A thief breaks into the house of a rich man and makes off with a pot of gold. When caught, he tells the judge that the rich man himself had stolen it from elsewhere. So who is guilty — the thief or the other guy or both? You can debate on the culpability of the perpetrator and the victim endlessly — or "to the last syllable of recorded time" as Shakespeareh put it.
But a similar pinch involving tax raiders and election candidates can't have a moral debate till apocalypse comes. An election is not an endless process, and even as argument rages over whether it's the income tax officials or the political money-hoarders who have erred, democracy can lose a level-playing field.
The biggest stories of this election season are not just Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav teaming up against the BJP, Narendra Modi talking about something called national security and Rahul Gandhi talking about nothing in particular. The 2019 Lok Sabha election will also be remembered for what look like indiscriminate raids on the ruling party's political enemies and seizures of huge amounts of cash from them.
These raids have been going on for a while now in several states, but the one on the premises of an associate of Kathir Anand, the DMK candidate in Tamil Nadu's Vellore Lok Sabha constituency, is especially noteworthy. It's not only because of the amount seized — Rs 11.48 crore, but also because it led to the countermanding of the election there. Then there was the raid on the home of DMK leader and Thoothukodi candidate K Kanimozhi that yielded nothing, but another one on the associate of breakaway AIADMK leader TTV Dhinakaran saw the confiscation of Rs 1.48 crore.
The unearthing of huge stockpiles of illegal cash at election time comes as no big surprise in Tamil Nadu, which has been a dubious trend-setter for the country in the shame of notes-for-votes, as discussed in this 2016 article. The state saw the countermanding of elections in the Thanjavur and Aravakuruchi constituencies in 2016 and in the RK Nagar by-election in 2017. In RK Nagar, evidence was apparently found to prove that Dhinakaran was planning to distribute Rs 89 crore to voters.
Questions that the raids pose
But these crackdowns raise some important questions of political and economic import:
- How do some individuals, whichever parties they may belong to, still have access to huge amounts of cash even after the so-called digitisation of transactions following demonetisation?
- Does the I-T Department expect people to be daft enough to believe that only non-BJP politicians hoard cash for distribution to voters?
- Can the sinister motives of the Modi government in raiding hand-picked politicians absolve them of the crime of stashing currency?
To begin with, the cash seizures only make the much-trumpeted demonetisation of November 2016 look like the farce that Modi-baiters have all along said it was. Starting with Modi, the BJP leaders no longer talk of the good things that demonetisation supposedly did . Nor do they admit it was a bad flop in eradicating black money. One argument, the government's supporters continue to parrot, however, centres around the digitisation of the economy that it supposedly brought about. Even that argument sounds spurious in the light of the large-scale seizures of hard currency.
After demonetisation, the hoi polloi of the country thinks twice before undertaking any cash transaction even in thousands of rupees. Lesser criminals than politicians are forced to find a dozen subterfuges to deal in cash running into lakhs of rupees. But how do election candidates lay their hands on crores? Before claiming credit, however cockeyed it is, for unearthing crores of rupees of cash in the current sweep of raids, the government must unravel the mystery of how such money came to be in the hands of those being raided in the first place.
If it was the result of systemic flaws, which can't be without political connivance, the BJP would find it tough to convince the country that most of its own election candidates are paragons of financial virtue. It's common knowledge that although Modi himself can rightfully boast of a clean personal image, this hygiene hasn't percolated to many among his leaders and cadres.
Scams involving its own leaders, including Karnataka's BS Yeddyurappa for example, and its invitations to tainted Congress leaders across India to join its ranks with vote banks in mind make a mockery of the lily-white image that the BJP claims it monopolises. The virtual exclusion of BJP leaders from the ongoing nation-wide raids makes the move anything but above board, even if the government claims it's only doing good by ferreting out unaccounted money.
Tip of the iceberg
According to Election Commission data, cash, liquor, narcotics, gold and other freebies worth a total of Rs 2,628.43 crore have so far been seized in the country during the run-up to this election as of 17 April. Of this, cash accounts for Rs 694.5 crore, and Tamil Nadu unsurprisingly tops the list with Rs 208.27 crore. Those familiar with India's election process are aware this only represents a tiny fraction of the money used to bribe voters.
Cash seized during I-T raids from a handful of rival candidates in Tamil Nadu provides little tactical advantage to BJP. Nor can such dirty tricks gain any significant propaganda mileage for the party in a state where the average voter knows its own alliance partner AIADMK is equally guilty of notes-for-votes, but is untouched by sleuths.
At the very same time, shouting blue murder about political motives could in no way lend credibility to the protestations of innocence by victims of the raids.
As always in such cases, perceived guilt travels a mile before pretended innocence puts on its boots.
The author tweets @sprasadindia
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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2019 08:53:37 IST