The Curious Case of an Explosive Diary

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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A new column on backroom politics

Diaries, like organisers, are much sought after, usually at the end of the year. There is this curious but explosive case of a diary from yesteryears as the most potent political weapon in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s poll-bound home state of Gujarat, even as a big political battle brews at the hustings this year- end. Diary 2011, as it is known among the authorities, is likely to be the key to wresting the psychological advantage in Gujarat and thus build up a massive electoral momentum. The information it contains on I-T evasions and bribery at the highest levels in the state are considered explosive.

Diary 2011 could well be a Dussehra gift to the party leadership. It is on the basis of an FIR registered by the CBI on August 30th, 2017, and names the son- in-law of a well-known Congress leader in the state for having subverted the scrutiny of the Income Tax Department by oiling the palms of I-T officials. The diary and the FIR, likely to become the most hard-hitting weapons in the impending Assembly elections, name a close relative of the top Congress leader for having bribed I-T officials in order to ‘hush up the raids and huge money trail data’ seized from the offices of Sterling Biotech and the Sandesara Group of Companies. It is the worst-kept secret in Gujarat that brothers Nitin and Chetan Sandesara have close ties with the Congress leader from Gujarat whose proximity to party chief Sonia Gandhi is well known.

The Sandesara brothers and their company, apart from I-T officials Sunil Kumar Ojha, Dr Subhash Chandra and Manas Shankar Ray (all IRS), are prominently named in the FIR as the accused under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Page 11 of the FIR registered by the CBI’s Anti Corruption Unit in Delhi states that top I-T officers raided the premises of Sterling Biotech and the Sandesara Group of Companies in Vadodara, Mumbai and Ooty in June, 2011, and found ‘incriminating evidence of tax evasion and several diaries of political, bureaucracy and top police officials’ who received payoffs and later ‘hushed up’ the case against the companies after accepting bribes from the companies’ promoters. The FIR accuses these officers and other ‘unknown persons’ of covering up the gargantuan tax evasion this way. According to the FIR, the diary, seized from the Vadodara offices of the companies, showed entries of cash deposits amounting to Rs 75 lakh, paid to Chandra and ‘a further sum of Rs 1 crore from another person, Mr Irfan Bhai in cash, which is also mentioned and added to the total receipts.’ More entries in the six-year-old diary show ‘a further payment’ of Rs 1.75 crore under the subhead ‘Vadodara’, paid to Shokeen Properties, ostensibly to their farmhouse address in Delhi. The diary lists a sum of Rs 30 lakh as having been paid on April 2nd, 2011, to Gagan Dhawan by Chandra, to be paid to Shokeen Properties Pvt Ltd.

Diary 2011’s biggest haul could be the unearthing of an intricate network of ‘friendly’ officials in the political fraternity, bureaucracy and the police, used regularly by Sterling Biotech and the Sandesara Group of Companies to evade taxes. The diary was maintained meticulously by Ajay Panchal and the list of ‘friendlies’ was apparently passed on by Gagan Dhawan to the proprietors of Shokeen Properties. Panchal, who should have been questioned to ferret out information on the covert network of ‘friendlies’, appeared to have been wantonly brushed to the margins, according to the CBI. As whispers begin to get louder about attempts to paper over some top names in Diary 2011 in the context of bribery, pressure has begun to mount on the CBI, which has sent summons for the interrogation of some of the individuals named in it. As the year heads winter- ward, there is little doubt that Diary 2011 will set afire the political scenario in Gujarat.

The brotherhood of Andhra politics

Politicos often gang up in a splendid display of parochialism when they sense an external attack on one of their own. It wasn’t any different with the Andhra politicians who stood up for Prasanna Suryadevara. He is no high-ranking official—he was with the All India Radio and used his connections in the Left parties to get a posting as press advisor to the Speaker when Somnath Chatterjee occupied the post. The man then found a new benefactor: Arvind Kejriwal. Without obtaining necessary clearances, he managed to be appointed as Secretary of the Delhi Assembly. Following complaints against him, a probe was ordered by the I&B Ministry. Turns out he’s signed articles in the media against Modi and the NDA government. But that didn’t deter the BJP and TDP heavyweights from joining hands and demand a clean chit for Suryadevara. Last heard: they didn’t succeed in their attempts.

Reward for honesty

Reward for honestyLoyalty pays, but honesty pays more. Or it should, when all is said and done. Right? So, is the Modi Government—in the last two years of its tenure before the 2019 General Election— showing signs that it may be finally inclined to reward those who battled the vendetta politics of the UPA and stood up for fairness? Hope has begun to spring in the hearts of the legions that stood upright at the time, with the recent appointment of former CBI chief RK Raghavan as India’s High Commissioner to Cyprus. Known for his impeccable service record, Raghavan was picked by the Supreme Court as chief of the SIT, and the Modi Government, refusing to be swayed by pressure from the secular lobby, went ahead with his current appointment. As the CBI director between January 1999 and April 2001, Raghavan investigated the Priyadarshini Mattoo murder case, the 2000 South Africa cricket match fixing case and the 2002 Gujarat riots. He was assisted on the Gujarat riots by former CBI DIG and lawyer, R S Jamuwar. Both were outsiders to Gujarat. In April 2014, the SC praised Raghavan’s work as head of the SIT and refused to constitute another one. Naturally, both Modi and BJP President Amit Shah are taken by his honesty and refusal to buckle under political pressure of India’s ruling party leadership at the time. Word is that it could well be payback time from the duo for others of Raghavan’s ilk. Positive payback, of course.

A farewell, not just yet

A farewell, not just yetRajiv Mehrishi was in the Finance Ministry before he became Home Secretary. When his tenure came to an end, the Rajasthan cadre bureaucrat was all packed and ready to board the next flight to Jaipur. His colleagues had organised a farewell function for him in the conference hall of the Ministry when news came that he had been appointed Home Secretary for a fixed tenure of two years. He unpacked. It happened again recently when he was through with his stint as Home Secretary and had packed his bags for Jaipur. His two years at the Home Ministry were up. But just as he was through with his goodbyes to his colleagues, the Modi Government announced his appointment as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) after previous CAG, Shashi Kant Sharma, demitted office. He had taken over as CAG in May 2013 and was Defence Secretary before that appointment. Mehrishi, who will serve until August 7th, 2020, as CAG, was administered his oath of secrecy by President Ram Nath Kovind at a function in Rashtrapati Bhavan, attended by both Vice President Venkaiah Naidu and Prime Minister Modi, among other dignitaries.

Chidambaram’s double jeopardy

Chidambaram’s double jeopardyDouble jeopardy is a game that can be played from both ends. At least that’s the lesson that former Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who prides himself on being a capable advocate, was taught by Shantanu Sen, a former Joint Director of the CBI who was recently involved in the Aircel-Maxis case, in which the former’s son Karti Chidambaram could face prosecution. Chidambaram argued that since all cases against the Maran brothers were dismissed by a special CBI court, all investigations to prosecute Karti in connection with the case were a result of vendetta and an attempt to intimidate him into silence. In a series of press statements last month, Chidambaram argued that the probe against Karti was a violation of rules and maintained that nobody could be tried twice for the same offence. Sen, though, retorted that since there was no acquittal in the case, the double jeopardy argument fails to hold. The order of the trial court to quash proceedings against some of the accused did not preclude or exhaust the possibility of others being tried for the same offence, he pointed out. Touché ! A hit, Mr Chidambaram. A very palpable hit, you will admit.