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When bribery became official in India

Last updated on: September 14, 2011 14:39 IST

It is now on record that the Congress has a history of paying money -- call it 'donations' for 'cooperation' if you like -- to MPs from the Opposition benches, says T V R Shenoy.

Take your calendar, and draw a huge red circle around the twelfth of September, 2011. This, you see, is the date that bribery became official in India.

The headlines were all about Amar Singh and the 'Notes for Votes' scandal that pulled the Manmohan Singh ministry through a vote of confidence on July 22, 2008. This, in the unlikely event that anyone has forgotten, was the one where BJP MPs exhibited the crores of rupees allegedly paid to them to vote for the Congress-led government.

But this was only the second instance where such a thing had happened. The first such case came on July 28, 1993, when the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha decided to support the P V Narasimha Rao ministry. (What is it about July and bribery scandals in Parliament?)

Rumours of crores of rupees changing hands forced investigations, and four MPs -- Shibu Soren, Suraj Mandal, Simon Marandi, and Shailendra Mahto -- were named in the scandal, along with Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and Buta Singh.

Following several twists and turns the case ended with a Supreme Court ruling on April 17, 1998 that MPs could not be prosecuted for their actions in Parliament. (Justice S C Agrawal and Justice A S Anand dissented from the majority opinion given by Justice S P Bharucha and Justice S Rajendra Babu, with a separate concurrence by Justice G N Ray.) The reverberations of that judgment are still echoing, but let us leave them aside for the moment, and discuss a smaller detail -- the money that was paid to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha members.

The tax authorities found unaccounted money in the Punjab National Bank's Nauroji Nagar branch in New Delhi. This cash turned out to be in the name of the four Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs mentioned above. The income tax department insisted that the quartet should pay tax on this, upon which the four approached the income tax appellate tribunal for relief.

Staggeringly, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leaders calmly accepted that they had received money from the Congress. But, according to them, this was a voluntary donation by the Congress of Rs 1.02 crore (Rs 10.2 million) 'for the cause espoused by the party and for the welfare of the people of Jharkhand,' and that 'this amount was deposited in the bank accounts in the name of executives functioning for JMM party for the reason that the party can function in that area through its office bearers.'

This 'donated' amount, they claimed, could not be taxed even if the bank accounts were in the names of certain individuals rather than that of their party.

'The JMM and Congress had agreed to cooperate with each other. The Congress party approached the JMM party to help it in the national interest and not to vote against the Narasimha Rao government in Parliament,' was how one of their lawyers summed it up.

R P Tolani and A K Garodia of the income tax appellate tribunal accepted this argument, waiving both the tax and the penalty demanded by the assessment officer in 1997.

To quote from the 37-page ruling: 'We have held that no addition is justified in the present case, either in respect of deposits in various bank accounts with PNB Noroji Nagar, New Delhi or various other additions made by the AO [assessment officer], which are not relatable to any evidence found in course of search... We are of the considered opinion that no adjudication is called for regarding various other contentions raised by the learned advocate regarding non existence of search, or non validity of search for the reason that there is no panchnama or that there is no notice issued by the AO u/s 143(2) after filing of block return etc... We do not decide these aspects because now these aspects are of academic interest only once it is held by us that no addition made by the AO in the present cases is sustainable. We, therefore, do not decide these aspects. In the result, all these four appeals filed by these four individual assesses are allowed in the terms indicated above.'

So, where does this leave us? If you take the Supreme Court judgment to its logical conclusion no member of Parliament may be prosecuted for accepting a bribe. Following the income tax appellate tribunal's decision one cannot even claim to tax the bribe money if it is classified as a 'donation', least of all one made 'in the national interest.'

One fact, however, stands out clearly amidst the ruins of the case against the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha quartet. It is now on record that the Congress has a history of paying money -- call it 'donations' for 'cooperation' if you like -- to MPs from the Opposition benches.

Here is a second fact, namely that while the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs might have taken money, the actual beneficiary in that instance was the Congress, which kept its government going in Delhi for three more years.

Let us keep both these facts in mind when considering the 'Notes for Votes' scandal of 2008. Let us also bear in mind what the MP for Rampur, P Jaya Prada Nahata, said on September 8 about Amar Singh being sent to Tihar jail. The actress-turned-politician warned that many 'beneficiaries' would be in trouble if her mentor opened his mouth. 'He is not the beneficiary (of the vote of confidence), there are others,' she announced. Who can question her logic?

I cannot end without sharing this tidbit. Investigators on the money trail found that at least part of the 'donation' had been flown to Delhi from Karnataka, with some bundles carrying the regulation slips identifying as being from a Bengaluru branch of Canara Bank.

But the suitcases designated for this delicate task of 'cooperation' were so fragile that they broke at Delhi's airport!

So who was the chief minister of Karnataka back then? Not to insinuate that he was involved in anything so shoddy, of course!

TV R Shenoy