Friday, January 14, 2011

The Lord and his Son-in-Law

As someone who had been a judge in the higher judiciary for several years, Justice K.G.Balakrishnan cannot pretend innocence over the acts by his kith and kin, the assets they have amassed and particularly so when it is worth a lot more than their known source of income. Only the naïve can argue that he shall not be held responsible for their acts. It is hard to believe that there was no such meeting of minds between the father-in-law and the sons-in-law in this instance.

To argue that the father-in-law cannot be held responsible for the acts of his sons in law may sound legally tenable but when seen in context, as this one is, there is nothing to suggest that they were estranged to the extent that one did not know what the other was doing! It is difficult to believe that Justice Balakrishnan’s son-in-law, P.V.Sreenijan, on his own, could have turned so prosperous to buy so much property.

Between 1996 and now, Sreenijan’s assets have grown multifold. From a mere cash balance of Rs. 25,000, 23 sovereigns of gold and 29.32 cents of land, the former CJI’s son in law is now in possession of property worth several crores around Kochi. This story of Sreenijan’s growth -- from being one more of the middle-class men into one who bought large tracts of land in a town that is turning into a concrete jungle – is indeed so strikingly similar to any one of the popular Malayalam cinema starring a Mamooty, Mohanlal or Suresh Gopi (as the messiahs who expose and break that nexus). But then, this one is real and there is no way that messiahs can change the course. This is a case where evidence of the transactions is incontrovertible and are legally sustainable in real life and calls for an institutional response.

Even if Justice Balakrishnan holds that he had nothing to do with Sreenijan’s affluence, the former CJI will have to walk that extra mile to establish his case. And until then it cannot be taken that it is a case of our first Dalit CJI being hounded by an upper caste driven intelligentsia. Sreenijan’s rise, after all, happened around the same time when his father in law happened to rise in the higher judiciary and a popular perception of a nexus between the two cannot be brushed aside as mere imagination

More than a decade ago, a committee headed by N.N.Vohra, then a Secretary in the Union Home Ministry, was drafted to look into the nexus between the criminal and the politician. Vohra’s report laid down that the nexus was deep. Things are far more horrific today. The Vohra Committee Report underlined the criminal-politician nexus and shocked the nation. But the decade since then was marked by inaction. And now, it is not just the criminal and the politician. It involves members of the higher judiciary as well and a section of the media.

Take the case of Justice Balakrishnan. Only a few weeks ago did we find the former CJI guilty of omission in a case involving the then Union Minister for Telecom, A.Raja, attempting to manage an anticipatory bail for someone accused in a criminal case. And Justice Balakrishnan made a spectacle of himself and the high office he holds when the ugly episode stared at his face last month. Justice Balakrishnan went on record with statements that were not true.

This context, indeed, lends credence to the perception that there is something shady about the meteoric rise of his kin and where the property he now possesses is worth a lot more than his known sources of income. A perception that the former CJI is not above board is inevitable and the onus is upon him to clear the cloud. His response that his kin shall defend themselves is as rhetorical as the popular response by corrupt politicos that the-law-will-take-its-course. The point is that in a society that we live in, the law does not take its course when those from among the bent and the beautiful are dealt with.

Legendary communist, EMS Namboodiripad, once said that the nature of the judiciary being one with an ideology to save the bourgeois order, it was not possible for the poor and the oppressed to expect justice from there. He was hauled for contempt and a symbolic fine of Re. 1 imposed on him for that. A repeat of that is not possible given the amendment to the law with effect from 2006. Truth is now a valid defence insofar as the law is concerned.

It must then follow that the various cases on which Justice Balakrishnan sat on judgment, since his elevation to the higher judiciary, are put under the scanner and the same be done about such other decisions in which he was involved including the manner in which appointments were made to the higher judiciary while he was at the helm in the apex curt and in the various high courts as well. This, in no way, is to allude that he did wrong in all those instances. It is not even an allusion that some such acts were wrong. But then all explaining those actions is indeed imperative. Sunlight, as it is said, is the best disinfectant.

There are some other aspects too. Among them is the fact that K.G.Bhaskaran, who happens to be the former CJI’s brother, having had the privilege of continuing as Special Government Pleader for several years despite the UDF and the LDF coming to power in the State over the years. This may appear to be nothing to the lay-person. But to those familiar with the appointment of Government Pleaders, this is unusual. It is a puzzle that Mr. Bhaskharan, a Congress appointee, was found amenable to the CPI(M). This is a story that the CPI(M) will have to explain now.

Another facet of the scandal that calls for urgent intervention from the political class is about the way the lords of the higher judiciary are chosen and appointed. The present system where the judges to the High Courts are chosen from among the practitioners in the Bar based on a recommendation by the Collegium (consisting the Chief Justice of the respective High Court and the two senior most judges of that court) has not worked.

The judiciary, like the executive and the legislature are described in our school texts as the pillars on which our democracy rests. But then, the kind of stories that are now tumbling out may lead to a situation where the citizens end up doing what a dog does to a pillar. For the sake of preventing that and saving the nation and its constitution, the tales involving the former CJI’s kin must be taken as a serious warning signal and acted upon. And it is incumbent upon Justice Balakrishnan to submit himself to scrutiny rather than resorting to rhetoric that the-law-will-take-its-course. As a first step in this direction he shall step down as chief of the NHRC, submit himself to scrutiny.

