CBI Raids on Manish Sisodia: Central Agencies Not Fighting Corruption. They intimidate the opposition, stifle dissent

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A vibrant political opposition is the heart and soul of any functioning democracy. In fact, a vigilant opposition serves democracy by keeping the government accountable to the electorate. Attempts to silence the opposition through coercion or intimidation will render democracy completely meaningless. Indian democracy, despite its weaknesses and limitations, has always had space for political opposition as well as dissenting opinions since independence, except for the two-year state of emergency. The space and the strength of the opposition helped the country get rid of the emergency.

Since 2014, however, a “New India” narrative has been unfolding. What is the hallmark of New India? How is this fundamentally different from the pre-2014 era?

Critics of this narrative believe that the “New India” is nothing more than a transitional phase on the road to a fascist and theocratic state. This phase is perceived as authoritarian, the immediate goal of which is to make the country “unopposed”. The ruling party has constantly brandished the slogan of an “Opposition-mukt Bharat”. Along with the slogan, many movements directed against the opposition have raised real concerns. The apprehension is that all instruments of the state are being mobilized and deployed to pursue the goal of ‘opposition-mukt Bharat’. A series of events reinforces the argument that central investigative agencies are being used as the most potent weapon in the government’s arsenal to rid the country not just of political opposition, but of all forms of dissent .

Every other day, central agencies are on the doorstep of an opposition leader or whatever. Newest to be visited is Delhi Deputy CM Manish Sisodia. Why are these searches and raids by agencies considered politically motivated? First, there has been an increase in the number of raids carried out and cases recorded by these agencies over the past eight years. According to a response to a question in Parliament, the Directorate of Enforcement carried out 3,010 searches between 2014 and 2022. Between 2004 and 2014, it carried out only 113 searches: Thus, over the past eight years, searches at the ED experienced 27 searches. multiplied by 1 compared to the 10 years under the previous government. Again, over the past eight years, the ED has recorded 22,320 cases of Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) violations; 72% of FEMA cases and 65% of PMLA cases have been recorded since 2014.

Second, ED’s conviction rate is extremely low at 0.5%. Over the past eight years, out of 888 cases (which resulted in 3,010 raids), only 23 resulted in a conviction. Over the past 10 years, 1,569 cases have been registered against political leaders, of which only nine have been convicted. This extremely low conviction rate is being put forward as a valid argument by the opposition in support of their argument that FEMA and PMLA are political weapons to harass and torture opponents, rather than instruments to fight against Corruption.

Third, almost all senior opposition leaders including CMs, ex-CMs, political party leaders and ministers were interrogated or had their residences/offices raided. These raids and interrogations are carried out with a lot of hype. Sometimes it seems like the whole exercise is aimed at making it easier for the party in power to score political points.

Fourth, claims by opposition parties that these agencies are used as key instruments to engineer defections, tame dissidents, destabilize and overthrow governments cannot be dismissed as unfounded. Nearly half a dozen state governments have been overthrown in the recent past. Electoral mandates were sabotaged and new governments were installed against the wishes of the people of these states.

Controversies around raids and intimidation by various central agencies erupt whenever there is political instability in the states. Critics point out that some of the prominent leaders who were previously under the ED’s radar while in an opposition party are untouched after switching loyalties. This is cited as a blatant example of discriminatory treatment and political vendetta at the behest of those in power. It is up to the government and its agencies to factually prove these claims to be false in order to maintain the credibility of the entire system. However, they have yet to offer a valid defense.

In India, investigative agencies are not required to obtain judicial authorization to search or prosecute an individual. This gives immense power and freedom to these agencies to act against anyone and provides ample political leeway.

In countries like the United States, federal law enforcement agencies are required to obtain search warrants from the court. Neither the Departments of Justice nor the FBI have the authority to act unilaterally. A federal judge or magistrate must approve these agencies’ request to conduct a search, and they must also establish that the search is likely to find evidence of illegality. If it turns out that the warrant is missing, the search is considered illegal. Courts have also ruled that search warrants must describe the location and nature of the search precisely to prevent possible abuse. In contrast, in India, we have no such guarantees. The absence of such safeguards is a serious shortcoming that opens the door to politically motivated raids and house searches.

Agencies first conduct raids, then try to make a deal – and they often fail to do so. A few days ago, the former finance minister of Kerala Thomas Issac was summoned by the agency and he had to go to the High Court, which ordered that he did not have to appear.

Another serious allegation is that rather than finding evidence, the raids became opportunities to plant evidence. In a controversial case, the defendants alleged that spyware was used to implant evidence in their computers. In support of their claim, forensic examination reports by certain laboratories in the United States were also produced. When cell phones and computers containing private information are seized, a raid can result in a violation of an individual’s right to privacy. In the case of Thomas Isaac, the HC raised this issue of confidentiality.

The recent Supreme Court verdict confirming the powers of the ED has further encouraged the agency to carry out its activities. However, dissenting opinions have also been expressed by prominent jurists like Justice Nageswara Rao against granting broad powers to the ED.

The oft-cited criticism describing the CBI as a caged parrot was made by Judge RM Lodha in 2013. Since then, things have only gotten worse. The “caging” of investigative agencies has seriously affected their credibility, reputation and professional competence. This will have far-reaching consequences for the real fight against corruption and for democracy as a whole. All of our investigative agencies must be unleashed and not unleashed illegally against the opposition and dissidents.

The writer is Speaker of Kerala Assembly and a former CPM MP

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