I-T raid on P Rama Mohana Rao: BJP's last-ditch effort to make note ban count

The first question that the raid on the office of the Tamil Nadu chief secretary P Rama Mohana Rao raises is this: Had Jayalalithaa been alive, would this have happened?

The answer is an unequivocal no. In fact, such a raid wouldn't have happened without massive political aftershocks in any other state because chief secretary is not just a senior IAS officer, but the secretary of the state cabinet. He/she is also the administrative lynchpin of a state, the chief of staff of the government.

Yesterday, when the Income Tax (I-T) officials walked into his office under the protection provided by armed CRPF forces, what they had breached was the notional sovereignty of the state secretariat, lorded over till recently by one of the most powerful politicians of India.

I-T raid on P Rama Mohana Rao: BJPs last-ditch effort to make note ban count

P Rama Mohana Rao. Wikimedia Commons

Chief secretary is the appointee of the chief minister — in this case, the appointee of the all powerful Jaya — and raiding his office on suspicions of black money and illegal deals hence taints the chief minister’s office itself. Notwithstanding the merits of the case, it’s a political black-mark that will be recorded in history. This has rarely happened.

Whether there is a political intent to show the new leadership of the state’s ruling party its place or not, this move would certain alarm the AIADMK and the government. Reportedly, the I-T officials have seized Rs 30 lakhs in new currency, five kg of gold and documents that show a lot of undisclosed assets from the raids in premises associated with Rao. The leads for the raids came from massive seizures from Shekhar Reddy, a contractor he was close to. Reddy, who was also seen (in photos published by the media) with chief minister O Panneerselvam, has been arrested by the CBI and his interrogation might lead to more action on Rao and possibly, others.

Usually, such I-T seizures are followed by CBI arrests — mostly for possible money-laundering — and hence Rao’s problems might have just begun. The biting reality is that the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu, who according to the Supreme Court (EP Royappa vs State of Tamil Nadu, 1974) should work in complete rapport and understanding with the chief minister, is a suspect in the eyes of the law of the land. How tenable is that?

It’s impossible to speculate if there was any politics behind the raids because they followed one of the largest post-demonetisation seizures. Clearly, the I-T officials had some leads from Reddy, who is even otherwise considered to be close to Rao. However, what’s certain - given the political sensitivity of the situation - is that at least the union finance minister Arun Jaitley would have been in the know. The local I-T investigation wing wouldn’t have gone ahead without clearance from its top brass in Delhi, who in turn would have informed Jaitley. Whether Jaitley informed the Prime Minister or not is hard to tell. Probably he did, probably he didn't. However, what’s certain is that such raids wouldn’t be done without the knowledge of the department’s political boss.

It doesn’t matter if Modi knew about it or not, because had Jaitley wanted to stop it, he could have. That he didn’t stop the I-T officials shows that either the government doesn’t care or that it wants to show the state government and the ruling party who the real boss is. By exposing the unit that works in tandem with the chief minister’s office, the message is unequivocal. Opposition leader MK Stalin has read it correctly and has said that the raids have brought disrepute to the state. Certainly they also have brought disrepute to the chief minister’s office.

Most probably, this is chance-benefit that the BJP has picked up in its desperate attempts to make something out of demonetisation that has otherwise failed. The I-T department officials are on an unprecedented raiding-spree across the country seizing large quantities of old and new currencies, gold, records of illegal transactions and assets. The investigation wing of the IT-department always had the authority to undertake such large-scale raids, but they had been used only selectively. Now that the government is desperate to show the black money that the demonetisation drive failed to unearth, people hitherto untouched for political reasons also haven’t been spared. In the process, the government does come across such political windfalls.

The arrest of Reddy and the raids on Rao could be such an accidental find that the BJP can now choose to exploit. Reportedly, the I-T officials have found links with a politician as well, but are unable to raid because of insufficient evidence. The development will certainly make the emerging leader VK Sasikala, Panneerselvam and the AIADMK insecure. Do they have the political wherewithal to hit back or resist? Both of them lack stature and experience.

Whether the BJP acknowledges it or not, it’s naive to think that it will not politically exploit Rao’s dilemma and its potential lethality. Probably, it will be a leash that the Centre could use to keep the AIADMK with it. If the raids on Rao’s premises and office don’t lead to more raids, seizures and arrest of politically influential people, and the present momentum of the I-T department peters out, it will be a reasonable fair-weather sign. If the momentum continues, it will mean that either the government is serious or is looking for a better bargain.

The theories that this was a planned political attack on the state are most likely wrong because Reddy was an incidental find and Rao’s links with him were incidental too. The only political part was the decision to go ahead, which under genuine rule of law should have any way happened.

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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2016 14:55:36 IST

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