India | Political graft in spotlight in two key Indian states

Political graft in spotlight in two key Indian states

Kadayam Subramanian February 22, 2017 6:50 PM (UTC+8)
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Political corruption has taken center stage in  two Indian states, Arunachal Pradesh near the Chinese border and Tamil Nadu in the south. In one case, a whistleblower took his own life.

Arunachal Pradesh (population: 1.4 million; 60 seats in the state assembly)

On February 21, the Supreme Court of India ordered an “open court” inquiry into a suicide note left on August 8, 2016, by Kalikho Pul, former chief minister of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, containing serious charges of political corruption against another former chief minister, Nabam Tuki, and other colleagues, and some Supreme Court judges as well.

Pul was a cabinet minister in Tuki’s Congress party government in the state from May 2014. His charges of corruption against the Tuki and others were serious enough to warrant a proper inquiry.

Tuki had dropped Pul from the cabinet as a result.

On May 12, 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government in New Delhi appointed Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa as governor of Arunachal Pradesh. His predecessor was considered “ineffective”.

After scoring a significant victory in the Assam Legislative Assembly election in April 2016, the ruling BJP wanted to wipe out the remaining Congress governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Meghalaya. Rajkhowa was expected to “do the needful”.

In November 2015, Kalikho Pul and 21 other Congress members of the Arunachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly were motivated to rebel against chief minister Tuki  and join the opposition BJP. Conceivably, a lot of money had been used for the purpose. Further developments in the state led to the imposition of central rule from New Delhi on January 24, 2016. Less than a month later, on February 19, 2016, the state governor installed Pul as chief minister under dubious procedures.

However, on July 13, a Supreme Court bench led by the present chief justice delivered a solid judgment finding fault with the procedure adopted by the Arunachal Pradesh governor and restored the previous Congress-led government of Nabam Tuki.

The governor was removed on September 12.

After further political instability, a BJP government under Pema Khandu is now in power in Arunachal Pradesh.

Kalikho Pul had lost his job. In a mood of frustration and depression, he took his own life on August 9, a day after submitting a 60-page whistleblower note alleging the sordid details of political corruption in the state, including on the part of Tuki.

The suicide note stated that Pul was asked to pay a huge bribe of 860 million rupees (US$12.9 million) in order to stay as chief minister.

The note provides a lot of vital data about political corruption in Arunachal Pradesh presumably tolerated and promoted by both the dominant Congress party and the BJP.

The Assam Congress leader and strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma, who had defected to the BJP before the April 2016 state assembly election, became the mastermind behind a BJP move to remove the Congress from power in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Meghalaya.

Since Governor Rajkhowa had been clumsy in his moves, Nabam Tuki was back in his job as chief minister and Kalikho Pul committed suicide on August 9, 2016.

Pul, after playing his role as whistleblower against alleged political corruption in Arunachal Pradesh, committed suicide after inadequate counseling.

Arunachal Pradesh is a strategic state situated in the India-China border area, where the McMahon Line runs, and is also prone to earthquakes. Hectic dam-building activities in the state are another prime area for political corruption. Nearly 170 multipurpose dams are to be constructed in the state on the basis of memoranda of understanding hastily signed with a large number of companies.

Tamil Nadu (population: 78 million; 234 seats in the state assembly)

The south Indian state of Tamil Nadu witnessed exceptional political corruption from 1991 to 1996 under chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram (JJ). In a case filed against her by politician Subramanian Swamy in 1996, she was was charged with having amassed unearned income to the tune of 660 million  rupees under sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988.

JJ’s main accomplice was her protégé VK Sasikala (VKS) and two of her relatives, VN Sudhakaran and J Elavarasi. VKS was personal assistant to the chief minister and held no official position. All were part of a corrupt criminal gang involved in making money. All stayed in the private residence of the chief minister.

Even as the judgment of the Supreme Court of India in the case against them was yet to come, the prime accused, JJ, died on December 5, 2016, in a hospital.

The delayed Supreme Court judgment came on February 14 this year convicting JJ, VKS and two others and sentencing them to four years of imprisonment and fines of 100 million rupees each.

The court upheld the trial-court verdict and observed that though the prime accused had died, the other three accused would have to serve the prison terms and and pay the fines.

The exhaustive Supreme Court ruling explained the manner in which the disproportionate assets had been hidden by the accused with 34 shell companies registered with the same address. Fifty bank accounts were opened for these companies, 47 of them in one bank. The sole activity of these companies was to acquire undervalued property. Money was moved from one account to another, and loans were taken from banks and submitted as liabilities even when the entire loan amounts had not been released.

The brazenness of the actions suggested that the perpetrators were utterly confident of not being caught.

The Supreme Court welcomed the “meticulous, sensitive, vigilant and judicious ruling of the trial court as an exceptional example of what judiciary can do to establish the violation of the rule of law by the powerful”.

Soon after the death of the prime accused, the non-political and non-elected second accused, VKS, established supreme control of the  ruling party, the All India Anna DMK (AIADMK), by getting herself elected as the general secretary of the party and ready to take over as chief minister of the state. She had also successfully sequestered ruling-party legislators loyal to her in a safe holiday resort.

The Supreme Court order came just in time to prevent VKS from achieving her objective. But as noted, she had already made herself the general secretary of the party and nominated her loyalist EK Palaniswami as the chief minister of the state before proceeding to Bangalore to take her place in  prison.

She is in a strong position to run the government of Tamil Nadu from inside her prison cell.

These activities of the ruling elite in Tamil Nadu have undermined the constitutionality and legitimacy of state institutions in the state, which is a danger signal for India.

The judiciary alone seems to stand in the way of political corruption and criminality from totally undermining India’s democratic state.

Kadayam Subramanian
Kadayam Subramanian is former Director, Research and Policy Division, Union Home Ministry, Government of India, and former Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India, Sage, 2007, and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India, Routledge, 2016
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