The Income Tax raids on a senior Karnataka Minister have become a point of contention between the Congress and the BJP both in the state and at the Centre. The debate surrounding the raids has multiple layers to it. There are four broad sets of issues involved. First, the conduct of the raids, secondly their timing, thirdly, the flow of information relating to them and finally their political implications.
For quite some time now, the role of money power in Indian politics in general and in elections in particular has become the focus of public debate and attention. Citizens have often been sceptical about the expenditure returns filed by candidates at the end of an election. It is an open secret that the accounted expenditure falls way below the actual. And the different sources of funding received by political parties have often been a mystery and largely unaccounted. Cleansing the electoral/political process has been high on the agenda of reforms. And so the fight against corruption and unaccounted wealth will always win public applause. For instance, the recent demonetisation of big currency notes was largely backed by the common citizen on this ground. Raids by the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax department are also welcomed by people as part of the larger fight against corruption, unaccounted wealth and black money. If there is a foolproof case for the conduct of a raid, people will unequivocally support it irrespective of the big names involved. Even Congress leaders have said they favour action against those who may be guilty of amassing wealth by illegal means.
But its on the timing of the raids that there is mixed response. The Union government has argued that the departments concerned have been working on the case for some time and conducted the raids only after all the necessary and valid evidence was collected. On the other hand, the `selectivity` of the raids has raised many an eyebrow. After the raids against those running the Delhi government and key political players of Bihar, the focus now seems to be on leaders in Karnataka. One also needs to take into account the criticism that no such high visibility raids have been conducted on political leaders close to the ruling party at the Centre. The report of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) points out that although many Ministers of the Union government have cases registered against them, no action is being taken against them. Madhya Pradesh saw the massive Vyapam scam and while the probe may have exposed the political nexus involved, one sees very little action being taken by the agencies concerned. Critical in the fight against corruption is the impartiality and a-political nature of the investigation.
A third element of the recent raids is the wider political context in which they were conducted. The raids coincided with the Congress MLAs from Gujarat enjoying a brief sojourn in Karnataka to stop them from being “poached” in their home state and the Minister, who was raided, was incidentally in charge of them and was met by the investigating team at the very same resort they were staying in.
While all democratic polities need to have investigating agencies entrusted with ensuring probity in public life, they must be independent, autonomous and not accountable to the government of the day to ensure their impartiality. The fact that Union Ministers could make statements in Parliament on the raids even as they were being conducted raises questions about the autonomy and independence of these agencies.
Finally, what are the wider implications of the raids on the politics of the state, especially when the elections are less than a year away? Prior to the raids one saw the ruling Congress party in the state attempting to set the political/electoral agenda. It appeared to have united behind the Chief Minister, who was clearly projected as the leader under whom the party would contest the polls. A range of initiatives by the Chief Minister in the recent past had seen a new buoyancy in the ruling party. The debate on a separate flag for the state, the Bengaluru declaration on social justice at the end of the International Conference on Babasaheb Ambedkar, the short film evoking pride in Kannada and being Kannadiga and of course the move to give minority status to the Lingayats/Veerashaivas were all steps carefully crafted by the state government and its leadership to set an electoral agenda. The BJP was clearly on the backfoot in trying to respond to each of these issues.
The I-T raids and the politics that surround them seems to have (at least temporarily) altered the equations. In an election season, to be seen as fighting against corruption always helps one win political brownie points. In the coming days the BJP is likely to exploit this issue to the hilt and seek the maximum political advantage from it. Its response has not been immediate as it will then be seen as political vendetta, but with the passage of time and with more information being `leaked` to the public one is likely to see the BJP exploit this issue to gain the political upper hand. The Congress has been pushed to the defensive and while it has drawn attention to the timing of the raids, this is not likely to cut much ice with the voters for the simple reason that common citizens always favour action against what is perceived to be unethical.
The I-T raids have undoubtedly united the Congress party and one is likely to see this unity play out more clearly in the coming weeks. The party now has the daunting task of highlighting the political timing of the raids by the Centre even while ensuring that it is not seen as backing corruption and unethical practices.
In the coming months one is likely to see many more subtle twists to the political debate on the I-T raids in the state and as the assembly elections near the political temperature will surely rise....