I-T raids are political: TN chief secretary Rao's attack on Modi a well-calibrated plan

When J Jayalalithaa had to step down as the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister following her conviction in September 2014 in the disproportionate assets case by a Bengaluru court and O Panneerselvam was sworn-in as her successor, the AIADMK would refer to Jayalalithaa as 'people's chief minister'. Everyone knew OPS was CM only in name and that Jaya wielded the real power.

P Rama Mohana Rao, the former chief secretary appointed by Jayalalithaa in June 2016, is trying a similar gimmick. He claims he is still the chief secretary even though the Tamil Nadu government appointed Girija Vaidyanathan in his place after the raids by Income Tax officials at Rao's home last week. The government portal describes his status as "on wait". But the Panneerselvam government in Rao's rather frank opinion, "does not have the guts to remove him". By invoking Jayalalithaa and saying he is going to the people's court, Rao is trying to position himself as Puratchi Thalaivar's chief secretary. What is left unsaid is, if Panneerselvam can claim immunity by saying he was appointed by Amma, so can Rao.

The battle in Rao's worldview is between Chennai and New Delhi. Taking on the Modi sarkaar, no less, Rao claims that the CRPF barged into his residence at 5.30am. The warrant, he says, was not for him but for his son. And that only Rs 1.12 lakh and "little jewellery" was found at his home.

If what Rao says is true, the I-T department and its political bosses, prima facie, seem to have bungled. It is difficult to believe though that a chief secretary would have been raided without a nod from the very top. The I-T sleuths not only raided Rao's home but also the chief secretary's office at Fort St. George, that houses the Tamil Nadu Secretariat. They went in, CRPF in tow, without a warrant for Rao, if one is to go by his version. It is not right to allege such things and it does Centre-state relations no good.

I-T raids are political: TN chief secretary Raos attack on Modi a well-calibrated plan

Police personnel at Tamil Nadu Secretariat during the raid at the chamber of Chief Secretary P Rama Mohana Rao. PTI

With the exception of Delhi Chief Minister's Arvind Kejriwal's principal secretary, a chief secretary's office has not been searched or raided by a central agency in recent memory. This when Panneerselvam was working in his chambers 200 metres away. Did Panneerselvam know of this raid, that is now being painted as an affront to the government of Tamil Nadu? It gives meat to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Baneejee's accusation that this raid is an attack on the federal structure under the Constitution of India. Significantly, Rao also thanked Mamata and Rahul Gandhi for "their support." An indication that his fight is political.

Ever since the I-T raids last week, the Tamil Nadu government has maintained silence. The only AIADMK voices to have expressed displeasure are spokespersons Dheeran and MP SR Balasubramanian. The MP who is a leader of TMC vintage and joined the AIADMK recently condemned the involvement of the CRPF in the raids. In his opinion, it gave the impression that the state police force was not to be trusted.

The fact that the chief secretary has come out all guns blazing against the current Tamil Nadu government shows what he thinks of his boss, Panneerselvam. By also saying he was appointed by Amma and trained by her, Rao is pitting the Amma team against operations. Rao speaks like a politician, not a bureaucrat.

Rao also clearly hints at a political conspiracy when he says the raid would not have happened if Jayalalithaa was alive. Claiming his life is in danger, Rao says he is being targetted. The sense one gets is Rao is not saying a lie as far as this point is concerned. Having worked in the Chief Minister's office as Jayalalithaa's secretary through a large part of her 2011-2016 term, till his appointment as the chief secretary, Rao is the keeper of many secrets and knows a lot. The I-T raids, per se, may not have thrown up dirt on him but he would be a trove of information on possible wrongdoings by the power structure in Tamil Nadu since 2011.

Make no mistake about it. The I-T raids were deeply political. The profile of people raided had connections with powerful politicians, including a senior AIADMK minister, considered close to Sasikala and, who too, was in running to become a chief minister. Several of those raided are involved in sand mining contracts and possible links to PWD contractor J Sekhar Reddy who has been arrested by the CBI. Though Rao has denied any connection with Reddy, the two raids coming close on the heels of each other led to suspicion. That Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi was hired to fight in court to secure bail for Reddy's associate shows their influence and what is at stake.

What is also significant is that Rao was raided a day after meeting Panneerselvam with the prime minister in Delhi. That led many to believe that Panneerselvam cut deal with the BJP to keep Sasikala at bay. By asking if the raid on the chief secretary's office was with Panneerselvam's permission, he is forcing the chief minister to react. He has in effect accused Panneerselvam of failing to protect the sanctity of the office of the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu, who he says was under house arrest for 26 hours. Can such a man be trusted to protect Tamil Nadu's interests? Let's leave that unsaid.

From what it seems, Rao-speak is a carefully calibrated strategy. Chennai (read Sasikala-led AIADMK) has decided to take on the BJP. If Balasubramanian's opening salvo was to test the waters, Rao has served it hot. With sources indicating that the BJP won't be too happy to let Sasikala and family control the AIADMK, the run-up to 29 December when the AIADMK party council will meet is expected to be stormy.

What is in Delhi's favour is public perception that there has been a lot of corruption in the system and needs a clean-up. But just that wont be enough.

As far as Rao is concerned, he has made it clear that he is not going down without a fight. Given that the rulebook states that advisor to the government Sheela Balakrishnan "advises, aids and directs the chief secretary", he could use that as a ploy to say the attack on him is an attack on everyone Amma trusted in.

The battlelines are drawn.

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Updated Date: Dec 27, 2016 16:22:37 IST

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