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When probe agencies are turned into political pawns

When probe agencies are turned into political pawns

The surprise inspections by Vigilance and Anti-corruption Bureau (VACB) at nearly 40 branches of Kerala State Financial Enterprises (KSFE), the non-banking financial institutions owned by Kerala government, has sparked a new political debate. The extensive raids, code-named Óperation Bachat was conducted on suspicions that large-scale black money was deposited in the 'chitties' in KSFE. It is not clear whether the operation were based on intelligence from its own sources or those coming through other complaints, but on the whole the VACB action cannot be alleged to be extra-ordinary. For, each Bureau head is invested with powers to order and approve raids based on intelligence received. Still this one triggered a big ruckus. Finance minister Thomas Isaac entered the scene wondering whose crazy idea it was. He also made no secret of his grouse that the home department's step amounted to questioning the government's credibility in matters including non-resident Keralites chits. With the bigwigs of the ruling party, the CPM also following up on such responses, the raid led to heated deliberations within the ruling party too. It was but natural then that the Opposition also took up the subject, and they have demanded an enquiry by the central invesgitatin agency, the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Most recently, the chief minister ordered discontinuation of the inspection proceedings, in an apparent bid to hush up the matter.

More than being a political controversy, this raid and related happenings have other dimensions too. Lying hidden at the bottom of all this is an extremely pertinent point related to the jurisdiction of state Vigilance Bureau, the government agency working on corruption and misuse of public funds. The VACB is an agency to investigate criminal conduct of public servants as defined in the Prevention of Corruption Act (PC Act 1988), and misuse of public funds in excess of Rs 5 lakhs. In the background of an action by this agency that put the ruling party on the defensive, there came moves to put checks on that very investigative machinery. In the case of KSFE raids, the government is making the very snake that bit it, inject its antidote. The chief minister, who at the initial stage barred follow-up inspections, has now even gone a step further by deciding to enquire into the circumstances surrounding the first inspection itself. The government and the ruling party justify this with the theory that with the local bodies elections drawing near, the raids came as part of some initiatives within the bureaucracy to put the government on the dock. Given the track record of the Vigilance wing so far, this may have some element of truth in it, but that 'justification' for the government's action will only spell the doom of this very mechanism.

It is the very government and a political party that have been severely critical about the interference by central investigative agencies in the gold smuggling and related cases which now meddles with the government arms within their own sphere of control. In fact, there is substance in Pinarayi government's allegation that the Centre is making its investigative agencies a political pawn. Those including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also have endorsed this reading. If the political leaderhip of the government makes inroads into constitutional institutions and into investigative agencies motivated by political benefit, the transparency guaranteed by democracy will be lost. When a contrary move comes from the left government of Kerala, which is bound to be vigilant about such matters, it is sure to disappoint votaries of democracy. This is not the first time that a left government is making such a move. The government which alleges bureaucratic conspiracy on the party of VACB, does not hesitate to employ the same agency against political adversaries. A case in point is the bar bribery case, which the Vigilance itself had technically jettisoned on the way, and is now being dug out targeting some and omitting others; the reasons for this fall under the same category. The government is known for not sparing the constitutional machinery that raises criticisms against it. When the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) passed strictures against the government, rather than answering the points, the government's condemnations went too far to the extent of challenging the credibility of that constitutional entity itself. At the same time, when criticisms based on clear evidence arose about State Public Service Commission, another constitutionally formed entity, the government had no hesitation to take on critics harping on the sacred concept of 'çredibility'. In short, it has become customary for the left government to say everything is hunky-dory when things go in its favour, and to hold them under the shadow of doubt when they turn the other way round. The Vigilance raid and subsequent actions are only the latest in that series. It will do well to remember that ultimately this contradiction in stances will wreck the credibility of such constitutional entities.

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