The feisty chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, is known to take a political vacation between Mahalaya and Jagaddhatri Puja every year but broke her own rule to roundly castigate the Enforcement Directorate which has been going ballistic with its raids on opposition leaders in the past few months, especially in states that will go to the polls for state Assemblies next month. The state’s minister Jyotipriyo Mallick was arrested and remanded to ED custody. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, all states that have elections scheduled in November, have seen what can only be termed as excessive and politically-motivated action by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) as the agency raided, arrested or called non-BJP leaders for questioning.
This week itself, the agency summoned the son of Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot in a forex violation case — the latest in a string of crackdowns in Chhatisgarh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and New Delhi.
If the ED’s actions are read at face value, it seems as if only the opposition leaders across India are allegedly corrupt requiring the agency’s investigation and action while BJP leaders in states where the party has been in power for years are so above board that the agency had not felt the need to look there. Is this even plausible? The agency’s actions, in the past few months and years, have drawn more derision than fear from those targeted which tells its own story of how the ED and its authority are now perceived across the country. When the first few actions against select opposition leaders happened some years ago, there was shock all round in non-BJP circles and the civil society that India’s premier investigation agency was being used so blatantly to pin down opposition leaders before an election or bring pressure on them to jump ship to the BJP. The more the agency has adopted this strategy, on its own counsel or political provocation of its masters, the shock has given way to disdain about the actions and contempt for the agency. Neither of these bode well for the future of the ED and its remit or authority.
This is not the first time that a central investigating agency, despite its independence and autonomy, has turned into a handmaiden of the political party in power. Governments in the past too have relied on central agencies to subdue or discredit opposition leaders, but the Narendra Modi-led governments from 2014 to present day have done this on a scale that is clearly unprecedented and with a blatant brazenness that has made it appear as legitimate action. This was, in the words of aggrieved opposition, a “shocking and unconstitutional state of affairs”. Fourteen opposition parties joined forces to approach the Supreme Court in March this year petitioning for clear pre-arrest and post-arrest guidelines given this misuse of not only the ED but other central agencies too. The SC refused to entertain the petition on the grounds that politicians could not get special treatment and it could not lay down general or abstract guidelines.
The SC may have skirted around the core issue here — selective and targeted action against non-BJP leaders — but the numbers beg impartial review. That the ED raids are targeted harassment of opposition leaders is indicated in the action rate of cases filed after raids; this was 93% between 2005 and 2014, but has dropped to merely 29% in 2014-2022, according to the opposition; the CBI data also shows similar trends. The agencies have been pulled up by lower courts as in Maharashtra or have had to backtrack in high-profile cases such as star-kid Aryan Khan’s alleged drugs case. Chiefs of these agencies, if indeed independent, would have reflected and reviewed the work over the years and taken steps to restore the credibility and autonomy of the agencies. Instead, they seem happy toeing the government’s line. This does not bode well for the agencies at all because governments may come and go, but India’s independent institutions are everlasting. Wanted: independent investigating agencies.