Exclusive interview with J Gopikrishnan, who investigated into, recorded, and exposed the details of some of the biggest scams of the UPA era.
We wouldn’t be knowing about the 2G scam, the Aircel-Maxis scam, or the National Herald scam, as we do, if not for J Gopikrishnan. As early as the December of 2008, he had written for The Pioneer reports which would expose the 2G scam. Then, four years later in 2012, it were his reports which described the details of the Aircel-Maxis scam, in which former finance and home minister, P Chidambaram, and his son, Karti, are accused. In the same year, he would also be the one chronicling the particulars of the National Herald scam where the list of accused includes Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and the former Congress president, Sonia Gandhi.
Since the time he first wrote about them, Gopikrishnan continues to closely track the prosecution in these cases. In an exclusive interview with Swarajya, he spoke about the quality of prosecution for the high profile corruption cases, the judgement of the special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in the 2G scam, the attempts to sabotage investigations, the probability of Karti and Chidambaram being prosecuted, the attitude of the Indian public towards corruption of political leaders and much more.
Given the exoneration of all accused in the 2G scam, and P Chidambaram earlier, and also the exoneration of Dayanidhi Maran in the BSNL case in the lower court (now resent for a trial by the High Court — all cases we believed were open and shut cases — do you feel that the CBI and judicial system are unable to prosecute the powerful successfully?
The acquittal by the trial court judge, O P Saini, in the 2G scam case involving former telecom minister A Raja, and Kanimozhi, is a bad judgment and is a black chapter in the history of the judiciary. How did Judge Saini, who framed charges against all the accused and sought answers to around 1,800 questions from them come out with a such a judgment?. There are many things being said about it. Anyway, the CBI and Enforcement Directorate (ED) have approached the Delhi High Court seeking speedy justice after Saini's judgment. This was an open and shut case with a clear proof of a money trail. Somehow, the Judge could not see it. Let us hope the Delhi High Court does justice.
Obviously, there was carelessness on the part of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in appointing Mukul Rohatgi as Attorney General; Rohatgi had earlier represented one of the accused parties in the 2G case. This sent a wrong message. And so did the role of former CBI director Ranjit Sinha and his successor Anil Sinha. Ranjit Sinha was meeting many of the accused at midnight at his home and one wonders what he was trying to achieve. Anil Sinha failed to guide CBI officers properly by not charge-sheeting Chidambaram in the Aircel-Maxis case, which ultimately led to the discharge of the Maran brothers. The CBI started acting only after Alok Verma became Director. Meanwhile, Special Director Rakesh Asthana also seemed to be dawdling over the Aircel-Maxis case. The probe was revived thanks to ED's bold Investigating Officer, Rajeshwar Singh. He attached Karti's bank accounts and charge-sheeted Karti by detailing Chidambaram's role in the Aircel-Maxis case. But we have seen how people in the government hunted Rajeshwar. The Finance Ministry in October 2014 even went so far as to say that there was no need for Rajeshwar Singh’s service as the Aircel-Maxis case was over!. These things show how a compromised system and corporations work together, whoever is in power. Only thing I can say is all this can be prevented only by alert and vigilant citizens.
Is it about poor investigations by the CBI or is the system compromised in some way?
I don't believe in blaming officers. It is the system which controls them, forces them, arm twists them to toe its line. Those who don't fall in line are hunted down by these mighty corrupt people. For e.g. - CBI's joint director, Ashok Tewari, was shunted out to his home state's transport corporation in December 2014 after he summoned Chidambaram. Remember, this happened when Narendra Modi is Prime Minister. Look at the cases still being pursued by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. Even now the government advocates oppose him in court. This shows that the system closes ranks to protect the compromised. Look at the Aircel-Maxis case, the AirAsia frauds and the Jet-Etihad illegalities. See the government’s stand in the courts. The worst was the current Finance Secretary Hasmukh Adhia providing a questionable RAW report against Rajeshwar Singh who had raided Chidambaram's home and exposed his family's assets in 14 countries and their 21 illegal accounts. This was exposed in January 2016. Pioneer published the details of his assets in February 2016. What did the Finance Ministry under Arun Jaitley do? Nothing. This was a case which clearly warranted a probe under the Black Money Act. These people hushed up the findings of ED and the Income Tax (I-T) department for more than a year. The related documents were made public by Swamy in March 2017 and the PM ordered a probe under the Black Money Act on Swamy's complaint. Even after the PM's order, people in the Finance Ministry again delayed initiating prosecution although it finally happened in 2018. These delays provided the Chidambaram family the opportunity to approach the courts for bail.
Rajeshwar Singh's promotion happened only after court orders and even now, his last promotion is pending for the past eight months. But we have seen promotion orders issued at midnight for people like CBI Special Director Rakesh Asthana. Asthana's name was blocked by none other than the CBI Director when he flagged corruption charges against the former, including an allegation of accepting a bribe of Rs 3.8 crore from a company called Sterling Biotech, which is said to be closely associated with Congress leader Ahmed Patel. Let me repeat - the problem is at the top levels. The lower level problems can be rectified by good leadership.
It took almost 18-20 years for the Jayalalithaa corruption case to reach a conclusion, but even here the high court reversed a carefully argued judgment of the trial court. Though Jaya’s death ended the case against her, V K Sasikala was convicted. In Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav has been convicted in four cases. But politically, no party seems to pay any political price for corruption, even when their leaders are convicted. What does this say about Indians’ attitude to corruption?
