Four states — West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala—and one union territory—Puducherry—are currently in the middle of an intense political campaign for state assembly elections.
But what they also have in common are political leaders, primarily those belonging to parties other than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who are facing significant raids, summons and arrests by country's top agencies—the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED), National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Income Tax department—over the last few months.
Opposition parties have repeatedly alleged that they are being targeted at the behest of Centre, a charge denied by the ruling party and Central agencies.
In the south, a string of cases
In its latest action, on Friday, the income tax (I-T) department raided the premises of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief MK Stalin's son-in-law Sabareesan's residence as well as the premises of DMK leader Senthil Balaji, claiming the searches were part of unearthing "political cash distribution".
In September 2020, the CBI registered a case against DMK leader Poonjolai Srinivasan in connection with the recovery of ₹11 crore in a raid by the I-T department. The same month, ED issued an order seizing properties worth ₹89 crore of DMK Lok Sabha Member of Parliament S Jagathrakshakan for alleged violation of the foreign exchange management act.
Central agencies, particularly the ED, have also been active in another key poll-bound state – Kerala—with ED itself now facing a state police First Information Report (FIR) for allegedly forcing an accused—Swapna Suresh—in the gold smuggling scam to name chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
The central anti-money laundering agency also arrested suspended IAS officer—M Sivasankar, former principal secretary to Vijayan, in connection with the gold smuggling scam in October 2020, while both NIA and Customs also arrested multiple accused in the case.
The ED, last month, also registered a foreign exchange violation case against officials of Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) for external borrowings through Masala Bonds without the Centre's nod. Vijayan is Chairman of the Board and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), alleges that ED wants to target him. Prior to this, ED arrested Bineesh, son of CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan in a money laundering case in August 2020.
Vijayan, while addressing the media last month, targeted the BJP saying, "The Central agencies would have seen people who surrender before them. They would have seen Congress leaders who can be cowed down. But that will not work here. This is Kerala. People will not remain silent when BJP and Congress come together to destroy the state."
Investigations in the east
In West Bengal, while the main adversaries—Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP—battle it out on the streets, several TMC leaders, and businessmen associated with them, are under the CBI and ED scanners in Ponzi scams (Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund schemes), and for illegal coal mining and cattle smuggling.
The CBI, last month, examined Mamata Banerjee's nephew and TMC's de facto number 2, Abhishek Banerjee's wife Rujira, his in-laws Menaka Gambhir and Ankush Arora. The case, registered in November 2020, relates to illegal coal mining operations worth over ₹1200 crore at the Eastern Coalfields Ltd mines in West Bengal's Kunustoria and Kajora areas. In fact, both CBI and ED have raided over 100 places on different dates in West Bengal and other states in connection with this case.
The ED, last week, also arrested Vikas Mishra, the brother of TMC youth leader Vinay Mishra, as part of its money laundering probe in a multi-crore cattle smuggling case, registered first in 2020. The BJP had earlier alleged that kickbacks from the cattle smuggling used to reach Abhishek Banerjee through Vinay Mishra.
Similarly, probing Saradha scam, the ED on March 19 questioned two TMC leaders—Madan Mitra, West Bengal's former transport minister who is contesting from the Kamarhati constituency in North 24 Parganas, and Vivek Gupta, a former TMC MP who has been fielded from the Jorasanko assembly constituency in Kolkata. In the same scam, the ED, on Saturday, attached properties of party spokesperson Kunal Ghosh and its Lok Sabha Member of Parliament Satabdi Roy. Ghosh was questioned last month in the case.
On March 15, the CBI also summoned Mamata Banerjee's close aide, Partha Chatterjee, in connection with its 2014 probe into a ponzi scam pertaining to ICore Group of Companies, which allegedly raised over ₹3,000 crore from people by offering high returns on investments and diverted a portion of these funds.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA), last Sunday, also arrested Trinamool Congress leader Chhatradhar Mahato, the poster boy of the Maoist-backed tribal-movement in Lalgarh during 2008-2011, who was inducted into party last year by TMC to woo tribal votes. Mahato was given the responsibility of at least 10 constituencies in three districts by TMC ahead of the first phase of polls.
Other than that, several top officials in Bengal have been summoned by ED and CBI—including state security advisor Surajit Kar Purakayastha, principal secretary in the CM's office, Gautam Sanyal, state additional chief secretary B P Gopalika, and Kolkata additional police commissioner Laxmi Narayan Meena in separate cases.
Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly said in the last few weeks, during her public appearances, that BJP's only allies are now CBI and ED. She wrote to 15 Opposition leaders on March 31 urging them to unite against BJP to defend democracy and claimed that the BJP government at the Centre has been brazenly and vindictively using CBI and ED in the functioning of non-BJP states.
In Assam, the NIA arrested peasant leader Akhil Gogoi in December 2019 for anti-national activities. While jailed, he is contesting elections from Sibsagar constituency after launching a party—Raijor Dal—about five months back.
The spike in action against Opposition leaders was also visible during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as well as assembly elections in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir. For example, the I-T department raided the premises of Karnataka Congress leader DK Shivakumar for several days in August 2017 when he was playing a role in securing Ahmed Patel's Rajya Sabha re-election by hosting legislators from Gujarat in Karnataka.
In July last year, after a rebellion by Sachin Pilot against Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, multiple raids were carried out by I-T on several politicians and businessmen in the state. Gehlot's brother, Agrasain Gehlot, immediately faced an ED probe in a fertilisers scam and was even summoned.
The politics behind the raids
The BJP has denied that the raids have any political subtext and attribute it to the law taking its own course.
According to BJP's Nalin Kohli, "This is best answered by the agencies directly who are constantly criticised when they act or when they don't."
The Opposition doesn't buy the government's version. Congress MP Manish Tewari said, "The National Democratic Alliance-BJP government has four frontal organisations—the IT, ED, CBI and the NIA. They have, over the past seven years, normalised the misuse/abuse of the State. India is now staring at an abyss. And even the shreds of moral or constitutional behaviour lie shattered and ripped by these people."
The Central agencies did not officially comment on the raids and summons to Opposition leaders before elections but several officers HT spoke to deny allegations of "political misuse". A CBI officer, who didn't want to be named, said, "The raids and summons are crucial part of process in CBI, and the time is decided only after certain allegations are verified or Investigation Officer feels he/she need clarification."
But others were more candid. A former head of one of the top agencies, requesting anonymity, agreed they face some pressure from dispensation to act against Opposition leaders. "It is true action intensifies around elections, particularly in those cases which were lying unattended for years. But, this happens in all governments."
Political analysts believe the issue reflects a systemic crisis in the political structure and spans across governments, though there have been questions raised about the degree to which such raids and investigations have increased under the current government. Sandeep Shastri, author and political scientist said, "I think this is not a challenge just with the current government. If you look at the last two-three decades, irrespective of which party has been at the Centre, they have tried to use the public institutions to their benefit. There needs to be stronger and vigilant public campaign to ensure autonomy of these agencies".