The last time India was shaken by high-profile raids, the man at the centre of it was not a former finance minister but a sitting one.
In 1985 and 1986, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, seen as a crusader against corruption and tax evasion before he became a master of caste politics as prime minister who implemented job quotas for backward castes/classes, vowed to crack down on tax evasion. He stepped on too many toes for his own good, eventually leading to his fallout with the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. He later emerged as an Opposition leader who ousted the Congress from power.
A round of raids on former finance minister P Chidambaram, his son Karti and former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad this week brought back memories of the late VP Singh, whose squeaky clean image had made him a national hero before he became a fallen angel. A lot has changed in India since those times, and what was then considered proper is now almost unthinkable. After protests from businessmen who complained that their names were being tarnished merely on the basis of publicity given to the raids, the government went soft on publicising the operations. Singh himself was shifted out of the finance ministry with historical consequences that led to Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat in 1989.
As stories of those times show, raids have been a common tool to crack down on corruption. They were often called — euphemistically by government officials — as “search and seizure” operations. Before the courts can hear the implicated person’s version, television channels and other news outlets have painted an image of the person in question in a negative light. For political parties which gain from promoting such imagery, raids can be an effective tool to achieve that purpose.
Raids also can – as in the days of VP Singh – enable upright officials to gather evidence of the kind not ordinarily possible by parsing official papers like tax returns. But only the naïve will believe that stealthy operations by the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate and income-tax sleuths have no political colour. How does one expect a prime minister or finance minister who rides to power on the promise of cracking down on corruption not encourage such acts? The real deal, however, is in whether there is a deeper power game that goes beyond the idea of merely cleaning up the system. “The law is made for everyone and does not recognise your address,” Singh had famously said during his tough-guy days. We will never know whether that cost him his job — it probably did. More important, it led him later to the country’s most important job.
Those who order raids can become heroes and those who are at the receiving end can become villains or victims, depending on whom you speak to. Bhure Lal, who can now be seen in New Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens, routinely and quietly in retirement, was a national hero in the late 1980s as a sleuth before he was sidelined into oblivion.
Raids can also help governments send out powerful messages. Some of these messages go to outsiders who may be discouraged from mixing with those targeted. Some other messages are for internal customers like bureaucrats. The clean ones get encouraged and others get pressured to perform and hunt harder for evidence to corner wrong-doers. Those close to dubious entities get sidelined or worse. Smaller politicians or bureaucrats get signals to come out with details or switch sides. Some bureaucrats or aides of those raided may turn into whistle-blowers. Raids produce new winners and losers. But whether they improve administration or result in a new wave of murky politics is for historians to mull over. Those who saw VP Singh as a big hero turned against him when he changed his focus from corruption to caste. Democracy is a fickle animal.
The author is a senior journalist. He tweets at @madversity