A society where a Binayak Sen is sentenced to life imprisonment even while it allows such blatant corruption where members of the judiciary, the legislature and the executive are involved cannot sustain democracy.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Bofors Story Will Continue to Haunt...

The Bofors scandal involving Ottavio Quattrocchi cannot be buried so easily. But then, since the story involves the Congress party’s most important family, it is unlikely that the order of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal provokes the Congress party to stick to the zero-tolerence-to-corruption line extolled by Prince Rahul Gandhi at Burari. It may be that Quattrocchi did not share the money he got as kickback for the Bofors deal with Sonia Gandhi. But then, it is now a fact that has been proved so many times and in so many fora that Quattrochi got the money along with Win Chaddha and the Hindujas.

The ITAT order of December 31, 2010 was that having taken the money, which is admitted, the money will be treated as income and hence taxable. In other words, the order simply says that at least a part of the ill-gotten wealth can be recovered and put into the account of the government from Quattrocchi. And that money can then be spent on the personnel engaged in Operation Greenhunt or to pay up the prosecution lawyer who ensured a life term for Binayak Sen in the Raipur Court. Well. That money can also be spent on setting up a primary school in some remote village or a primary health centre somewhere or to construct a house to someone who sleeps on the pavement in any one of our cities.

That is not the core concern now. The issue is that the Government of India is now bound to take that money (a small percentage of the kickbacks that the Chaddas, the Hindujas and the Quattrocchis received into their secret accounts – Svenska, Pitco and AE Services -- in the Swiss Banks as Income Tax dues. And the CBI, meanwhile, is seeking closure of the case involving the illegal payoff and the criminality involved in it. In other words, one arm of the Government wants closure of the case while another has come to a decision that some money from them is due to the Government.

Look at the irony. The act of receiving the money from Bofors is blatantly illegal. Those who received the money, initially denied any receipt and once it was proved beyond doubt that the money was received by them and was deposited into their secret accounts in the Swiss Banks, one of them took a night flight to Malaysia from New Delhi. He was Ottavio Quattrochi, a friend of Sonia Gandhi and a regular guest at their home when Sonia Gandhi’s husband, Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. It makes sense to recall the Quattrocchi connection in the Bofors story as briefly as it is possible at this stage.

Among the coded accounts, Pitco belonged to the Hindujas and Svenska to Win Chadha. AE Services was first described by Bofors as a British firm headquartered in Guildford, Surrey, owned and promoted by a Major Bob Wilson. It was discovered, later, that AE Services had no office. The address was of a post-box in a solicitor’s firm. The total capital of the company was £100 divided into a hundred shares of one pound each. Major Wilson owned one share. The rest were owned by a shadowy Leichtenstein corporation. It is likely that Rajiv Gandhi knew, even at that time, that the mysterious `Q’ in Martin Ardbo’s diary was Ottavio Quattrocchi, his family’s friend. And hence the then Prime Minister did not order investigation into the case.
But then, on July 23, 1993, it was revealed by the Swiss Courts that AE Services was a shell company operated by Colbar Investments, incorporated in the Panama Islands and that it was controlled by Ottavio Quattrocchi and his wife Maria Quottrocchi. It was now clear that of the Rs. 64 Crores paid into the three coded accounts by Bofors, 73 lakh US Dollars (Rs. 18.7 Crores) went into Quattrocchi’s account in the Nordfinanz Bank in Zurich. The deposit was made on September 3, 1986. It was now clear that the `Q’ mentioned in Ardbo’s diary was Ottavio Quattrocchi.

Quattrocchi represented Snam Progetti, an Italian firm involved in the setting up fertilizer plants, in India since 1964 and had become an influential player in Delhi after 1984. Bofors engaged him to help them swing the gun deal and clinch it before March 31, 1986 and he was paid 73 lakh US Dollars for the service he rendered. Most of the funds were transferred to the Union Bank of Switzerland, Geneva into the account of Colbar Invesment and moved out of that account too (within a couple of months) to yet another bank in the British Channel Islands. Quattrocchi remained in India for several years after the scandal broke out in April 1987 and even after V.P.Singh became Prime Minister. He was trying to block the release of his bank papers by the Swiss Banks authorities. And when the Swiss courts confirmed, on July 23, 1993, that Quattrocchi was the man behind AE Services, the Italian national flew off to Malaysia from New Delhi on the night of July 29, 1993.

Well. The amount involved in the Bofors scandal was just small change when compared with the more recent scams. But then, we have all the evidence needed in that case and all that was collected by the CBI, in bits and pieces and at times when the Congress party was out of power. And every time the Congress returned to power, the CBI wanted to close down the investigation: Because one of those who made so much money happened to be a friend of Sonia Gandhi. And he prospered in India during the time Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister. He wielded a lot of power in Delhi because of his friendship with Sonia Gandhi!