Sunday, October 1, 2017
Coming straight to the nub of the matter, let me start by first and foremost pointing out that with the income and assets of 11 Rajya Sabha and 26 Lok Sabha MPs showing a phenomenal jump, in some cases even more than 800 percent, the Supreme Court on September 6 asked the Centre to reveal what action was taken by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) against the high profile elected representatives after this list was submitted to the agency by a NGO way back in June 2015. Why no strict action against them? Why has a long rope been extended to them?
While craving for the exclusive indulgence of my esteemed readers, let me inform them that since the list included party bigwigs, several Ministers in the Central Cabinet and former Ministers, the Court gave CBDT the choice to submit action taken information to Court by September 12 either by way of affidavit or in sealed cover. This is a very serious issue as it concerns the integrity of our MPs who are the lawmakers of our nation. The Apex Court was hearing a petition by NGO Lok Prahari represented by former bureaucrat SN Shukla seeking transparency in disclosure of source of income of assets of candidates, their families and dependents in the nomination form. Shukla rightly demanded that such investigation must be time-bound and the names be revealed in public interest.
For my esteemed readers exclusive indulgence, let me also inform them that the list of Rajya Sabha MPs whose income showed a phenomenal rise period included Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Rout (841 percent increase), BSP’s Satish Chandra Mishra (698 percent), Congress’s Jairam Ramesh (659 percent), Congress Ambika Soni (501 percent), BJP’s Piyush Vedprakash Goel (214 percent), BJP’s Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (154 percent), Samajwadi Party’s Amar Singh (138 percent) and RJD’s Ram Jethmalani (119 percent) among others. I very strongly feel that they must be asked to explain how their income showed a meteoric rise period. I also am of the firm opinion that if they are unable to satisfactorily explain why their income showed such a meteoric increase then that should be seized away from them.
No doubt, if this is done so, it will send a right, loud and clear message to all that MPs too are not above the law. They too will have to face the axe if they dared to violate the provisions of any law. They will not be treated as being above law just because they are MPs.
Let me submit here that the increase was measured by comparing their affidavit submitted in 2016 with the assets declared in the previous election. The Lok Sabha list of reelected MPs whose income and assets between 2009 and 2014 grew by over 500 percent included Congress chief Sonia Gandhi (537 percent), BJP’s DV Sadananda Gowda (588 percent), BJP’s Arjun Ram Meghwal (608 percent), SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav (613 percent), BJP’s Varun Gandhi (625 percent), BJP’s Shatrughan Sinha (778 percent), AIADMK’s P Venugopal (1281 percent), Trinamool Congress’s Sisir Kumar Adhikari (1700 percent), Muslim League’s ET Mohammad Basheer (2081 percent) and BJP’s Kamlesh Paswan (5649 percent) among others. This merits a serious and impartial probe.
Let me hasten to add here that the CBDT received this list from Lok Prahari on June 30, 2015. The CBDT in an earlier affidavit had revealed that the list was forwarded for action to the Director General Income-Tax [DGIT] (Investigation). The Bench of Justices J Chelameswar and S Abdul Nazeer of the Apex Court found the affidavit vague and sought details of action taken against persons named in the list.
Needless to say, it is most unfortunate that the Apex Court found the affidavit vague. It should have been very clear right at the first instance. But the CBDT failed to do its homework properly on this which caused the Supreme Court to raise its eyebrows!
What is most concerning to note is that the Supreme Court observed on September 12 that, “MLAs and MPs who face investigation for possessing wealth disproportionate to their known sources of income, always tend to bounce back to power. This is a phenomenon seen in the past 25 to 30 years.” The hearing on a petition filed by Lok Prahari seeking a mechanism to investigate the source of income of politicians, saw the Centre give details of a probe into the assets given by Lok Prahari of 26 Lok Sabha members, 11 Rajya Sabha members and 257 MLAs in a sealed cover.
To put things in perspective, a Bench of Justices J Chelameswar and S Abdul Nazeer asked if this phenomenon of returning to power, coupled with the mercurial rise in the assets of politicians just within a span of five years between two successive elections, was a product of ineffective investigation or of some “immunity” provided to them. Justice Chelameswar addressed the government saying that, “If an MLA’s or MP’s assets have seen a 10X [10 times] rise in 2019 from what he revealed in 2014 should you not conduct an inquiry into the very propriety of a person holding public office enjoying such phenomenal rise in his assets… The moment a candidate has shown 1,000% increase in his income in the past five years, please have a mechanism to conduct an enquiry.”
Not stopping here Justice Chelameswar also held that, “Income under each head should be probed. All these should be inquired. The public needs an answer. The people should get to know the state of affairs. It is not enough that a legislator discloses a legitimate source of income. It is important to inquire that how did the person get in that position to earn that income.”
As it turned out, the Supreme Court on Septemebr 12 asked the government to consider legislating on setting up of new fast track courts to expedite criminal case trials against parliamentarians and legislators. The Apex Court Bench which was given the names of seven Lok Sabha MPs and 98 MLAs across the country by the CBDT whose assets had seen a substantial hike in between two elections, also said it had perused the names of these politicians and will examine the issue. The verification is pending against 9 Rajya Sabha MPs and 42 MLAs. It said Parliament had the competence to come up with a law and create necessary infrastructure for setting up of such courts for speedy disposal of cases against lawmakers.
