With Supreme Court's stand on ED, corrupt politicians now a bundle of nerves
Calling laundering of money worse than committing terrorism, the Supreme Court sent a loud and clear message - you cannot fill your coffers by plundering public money and roam around freely as upholders of the Constitution.
In 75 years since independence, what remains unchanged is our dalliance with corruption. The Congress, in more than 54 years of its government at the Centre, institutionalized it. Indira Gandhi justified it claiming that it was an international phenomenon and Indians must accept it as a reality. Most politicians, businessmen, professionals, officials, criminals, journalists and their associates have not since looked back regardless of adverse impact their loot have had on our defense preparedness, economic development and health, education, communication, agriculture and transportation sectors. No wonder, India ranks today 86 among 180 countries in the corruption index.
The state and central governments did create institutions like anti-corruption bureau, vigilance commission, economic offence wings, Lokayukta etc. to combat corruption but they functioned like lame ducks. Their energy went in catching small time thieves. The bigger sharks remained untouched. CBI could have targeted them but it needed either direction from higher courts or permission from state and central governments to investigate and prosecute the accused. The chief ministers who were themselves under scanner, were obviously reluctant to give consent. That left only the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to take on corruption headlong. That's the reason it evokes maximum anger, ridicule and admiration, depending on who is reacting.
Starting as Enforcement Unit under Ministry of Economic Affairs in 1956 to handle violation of Exchange Control Law, ED under PM Modi has emerged as as a formidable weapon to enforce Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) and Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). Since no one can acquire or legitimize huge amount of corrupt money without violating one or the other Act or both, ED's role in handling cases of corruption has become critical. The ambit of offences under PMLA has been expanded to include acquiring, possessing and enjoying proceeds of crime derived from any criminal activity directly or indirectly and made cognizable and non-bailable. For investigating them, ED does not require prior permission from central or state governments to summon, arrest and prosecute suspects. It has also been prevented from closing cases without trial court's consent, lest politicians pressurize it to withdraw them. Finally, unlike in other criminal cases, the burden of proof that he is not guilty lies now with the accused and not the prosecution.
To politicians, mainly from the opposition parties, businessmen, their surrogate columnists, activists and lawyers, these powers appear draconian and unconstitutional. The reason is, ED in the last 8 years, have conducted 3014 raids and seized 99,000 crore worth of assets in 192 cases. Those at the receiving end are leaders from the Congress, TMC, NCP, Shiv Sena, RJD, AAP, SP, JMM, National Conference and CPM, to name only a few. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi head the list. It is natural that Congressmen who are not used to witnessing their royalty being questioned in the ED office would organize violent protests and Bandhs to boost their morale. The aging DK Shiv Kumar, chief minister-aspirant of Karnataka, could not resist from scaling over the police barricade to show the depth of his anger. The reaction from former Karnataka Congress speaker, K R Ramesh revealed the loyalists' mindset succinctly. He said, "we amassed enough wealth in the name of Nehru, Indira and Sonia to last for three, four of our generations. If we don't stand by her now, there will be worms in our meal." Many more of the corrupt lot are waiting to be caught, with prime minister declaring war on corruption in the recent Independence Day speech.
BJP is also accused of using ED to punish, subdue and shame its political opponents. Instead of cribbing, the accused should wait for trial to be over and work hard to wrest power from PM Modi. Theatrics like demonstrations will not scare ED from questioning them or withdrawing cases against them. Their desperate entreaties to the Supreme Court to scrap PMLA or moderate ED's powers have rightly fallen on deaf ears. Calling laundering of money worse than committing terrorism, justices sent a loud and clear message - you cannot fill your coffers by plundering public money and roam around freely as upholders of the Constitution.
(Amar Bhushan worked with the Research and Analysis Wing for 24 years after briefly serving in the BSF intelligence, State Special Branch and Intelligence Bureau. He served as the Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat before he retired in 2005.)
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