In poll-bound Himachal, CBI corners Virbhadra

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Virbhadra SinghHimachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh is a record six-time chief minister and is aiming for a seventh swearing-in ceremony if he is able to lead the Congress to retain power in the state Assembly elections due next year.

But he is also close to another, albeit dubious, record as he is facing custodial interrogation in a case of moneylaundering, corruption and having assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. In case he is taken into custody, which one of the investigating agencies proposes to do, he would be the first sitting chief minister to be put behind bars without facing conviction.

There have been instances, like that of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, who had resigned following her conviction and remained in jail till a higher court stayed her sentence.

Virbhadra Singh, acutely aware of the eventuality as his sources have revealed the plan for his custodial interrogation, has already declared that he would not resign and that he would function as chief minister from inside the jail. This may lead to a political and constitutional crisis but Virbhadra Singh, known to be a fighter, would take the step to garner sympathy before the next elections.

An astute politician, who made his way to becoming chief minister of Himachal Pradesh in 1983, Virbhadra Singh is the scion of the royal family of Rampur Bushesher in Himachal Pradesh and still popularly called ‘Raja sahib’. Incidentally, it is a single charge against him that is being investigated by three agencies of the central government. It pertains to a transaction of Rs 6 crore when he was the Union minister for steel in the UPA government. Virbhadra Singh, while seeking amendments to his three previous Income Tax returns, had claimed that it was horticulture income from his apple orchard and that his agent had left it out by mistake.

This transaction is being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) for money laundering, by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for disproportionate assets and by the Income Tax (IT) department for making allegedly false claims. In its latest move, the CBI has sought the Delhi High Court’s permission to submit a chargesheet in the disproportionate assets case against Virbhadra Singh and others, saying it was ready to file it. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had, in an interim order during October 2015, restrained the agency from arresting, interrogating or filing a chargesheet against Virbhadra in the case without the court’s permission. The matter was later transferred by Supreme Court to the Delhi High Court, but the interim order has not yet been vacated or stayed.

The Delhi High Court had on 6 April this year directed the CBI not to arrest the CM while asking him to join the probe. The direction had come when the court was disposing of CBI’s application seeking vacation of the Himachal Pradesh High Court’s order which, the agency claimed, had “seriously held up” its investigation in the case.

On November 5 last year, the Supreme Court had transferred Virbhadra’s plea from Himachal Pradesh High Court to Delhi High Court, saying it was not expressing any opinion on the merits of the case but “simply” transferring the petition “in interest of justice and to save the institution (judiciary) from any embarrassment”.

CBI had moved the Supreme Court seeking transfer of the case from the Himachal Pradesh HC to Delhi HC, setting aside the interim order granting protection from arrest and other relief to Virbhadra. He had sought directions from the court to quash CBI’s FIR registered in Delhi against him and others under Sections 13 (2) and 13(1)(e) of Prevention of Corruption Act and Section 109 (punishment for abetment) of IPC, and the court had dismissed their plea.

Once the high court gives its assent to file the chargesheet, it will be only a matter of time that it shall also seek permission for his custodial interrogation. The contractor to whom Virbhadra had leased his orchard, Anand Chauhan, also doubled up as his Life Insurance Corporation agent and had purchased a total of 19 policies in his name and that of his wife Pratibha Singh and son Vikramaditya Singh.

In case he is taken into custody, which one of the investigative agencies proposes to do, he would the first sitting chief minister to be put behind bars without facing conviction

Chauhan is currently in judicial remand and the ED has sealed a part of the property belonging to Vikramaditya Singh. The CBI, according to its report leaked to the media, has claimed that Virbhadra and his close family members have an unexplained wealth of about 10 crores. It has found that some of the vehicles which were supposedly used to carry his orchard’s produce in the record books of the contractor had registration numbers given to two-wheelers and cars. He investigating agency has also claimed that the orchard could not have generated an income of Rs 6 crore as claimed by Virbhadra Singh. The Chief Minister is, of course, calling it all a “political vendetta”. He claims that his political rival, ex-CM Prof Prem Kumar Dhumal is behind his present troubles.

Virbhadra and Dhumal have been swapping the CM’s post for over two decades. Each had been known to open inquiries and file cases against the other. Generally, these inquiries are given a quiet burial after the change of government.

This time, however, the dice is loaded heavily against Virbhadra Singh. This is mainly due to the fact that a strong BJP-led government rule at the Centre and Dhumal’s close friend Arun Jaitley is at the helm of affairs in the finance ministry. The ED, as well as the IT departments, report to him. Dhumal’s elder son Anurag Thakur too has an elevated status as the President of the powerful Board of Cricket Control of India (BCCI). Virbhadra had registered a case against Thakur and taken over control of the cricket stadium at Dharamsala, which is Thakur’s baby, although the takeover was later stayed by courts. He had also blocked an India-Pakistan World Cup match at the stadium citing ‘sentiments’ of people against Pakistan-based attacks.

Virbhadra has had two ‘lucky’ escapes in the recent past. One was the ED decision to raid his residence even as Virbhadra was escorting his daughter to her re-marriage at a temple. Evidently, ED had no inkling about the low profile wedding and its officials reached his residence at exactly the time the procession was leaving the house. The incident evoked sympathy for Virbhadra, all the more because his daughter had gone through a bad first marriage. Newspapers flashed pictures of a sobbing bride led by her father even as officials were asked to search the residence.

Virbhadra got another lease of life when the NDA’s attempt to topple the governments of Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand failed. While no one can fault the central government for probing unaccounted wealth, the way the investigations are being pursued smacks of more than an honest purpose. Also, it appears that the insistence on the custodial interrogation of the octogenarian CM, who has not declined to be interrogated, is stretching things too far. After its recent faux pax in two states, the BJP must tread with caution.

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