance. All communication —whether through calls, texts and even WhatsApp — is within reach.

With the Supreme Court upholding the ED’s powers and, more importantly, the 2024 general elections coming up, the ED office is likely to see many Opposition politicians dropping by. It might just become par for the course for those refusing to bow to the government.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.