CBI raids on Chidambaram's homes: Legal challenges daunting for govt, while politics gets murkier
Such cases in the past have usually led to political consequences rather than judicial convictions. A case in point is the AR Antulay cement scam
The raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation on former finance minister and Congress leader P. Chidambaram should not surprise anyone who has been watching how politics plays out in India, where CBI and income tax raids on any political personality is usually interpreted as a case of political witch-hunt or vendetta.
This is true of any ruling party on any issue, be it communal riots or corruption. In the case of Chidambaram and his son Karti, the case is loaded with a political context because senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has been in vocal and transparent pursuit of cases where he accuses the father and son of illegal -- not just improper -- conduct. Here's where the challenge is immense for Swamy and the CBI.
First of all, there is a commonsensical question of how much evidence can the CBI possibly unearth on a case pertaining to 2008 involving approvals by the Foreign Investment Promotion Board for INX Media -- nine years later in the age of the Internet and digital transactions. The government's law-enforcing arms have also been pursuing firms or associates said to be linked to Chidambaram in the Aircel-Maxis case and another involving foreign exchange law violations. In each case, evidence needs to be substantial to link the minister who was technically lording over all of India's economy.
The second point is that even if approvals were given what was the illegality in them. Chidambaram says the concerned approvals were given by multi-member panels empowered under law. At best, there may be a potential case of conflict of interest where the minister as a somewhat connected party may have had to recuse himself where some kind of personal interests were involved. That too is a matter of ethical convention than legal detail. Swamy cites technical rules that smack of discretionary approvals by Chidambaram -- but the key point is that waiver of rules, even if true in some cases, do not necessarily constitute a violation of law.
The third point is that the prosecution has to establish a quid pro quo involving clearly questionable payments with equally questionable approvals in front of an independent judiciary that must be confronted with irrefutable evidence of the correlation between the two.
This brings us to more difficult questions in modern political and public life. Does a son have an identity separate from his father in professional matters? Should his pursuit of a career or profession come to a halt because his father is a public figure? The prosecution has to establish through an elaborate chargesheet that payments purported to be received by the son or somebody representing him were clearly linked to the father with no other professional activity involved.
Such things in the past have usually led to political consequences rather than judicial convictions. In the case of the late former Maharashtra chief minister Abdul Rahman Antulay courts issued strictures linked to irregularities in cement allocations under his rule, but the scandal dragged on in courts for years and was subject mostly to political interpretation. Writings on the case made a celebrity out of journalist-turned-politician Arun Shourie but did not quite silence Antulay, who remained in active politics (albeit somewhat sidelined) despite donations to his Indira Gandhi Pratibha Prathishtan (trust) being linked to allocation of cement by his government.
From all indications, the best case scenario for Swamy and the CBI would be to politically immobilise Chidambaram. The matter gets tricky because Karti Chidambaram is a professional in his own right. Even in the current NDA government, there are ministers whose close relatives are business executives and entrepreneurs. Quid-pro-quo linkages involving family connections are tough to establish in courts -- and easy to allege on TV channels.
In the Antulay case, the trust that received donations was directly linked to the leader. Can a similar link be established in the Chidambaram case? On the face of it, that looks like a daunting task for the prosecution.
While the wheels of justice may grind slowly, politics cannot wait. The Congress party is already linking the CBI raids to the BJP's explicit ambitions to increase its political footprint in the minister's home state. Chances of a political turmoil seem higher than a meaningful prosecution of the 71-year-old minister known for his own legal chutzpah.
(The author is a senior journalist. He tweets as @madversity)