These cases got delayed in judiciary too. But the problem is with the not-so-strong prosecution. How can we blame prosecutors and investigators when the people elect governments controlled by Lalu Prasad and Jayalalithaa on many occasions? People also have a responsibility. Sadly in India, people are concerned about their rights and not at all about doing their duties. They elect these people by taking money or looking at their caste. Look at the crowd landing in courts and crying and doing theatrics in support of corrupt leaders. Our mindset has to change. We go by power and money. They should change their mindset.
On the cases against Karti Chidambaram and P Chidambaram
When it comes to the cases against P Chidambaram and his son, Karti, there is a series of questions that come to mind:
-In S Gurumurthy's investigations into Karti’s Advantage Strategic Consulting and Ausbridge, one has noted that ownership of these companies has been transferred to friends of Karti. Do we know what were the underlying assets of these companies at the time of transfer? And is anything known about the consideration for this transfer?
-Wouldn’t the price for these transfers establish that the company was transferred without adequate consideration?
-In another story it has been established that the transfer of Advance to Karti’s friends was accompanied by these friends making a will to transfer the company to Karti’s daughter. Is this fact alone not enough to establish the nexus and benami ownership?
-In the Vasan Eye-Care case, it seems Karti’s company got the shares cheap and then sold it for a huge premium, but no motive is given for why the promoters would want to favour Karti. Is there a link we do not know about?
-While Karti is obviously the person directly involved in the benami ownership of Advantage, is Chidambaram involved directly in any way?
The joint raid of the ED and I-T proved that most of the money was flown through Advantage's Singapore-based subsidiary. Gurumurthy's article exposed how benami directors of Karti's firm were forced to execute wills. The Chidambaram family acted in close concert considering the execution of wills by the directors in the companies controlled by them. All the companies were controlled by Karti in many covert ways. But the execution of wills by benami directors was quite unheard of. This is somewhat like a mafia operation. When you look at the FIPB (Foreign Investment Promotion Board) approvals by Chidambaram, many beneficiary firms paid money to Karti-controlled firms as ‘consultancy fee’. The finance minister's son accepting consultancy fee from the firms that got approvals from the father is a clear case for investigation under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Karti's Advantage was having shares in Vasan Eye Care and now the ED has slapped a FEMA (Foreign Exchange Management Act) notice in that case. In Pioneer, we had published the names of 63 big firms which had a financial trail leading to Karti-linked firms. What is worse is that some people in the government tried their best to save Chidambaram, even in the face of such strong evidence. Credit goes to CBI Director Alok Verma and Additional Director A K Sharma for charge-sheeting Chidambaram and Karti on 19 July in the Aircel-Maxis scam. Chidambaram used all forces to block this. For two years, a special director was trying to spike the case.
Whether it is Aircel-Maxis case or INX Media, the weakest link in the case is to establish a nexus between payments made to Advantage and the decisions of the FIPB and Chidambaram. Isn’t it entirely possible, given how courts have thrown out the 2G case, that this nexus is tough to establish?
Not weakest link. The direct and conclusive link of money trail is established by the ED. In both cases, Karti's firm Advantage and Chess Management has taken direct money from both Maxis and INX Media. What more proof is needed? These are open and shut cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Direct bank transfer is made from Maxis and INX Media to Karti’s firm following his father Chidambaram approving the FIPB files. If this not a proof, nothing is a proof. I think not all judges will ignore the kickback of Rs 200 crore to Kanimozhi-controlled Kalaignar TV from Swan Telecom-linked firms after Raja allotted telecom licences.
The ED case of laundering is also tough to establish, since there are companies in Mauritius etc involved. The government has so far been unable to link external transactions and their linkages to domestic companies – the money trail so to speak. It seems impossible to get to the bottom of the money trail when foreign entities are involved due to lack of cooperation from that jurisdiction. Your comment.
No need of cooperation from Mauritius. The ED has proved with documents that money reached Karti's firm. That is more than enough. Everything else is a narrative pushed by Chidambaram’s cronies in the media, which would be used by him and his son during their defence arguments. These things are ample proof for honest judges. Now we have seen how the Madras High Court quashed the dishonest discharge by the trial court of the Maran brothers. This shows that there are many honest judges.
Given that the entire Congress ecosystem is backing Chidambaram in his case involving Karti, is it possible that some of the funds involved may be party funds? Why else should a Congress party want to stand four-square behind him?
I don't think politicians indulge in corruption for party funds. Corruption is for their personal wealth creation. Not for party funds. For party work, funds can be collected very easily. The rest are excuses for corruption. Some unscrupulous guys even stole from party funds.
The government has plans to set up 12 special courts to fast track cases against politicians. Will this in any way impact the case against Karti and his father?
Fast-track courts are fine. The lagging creates space for fixing. But I do think that when it comes to high profile cases, it would not be easy to conclude the hearing in one or two years as all options of arguments, counter arguments, evidence etc, would be explored.
Is corruption in the judiciary a factor behind low prosecution success rates against politicians?
There are corrupt judges also. No doubt about it. But we have different tiers to challenge the decisions. But the fact of the matter is that the percentage of corrupt or pliable judges is very, very low compared to any other system, be it politics or bureaucracy, police etc. Very few of the corrupt are in judiciary. The majority are very judicious.