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India Has Corrupt Politicians — Does Govt Assume They Are All in Opposition?

Supreme Court's validation of PMLA provisions will ensure that its deployment will continue unabated.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
India Has Corrupt Politicians — Does Govt Assume They Are All in Opposition?
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If the proxies of the BJP-led NDA government were disappointed when the Supreme Court granted bail to AltNews co-founder and fact-checker Mohammed Zubair, who had been kept in custody for 24 days for an innocuous four year-old tweet, they had much to rejoice about the top court’s verdict, a week later, re-affirming the draconian nature of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002.

On 27 July, a three-member bench, comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar, Dinesh Maheshwari and CT Ravikumar, upheld several stringent provisions of the PMLA, including the power of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to arrest, attach property, search and seize persons deemed to have fallen foul of the law.

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Snapshot
  • The SC upheld several stringent provisions of the PMLA, including the power of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to arrest, attach property, search and seize persons deemed to have fallen foul of the law.

  • The Opposition has consistently claimed that the PMLA has been weaponised by the government to carpet bomb its opponents.

  • According to Parliament’s own records, the ED conducted 112 raids between 2004 and 2014, and over 3000 raids between 2014 and 2022.

  • The only politicians who have been hit with the money laundering law have been from the Opposition. BJP members have escaped its harsh glare.

  • The threat of an ED raid can be used as a stick to engineer defections.

  • Incorruptibility will help. But how many Indian politicians, whether on this side of the aisle or that, can lay claim to that virtue?

PMLA Misused by the Ruling Party?

The bench had been hearing 241 petitions challenging these provisions, many of them from members of the Opposition such as the Congress’s Karti Chidambaram and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who are facing charges under the PMLA.

The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, also upheld the law’s stringent bail conditions that impose a reverse burden of proof on the accused. This overturns the apex court’s own ruling in November 2017 that had held the bail criteria to be “unconstitutional”.

The Opposition has consistently claimed that the PMLA has been weaponised by the government to carpet bomb its opponents with cases and entangle them in a legal maze where the process itself is the punishment. Per government data, the conviction rate of cases filed under the PMLA in the last 17 years is less than 0.5 per cent. It has claimed, moreover, that the sweeping powers granted to the ED by successive amendments to the PMLA were being misused by the government for the same purpose.

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Opposition Leaders Facing Enforcement Directorate Enquiry

After the Supreme Court ratified the powers of the ED, senior Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi said that “unbridled powers” to investigating agencies promise “devastating consequences” for India’s democracy.

Statistics provide ballast to the Opposition’s charge. According to Parliament’s own records, the ED conducted 112 raids between 2004 and 2014, and over 3000 raids between 2014 and 2022.

In other words, either there has been an exponential rise in the number of cases of corruption, possession of assets disproportionate to income, and money laundering since the BJP came to power at the Centre, or the Opposition probably has grounds for alleging that the central agency, which is under the ministry of finance, is being frequently and selectively used by the government to go after its opponents, settle political scores, and put them in a spot, especially when there are elections round the corner.

Members of the Opposition who are facing charges under the PMLA include Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, P Chidambaram, Karnataka Congress leader DK Shivakumar, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and Trinamool Congress MP Abhishek Banerjee, NCP leaders Ajit Pawar and Nawab Malik, Delhi health minister Satyender Jain, and many others.

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Does BJP Have a 'Washing Machine'? 

Needless to say, a PMLA and an ED freshly validated and boosted by the Supreme Court will not spell good news for the above, nor for other Opposition leaders who may be in the government’s crosshairs. Interestingly, the only politicians who have been hit with the money laundering law have been from the Opposition. BJP members have escaped its harsh glare.

In fact, cases of economic offences against leaders such as Himanta Biswa Sarma (then in the Congress), or the TMC’s Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikary, were mysteriously put on ice after they joined the BJP. This has led to jibes from the Opposition that whoever jumps ship to the BJP goes through the “washing machine” and is absolved of all corruption charges. Such taunts are, however, of no consequence to a party that enjoys a brute majority in Parliament.

While it would be speculative to say that the Supreme Court ruling on the PMLA will prompt the Centre to use the law—and the ED to investigate alleged offences under it—with greater frequency and force, one may assume that the top court’s validation will ensure that its deployment will continue unabated.

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How Many Indian Politicians Can Claim Incorruptibility?

For the dividends from a targeted application of the stringent law against money laundering are manifold. Keeping a political leader incarcerated without bail, or summoning him or her repeatedly for interrogation in an exhibition of their possible culpability, can erode not only their physical and psychological resilience, but also their political capital. Besides, the threat of an ED raid can be used as a stick to engineer defections. And if said defection does not take place, the raids can be unleashed as punishment.

A few months ago, Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena claimed that he had been urged to quit Maharashtra’s then ruling coalition, the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi, and tie up with the BJP. “The day I refused, ED raids began at my friends and relatives,” Raut said.

Recently, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal claimed that while the money laundering case against his health minister, Satyender Jain, was trumped up, a similar fake case was being concocted in order to arrest the state’s education minister, Manish Sisodia.

Time will tell if Kejriwal’s assertion is true. However, now that the Supreme Court has put the weight of its approval behind the stringency of the PMLA and the methods to investigate charges under it, Opposition leaders need to look sharp.

Incorruptibility will help. But how many Indian politicians, whether on this side of the aisle or that, can lay claim to that virtue?

(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. She tweets @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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