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Reading the signals from the TN tax raids

By N Sathiya Moorthy
Last updated on: December 22, 2016 19:50 IST

In private, AIADMK spokespersons say that the raid on Chief Secretary P Ramamohana Rao might be aimed at weakening the AIADMK, and demotivating the party from selecting/electing J Jayalalithaa's confidante, Sasikala Natarajan, as her successor -- first as party head then possibly in the government, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

The recent income tax raid on incumbent Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary P Ramamohana Rao has flagged more questions than answers. Earlier there was the well-published raids on sand mining baron Shekar Reddy and his associate Srinivasulu, both of whom had contract dealings with the Tamil Nadu government over the past several years,

It is for the taxman to say if the two raids were connected.

On Tuesday, when the taxman began raids in the residence of Rao, the Central Bureau of Investigation, reportedly acting on a report from the Income-Tax Department, based on earlier raids, arrested Reddy and his assoicate. A local court remanded them to judicial custody.

The state government suspended Rao on Thursday and appointed Dr Girija Vaidyanathan as chief secretary.

This is only the second instance in which central agencies have launched raids against incumbent officials of state governments. 

Last December, the CBI raided the office and residence of Rajendra Kumar, principal secretary to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.  The Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance was in power in both instances.

In the case of Rao, it is unclear if the state government was taken into confidence at the appropriate levels.

In the normal course, such intimation/information would go to the chief secretary, but when the chief secretary is the target-person, the question arises if Chief Minister O Panneerselvam should have been kept in the loop -- beyond possibly Acting Governor C  Vidyasagar Rao.

There is, of course, the question of secrecy involved in such raids. But the question arises if the elected chief minister of a state should not be trusted with a 'secret' of the kind.

Apart from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's statement that such raids were an 'affront' on the nation’s federal principles, the raid on Rao (as different from that on businessman Reddy) raises some pertinent constitutional/procedural questions of some consequence.

News reports claimed that the taxmen had not informed the state government ahead of the raids in Rao's residence and office.

As the head of the state administration, Rao, or anyone else in his place, could have kept sensitive government records/documents for perusal in either of the places.

Should the raiding party be given access to all files in search of documents that they might be looking for, is a question. This includes documents, and notes that the chief secretary might have stored in his computer(s) or hard disks.

Going by reports, the taxmen commissioned the services of the Central Reserve Police Force for security duty, both at Rao's residence and offices -- the latter located in the state government secretariat at Fort St George.

In this case again, it is not known if the CRPF had acquired prior permission/requisition from the state government.

This comes weeks after Mamata had charged the Centre with despatching the army to man check-posts in the state without prior requisition from the latter, or intimation from the former.

The West Bengal controversy, however, died its natural death. The inconvenient and uncomforting possibilities of the future could involve a reversal of roles, anywhere across the country.

Since independence, the Centre and various state governments have followed healthy procedures of sharing information, when the agencies of one of them acting against serving officials, or at times even ministers or legislators, of the other.

The then BJP-NDA government protested when the then All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam state government led by J Jayalalithaa arrested two senior Union ministers, 'Murasoli' Maran and T R Baalu, both belonging to the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in August 2001.

The incident happened when they were protesting the midnight arrest of DMK supremo and former chief minister M Karunanidhi.

Speaking for the Centre at the time was the present-day Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. He was the Union law minister at the time.

Clearly, neither the Centre nor Jaitley at the time, challenged the arrest per se. They were concerned that the Union of India had not been kept duly informed when the two ministers were arrested -- and for a long time after.

Meanwhile, Union Ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Pon Radhakrishnan have since denied that the Modi government was anyway directly involved in the 'Rao raid'.

Sitharaman's family hails from Tamil Nadu while Radhakrishnan, who is also a minister of state, is the BJP member of the Lok Sabha from the southern-most Kanyakumari constituency.

DMK Leader of the Opposition M K Stalin has called the tax-raid on an incumbent chief secretary a 'humiliation' for Tamil Nadu.

Other political party leaders like Pattali Makkal Katchi's Ramadoss and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi's Thol Thirumavalavan too have reacted in a similar vein.

Ruling AIADMK spokespersons, speaking haltingly and selectively to the local media, if at all, have sought to distance the 'Rao raid' with the party or the government.

In private, however, they say that it all might be aimed at weakening the AIADMK, and demotivating the party from selecting/electing Jayalalithaa’s confidante, Sasikala Natarajan, as her successor -- first as party head then possibly in the government.

They also ask why such raids were not conduced when Jayalalithaa was around, as some of the details involved in the raids might have dated back to those days.

