Hands Off VVIP Bankers And Corporate Honchos

Raman Swamy

There are some cases which are just too big to handle.  There so many wheels within wheels that investigating even a single spoke or link could overturn the whole chariot.   

If that happens, too many secrets will tumble out, too many reputations would be ruined and there will be too much of collateral damage. Especially in an election year. 

Hence, the best course of action in such cases is to take no action.  Or, go slow if you have already been stupid enough to initiate action.  Keep your hands off anything that looks like the tip of an iceberg - especially if the iceberg is so huge that it could cause multiple shipwrecks. 

This is the stern advice that Arun Jaitley is giving the Central Bureau of Investigation in the Videocon loan fraud case. 

Even though he is on medical leave undergoing treatment thousands of miles away, he was concerned enough to shout out a shrill warning to the CBI – “investigative adventurism” is the heavily loaded term he used to describe the case registered by the CBI against ICICI Bank chief Chanda Kochhar, her husband Deepak Kochhar and Videocon Group head Venugopal Dhoot for criminal conspiracy and fraud.

Despite the fact that CBI does not come under the jurisdiction of the Finance Ministry and in spite of currently not actually being the Finance Minister in any case,  Jaitley probably thought that unless he acts immediately to rein-in the overzealous CBI investigators, nobody will.  

He must have known his intervention is not only highly irregular but smacks of gross interference in the functioning of a supposedly independent investigating agency like the CBI.   He was surely aware that issuing instructions to the CBI at a time when its credibility was already in tatters would do more harm than good.  He would have anticipated that Opposition parties would not hesitate to seize on his action and project it as a brazen attempt to protect his capitalist cronies. 

Arun Jaitley knew all this and yet he went ahead to do what he did - virtually issue a command to the CBI to cease-and-desist in the probe against VVIP bankers and business magnates. That can only mean one thing – that there is really and truly a great deal much more at stake and much more than meets the eye. 

Here is what he actually said in his lengthy blog post - “Instead of focusing primarily on the target, is a journey to nowhere (or everywhere) being undertaken? If we include the entire who’s who of the Banking Industry – with or without evidence – what cause are we serving or actually hurting”.

That was just the polite part.  There was much more - “There is a fundamental difference between investigative adventurism and professional investigation. Investigative adventurism involves casting the net too wide including people with no mens rea or even having a common intention to commit an offence, relying on presumptions and surmises with no legally admissible evidence”.

He goes on to define the dangers involved:  “Adventurism leads to media leaks, ruins reputations and eventually invites strictures and not convictions. In the process, the targets are ruined because of harassment, loss of reputation and financial costs. It costs people their career”. 

He goes further to explain what he means by professional investigation -  “Professional investigation targets the real accused on the basis of actual and admissible evidences. It rules out fanciful presumptions. There is no personal malice or corruption. It targets the guilty and protects the innocent. It secures convictions and furthers public interest. One of the reasons why our conviction rates are so poor is that adventurism and megalomania overtake our investigators and professionalism takes a back seat”.

Quite a thesis on the difference between a fishing expedition without evidence and a focused probe based on hard proof.  Left unexplained is how, from his hospital bed thousands of miles away, he knows so categorically that the CBI has no “actual and admissible evidence” against the Kochhar couple, the Videocon head and all the others named in the charge-sheet.    

What is more pertinent, of course, is the impact of his reprimand.  The CBI officer who signed the FIR against Chanda Kochhar in the ICICI-Videocon case has been transferred.   The official version is that the transfer took place two days before Jaitley’s blog – but that is a minor detail, the more relevant issue is that the investigations have effectively been reined-in.  For the record, the CBI has informally come out with a brave claim that nothing would deter it from pursuing the case till its logical conclusion. 

It has also come out with a juicy twist – that the concerned officer was transferred because he was found to have been a ‘mole’ who had ‘tipped-off’ the accused about the impending raid and arrests.  Sudhanshu Dhar Mishra, who was Superintendent of Police of Banking and Securities Fraud Cell of CBI, Delhi, has been shunted out to CBI’s Economic Offences Branch in Ranchi, Jharkhand. 

Mishra, it was revealed, was the SP who had signed the FIR against Chanda Kochhar, Deepak Kochhar, Venugopal Dhoot and others on January 22 in connection with alleged irregularities in the sanctioning of loans by the ICICI bank to Videocon. Subsequently the CBI filed cases against the three along with some others after conducting raids at four premises in Maharashtra.

As expected,  Opposition parties have lost no time in coming out with scathing comments about Arun Jaitley’s actions.  Jairam Ramesh said: “Jaitley’s  statement is extraordinary. It is a clear signal to the CBI to go slow. It also smacks of double standards which, of course, is not new for him.”  Rajya Sabha MP Anand Sharma said that Jaitley’s remarks amounted to “rebuking” and “threatening” the agency.

 “It is not proper for the Union minister to comment on a CBI case, which is still being investigated. The agency is still examining people in the case and it should be in a position to conduct the probe in an independent way,” Prashant Bhushan, lawyer and political activist, said.

Similarly, Sanjay Hegde, senior advocate, said:  “No court, no administration can tell an independent investigating agency how to do its work. Even a supervisory role only means broad supervision, not getting into specifics of any particular case.   It is one thing for a politician to pass a general comment on an investigation but for a sitting member of the Union Cabinet, it is highly improper”.

Meanwhile, the whistle-blower in the entire case,  Arvind Gupta, is watching the unfolding drama.   “I think this is just a beginning of the investigation”, he says,  and adds ominously:  “Its roots will go further deep and outside India also. Whose money is this? This bank loan is just a tip of the iceberg”.

Precisely the reason why the CBI had to be asked to cease and desist.  If the iceberg is discovered, it could drown the whole system.

Jan 28, 2019

Raman Swamy

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