March 11, 2023
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
The Central Bureau of Investigation recently arrested Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia in connection with alleged liquor licence irregularities. The arrest was widely seen as the Bharatiya Janata Party Central Government targeting AAP because of its dominance in Delhi at the Assembly and municipal levels. The BJP has been consistently routed in the state despite its best efforts. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan tweeted: “The arrest of Manish Sisodia by CBI is another example of how BJP misuses the Union Government’s agencies to intimidate the opposition. It’s a blatant abuse of power and an attack on democracy. Such repression undermines the very foundation of our nation and should be resisted.” This is not an isolated opinion. The misuse of Central agencies like the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate against political opponents and critics has become a source of great concern and is a direct threat to our freedoms.
Vijayan followed up his tweet with a statement in which he said: “Suppressing voices of dissent is the character of the Sangha Parivar. Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia’s arrest is the latest chapter in such efforts. They are using central investigative agencies, including the CBI, to trouble the states ruled by Opposition parties.” He added: “Destabilising state government means making democracy itself irrelevant.”
He went on to say: “Dissatisfaction is rising nationwide against the Central Government’s inability to solve problems, including economic crisis and unemployment. Terrible methods are relied upon to divert attention from that popular anger. Sisodia’s arrest has to be considered such a ruse.”
The misuse of investigative agencies has been the subject of media debate too.
The Central Government seems to want to also infringe on states’ rights on the law and order front – which is a state subject. There is talk of shifting the police system to the Concurrent List in the Constitution and the National Investigation Agency is being given an office in each state.
Let’s look at the CBI first. In 2013, Supreme Court Justice RM Lodha described it as a “caged parrot” that speaks in “its master’s voice”. It’s even more true today.
It is India’s oldest investigative agency and formed from the Special Police Establishment set up in 1941 to investigate corruption in the War and Supply Department during World War II. It was revamped through the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act (1946) and given statutory status.
Its mandate was further extended in 1963 to probe violation of Central fiscal laws, major crimes, police research, special studies, and so on.
As states get more powerful, and the BJP targets those not ruled by it, many have chosen to withdraw general consent for the CBI, which is needed for it to investigate cases within states’ jurisdiction. Among the states that have withdrawn general consent are Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Kerala, Mizoram, Punjab, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Meghalaya and Telangana.
In 2016, the office of Delhi’s Principal Secretary Rajendra Kumar and Cabinet minister Satyendar Jain were raided. The CBI questioned Sisodia next. It went on to arrest Gopal Krishna Madhya, an officer on special duty in Sisodia’s office, for supposed corruption related to GST irregularities. The timing is crucial: it came just before the 2020 Delhi Assembly polls. The BJP lost the election anyway.
Former finance minister P Chidambaram and his son Karti were targeted for alleged irregularities in foreign direct investment worth Rs 305 crore into the INX media company. The CBI raided properties belonging to them in Chennai in May and June 2017. In October 2019, the CBI raided 14 residential properties owned by the Chidambarams in different cities.
The CBI also probed NDTV, which has been viewed as critical of the BJP, and its then owners Prannoy and Radhika Roy. They were accused of making investments through shell companies in 2017 and a case was lodged in 2019 for alleged foreign direct investment violations. They were even stopped from flying abroad.
Any number of Opposition leaders have been targeted by the CBI. There have been more than 100 probes against them since the Narendra Modi-led government came to power, even as accusations against BJP leaders and their allies are ignored.
The Enforcement Directorate, or ED, has played a strong supporting role. It has often been alleged that it’s used to intimidate MLAs to engineer defections and to keep the Opposition in check.
In fact, when the BJP engineered a split in the Shiv Sena to bring down the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government, “ED is the new CBI” was the refrain.
The agency is meant to look into suspicious financial deals. However, after the NDA came to power, of the 121 political leaders it has probed, 115 are from the Opposition.
What’s curious is that cases against most of those who left their parties and joined the BJP were dropped or went nowhere. These leaders include Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy of the Trinamool Congress.
It’s clear that the targeting of the Opposition through Central agencies has reached a new level.
I doubt such action even surprises us anymore. The government, of course, denies it and spouts cliches like ‘the law will take its own course’.
Such actions were there even before the Modi government came to power, so what’s changed since then? What’s changed is the sheer frequency and volume. You could call it ‘enforcement by raids’. The number of political cases and raids have risen manifold. The number of ED searches have increased 27 times. It’s a system of control.
It’s not just political opponents; all forms of critics have been in the sights. For instance, fact-checking website Alt News’ co-founder Mohammed Zubair was jailed before being released by the Supreme Court. The Bhaskar media group was raided by the I-T department after it criticised the government’s handling of COVID-19. NGOs have had their foreign funding blocked and even academicians have been arrested.
In the meantime, there is no probe into the Rafale aircraft purchase or the mid-day meal scam in Madhya Pradesh.
What I find disturbing is that the judiciary has done nothing about this. It has the power to ensure that agencies are impartial and not misused but the courts have chosen to do very little. This has led to a legal lattice that emboldens the government to go after its opponents. By failing to act, the courts have failed India.
Such misuse of agencies suppresses political and fundamental freedoms. It destroys the foundation of our democracy by imposing a cost on speaking out and exercising our rights. After all, you can’t call yourself a democracy if you don’t allow dissent and debate.
These agency actions are detrimental to good governance. They provide immunity to those in power and their supporters, thus freeing them from delivering on their promises. The Opposition can’t do its job because it is too busy fighting off the investigative actions. So, what you have is unfettered corruption that is neither revealed nor acted against.
The weaponisation of Central agencies keeps the news favourable and the opponents neutralised. But, it ultimately leads to the creation of quasi police state – one in which our legal safeguards have either weakened or disappeared, thus laying the foundation of rule by fear. It’s not good for our democracy and is one of the many things that will, in the end, destroy it.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in 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 email@example.com. Catch you again soon.