Be it noted, the Bench said that, “With regard to MPs and MLAs, it falls under the domain of Parliament. It has the necessary competence to come up with a law. Make law and create necessary infrastructure. Except for some specific tribunals, no new courts have come up. You (Centre) should create new courts and infrastructure as at present, the Government of India is spending only one or two percent of the budget (judicial system). This would also reduce the huge pendency.” It also pulled back no punches in pointing out that inadequate infrastructure in the courts was resulting in pendency and said that Parliament should pass laws and create fast-track courts for speedy disposal of such cases against the lawmakers. Attorney General KK Venugopal agreed that fast track courts were the need of the hour and said that some such courts have in the past done an excellent job and several people, especially those in jails, were benefitted by the system.
To put it bluntly, taking a strong exception to the Centre’s failure in disclosing action taken against politicians whose assets have jumped manifold between two elections, the Supreme Court on September 6 ordered the government to place the necessary information before it . The court pulled up the government after its counsel failed to provide data on how many enquiries has the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) initiated against politicians whose assets have seen a massive jump, in some cases up to 500%, after their elections. It said that, “Why can’t you (central government) provide basic data? You are not averse to electoral reforms but have not placed any necessary details. Is this the attitude of the government of India? What have you done till now?”
Truth be told, Centre said it was not averse to the prayers made in the PIL but the directions sought did not lie within the judicial domain. The counsel argued that an elaborative consultation process has to be undertaken to amend the law. He said that, “All stakeholders need to be taken on board. Data needs to be elicited before we can suggest the changes”. He cited the Centre’s flagship project – Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and said “It is not about cleaning of garbage only”.
It is a no-brainer that the lawyer’s eloquence failed to cut ice with the Bench. It said that, “You better file a detailed affidavit. This affidavit which you have filed is nothing but typed papers. Do not make vague statements. If the CBDT has taken some action, please disclose what action has been taken”. The Bench, however, gave liberty to the government to furnish the data in a sealed cover and also told the lawyer that give reasons if you do not want the information to be made public.
Truly speaking, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) which is an NGO working in the area of political and electoral reforms too has moved an intervention application in the case. It has claimed that assets of 4 current Lok Sabha MPs have increased by 1200%. 22 MPs have declared an asset increase of over 500%. One newly elected Rajya Sabha MP Anil Madhav Dave has declared an asset growth of over 100% since he last filed his affidavit. It also said that seven other newly elected Rajya Sabha MPs have declared increase of over 200%.
On the face of it, the CBDT in its affidavit had indicated prima facie discrepancy with known sources of income in the case of 7 Lok Sabha MPs and 98 MLAs but on the disclosure of names, the affidavit stated that investigation report by DGIT is exempt under Section 24 of the Right to Information Act 2005. Hence these reports cannot be shared in public. But the CBDT added, “The certified true copy of the reports received from DGIT (Investigation) will be submitted separately in sealed cover for the perusal of the Supreme Court.”
It must be added here that the Attorney General KK Venugopal pointed out that the right to privacy now declared a fundamental right, the returns filed by individual candidates is part of his/her privacy that needs to be protected. The Bench said it will have to be balanced against the citizen’s right to know under Article 19(1)(a) for determining which interest is superior. Although Centre refused to disclose details claiming immunity available to DGIT investigation under Right to Information Act, the Bench wondered whether such immunity can exist for lawmakers when people have a Constitutional right to know details of their elected representatives. Justice Chelameswar quoted the Vohra Committee report pertaining to nexus between politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats and said nothing has changed since then! Absolutely right!
“What happened after that? Is it not high time we did something about it?” the Apex Court asked Venugopal as it reserved its order on a PIL that wants it mandatory for politicians to declare their and their family members sources of income at the time of filling up nomination papers. The department court felt, should ascertain the factors that lead an MLA and MP to amass huge wealth within a short span of time.
All said and done, Centre must come clean on it. When PM Narendra Modi wants highest transparency from the people by giving the detailed account of each and every source of income then why should MPs and MLAs be exempted from it? Why should political parties be exempted from it? Why Modi has never spoken on this? Why even no explanation has been sought leave alone action from those MPs and MLAs whose assets have shot up immensely in a very short span of time?
Let me be direct in asking: Why BJP and Congress got 77% donations from unknown sources in 2016? Even Delhi High Court had recently expressed its anger over BJP and Congress getting foreign funds which they were unable to explain the sources from which they got! Supreme Court is absolutely right that Centre must reveal what action it has taken against MPs whose assets have shot up disproportionately! Centre just cannot afford to be a silent spectator as by doing so it will only invite the ire of the highest court of India – Supreme Court! When Centre wants people to give their account of each and every rupee then why MPs and MLAs should at all be exempted? Why Centre allowed a former Rajya Sabha MP and a big business tycoon Vijay Mallya to escape very conveniently to England even after he owed Rs 9000 crore to various banks and had not paid salary to his employees for a long period? Why among the unknown sources of funding, maximum funds were collected under “voluntary contributions” by the BJP, which amounted to Rs 459.56 crore in fiscal 2016 as was revealed by Association for Democratic Reforms? Why rules and regulations only for common man? Why not for MPs, MLAs, political parties and powerful?
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.