Coming as it did only a day after Panneerselvam's meeting Prime Minister Modi for the first time after assuming office, any lack of clarity with regard to the office of the chief secretary could well dislocate the post-Vardah cyclone relief work in Chennai.

There can be no two opinions that the state administration has been working on a war-footing and anyone visiting the city less than a week after the cyclone-havoc would have believed that this was the place where Vardah had felled a hundred thousand trees and thousands of electricity poles and destroyed hundreds of transformers, homes and small businesses.

Unlike in the days of predecessor AIADMK chief ministers, MGR and Jayalalithaa, the incumbent was on the scene every day, and his ministers too had the freedom to do their own work, visit worst-hit sites -- and more so, talk to the media.

This 'whiff of fresh air' being breathed in into the state administration (it was always the case whenever the rival DMK was in power) has begun endearing the Panneerselvam's leadership to the city's population at large, and possibly over the head of the AIADMK second-line, from within Chennai and outside.

It is not unlikely that the DMK, which 'won back' a majority of the assembly constituencies in Greater Chennai from the AIADMK rival after a gap in the May 2016 polls, would now feel as comfortable about winning the Chennai corporation elections, whenever held.

As may be recalled, local bodies elections across the state were put off (only months after the assembly polls) two weeks before they were due when the Madras High Court passed orders to the effect, and admitted a petition alleging irregularities involving the State Election Commission (set up under the Constitution's 74th and 75th Amendments).

Coming as they did after the poll-time raids in the office/residence of some businessmen identified with senior AIADMK ministers in May, there is a general public acceptance of the need for cleansing the state’s politics of the widely-held belief of large-scale, big-time corruption and nepotism.

Neither the DMK (remember, the 2-G scam, Airtel-Maxis case, etc) nor AIADMK ministers barring Jayalalithaa (who did not have a family) have not escaped either of the charges, at their own respective levels.

Such allegations have not escaped Sasikala and her family members either. If nothing else, Sasikala has been a co-accused in most of the corruption cases in which Jayalalithaa ultimately got a court-ordered acquittal.

The most important of them all, the 'wealth case', is pending the Supreme Court’s verdict. With Jayalalithaa, the first accused not alive, the court's decision could still be awaited for the legal and constitutional clarifications on the fate of co-accused, who were not 'public servants' in the context of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

This is more so in an era where judicial activism, combined with executive initiatives and parliamentary legislation, are all aiming to wipe out corruption from the nation's public life.

The immediate and the medium-term question, however, relates to the possible impact of such central action like the Reddy and Rao 'raids' on the popularity of the ruling BJP at the Centre in general and the party's 'anti-graft mascot' in PM Modi in a 'Dravidian' Tamil Nadu without Jayalalithaa on the one hand, and ageing-and-ailing Karunanidhi on the other.

The temptation would be to assume that the BJP, especially with the Congress still on a losing wicket in the state and the two communist parties becoming almost irrelevant to electoral politics, has a vacuum to fill in the first place, and ability to do so.

While on paper, it looks a real possibility, the Congress experience of the post-1967 electoral history of Tamil Nadu has other tales to tell.

If nothing else, the exit of veteran Congress leader K Kamaraj in the midst of Indira Gandhi's Emergency, for instance, had not been provided for in the latter's calculations for creating a 'Tamil Nadu without the Dravidian polity'.

Such imponderables galore in the state, and political pundits have found them too hot to handle whenever they struck.

More importantly, leaders like Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa in particular, and their parties otherwise, have sailed through the politico-electoral storms of the Emergency and the post-Rajiv Gandhi electoral rout (for the DMK) and the post-MGR split and the 1991 poll debacle (in the case of the AIADMK).

As the results of the 2016 elections, the two parties have only become stronger in the years that followed.

The ranks of the 'undecided' swing-voters in the decades since the early nineties have only come down drastically from a high near-50 per cent, to a negligible 10 per cent or so, which anyway had been there in the state almost from the first general elections in 1952.

That way, the two parties have shown that while leaders and their charisma did matter, in deciding especially the victory margins, the parties have learnt to stand on their own legs, fight each others -- and fight ‘outsiders’, too, all at the same time!

IMAGE: Policemen guard the main entrance of Tamil Nadu State Secretariat during the raid at the chamber of Chief Secretary P Ramamohana Rao, who came under the I-T scanner in Chennai on Wednesday. Photograph: R Senthil Kumar/PTI Photo

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

N Sathiya Moorthy in Chennai
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