At 8 pm on 8 November 2016, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to a live broadcast on Doordarshan to make the historic announcement that the government was demonetising notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, emphasising his commitment to ridding India of the “evils of corruption” and black money, at least five central agencies or commissions in Delhi were sitting on a tranche of documents that allegedly indicated that Modi had accepted bribes in excess of Rs 55 crore, or eight million dollars. It is unclear from the documents, whether there were 13 separate transactions that involved Modi and came to a total of Rs 55.2 crore or nine transactions totalling Rs 40.1 crore. In the documents, there appears to be a repetition of four specific transactions, which took place between 30 October 2013 and 29 November 2013 and have been accounted for under two separate headings.
The documents, which have been doing the rounds in Delhi for the last few months, suggest that during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi—along with a number of important politicians—was paid large amounts of cash by individuals associated with Subrata Roy, the founder-chairman of the Sahara India Group. These documents also suggest that the recipients of such favours included, among others: Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh; Raman Singh, the chief minister of Chhattisgarh; Shaina NC, the treasurer for the Bharatiya Janata party in Maharashtra and; Sheila Dikshit, the former chief minister of Delhi.
On 17 November, The Caravan and The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) e-mailed and wrote letters to Modi, Chouhan, Singh, Shaina NC and Dikshit, seeking their responses to the information contained in the documents—which the income tax department seized during a raid it conducted on various premises of the Sahara India Group in the national capital region on 22 November 2014. At the time of publication, no responses had been received. These responses will be published as and when they come in.
The documents that were seized during the raids are appear to have been signed by Ankita Pandey, deputy director, Income Tax (Investigation) and counter-signed by other government officials along with a representative from the Sahara India Group. When I spoke to Pandey over the phone on 3 November, she said she was on a long leave. She added that she was not authorised to speak to the media and could, therefore, neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the documents. These documents are currently in the possession of at least a dozen journalists and a similar number of senior government officials, who were sent scanned or photocopied versions of the papers.
The documents form a part of an Interim Application (IA) that has been filed by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Common Cause, in its pending petition challenging the appointment of Kosaraju Veerayya Chowdary, the chief vigilance commissioner of India since June 2015. The organisation filed this IA on 15 November 2016. It is being represented by the lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who had earlier written letters to nine individuals, attaching copies of some of the documents that had been seized during the raid on the Sahara India Group. Bhushan sent these letters, with detailed annexures, in the course of the last week of October.
Bhushan wrote to two retired judges of the Supreme Court of India, Justices M B Shah and Arijit Pasayat, who comprise the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on black money instituted by the Supreme Court; the director, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI); the director, Enforcement Directorate (ED); the chairman, Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), which administers the working of the Income Tax Department; the member (Investigation) of the CBDT; the chairperson, Income Tax Settlement Commission (ITSC); K V Chowdary the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) and two Vigilance Commissioners Tejendra Mohan Bhasin and Shri Rajiv. (Incidentally, Chowdary held key positions in the CBDT and the Department of Revenue when raids were conducted on the premises of the Aditya V Birla group in October 2013, and on the Sahara India Group in November 2014. He is the first officer from the Indian Revenue Service to hold the post of the CVC. It has traditionally been held by an officer from the Indian Administrative Service.)
In his letters, Bhushan asked each of these offices why various law-enforcing agencies of the government had not initiated action against those whose names feature in the documents and have allegedly acquired assets disproportionate to known sources of income. He claimed that different wings of the government were sitting tight on important documents indicating “bribery” and “corruption” even as the accused persons and firms were attempting to strike conciliatory agreements with the tax authorities through the Settlement Commission. (The objective behind establishing the Settlement Commission was to “create a channel whereby tax disputes can be settled expeditiously and in a spirit of conciliation rather than prolonging them through [an] adversarial attitude.”)
These documents bear an uncanny resemblance to the infamous Jain Hawala dairies that were found two decades ago. In 1996, these dairies, which came into the possession of the CBI, indicated those associated with businessperson Surinder Kumar Jain and his brother had made payments to a host of important political personalities such as L K Advani, Madhavarao Scindia, Balram Jakhar, V C Shukla, Madan Lal Khurana, P Shiv Shankar and Arif Mohammed Khan, among others. While a lower court had ordered the CBI to frame charges against these politicians, the higher courts ruled that the diary entries did not qualify as “admissible evidence.” The Supreme Court, however, ruled that whenever any record indicating illegal payments to public functionaries is recovered by any government agency, a thorough and independent investigation must be undertaken. Legally, the income tax department and the CBI, who have not conducted any investigations on the documents that were seized at the raids at the offices of the Sahara India Group and the AV Birla group of companies yet, have gone against the Supreme Court ruling.
Although any investigation into the documents filed by Common Cause may well go the way of the Jain Hawala dairies, there are certain important differences. While the documents include the names of just about every important politician in India, cutting across party lines, often with figures written or typed next to them in Hindi and English, the records relating to the alleged payments made to Modi, Chouhan, Raman Singh, Dikshit and Shaina NC are distinct. In the case of these five individuals, specific dates, amounts and persons who apparently delivered the cash have been mentioned.
I first learnt about the existence of these documents on 28 July 2016 from the member of parliament and well-known lawyer Ram Jethmalani, who was expelled from the BJP in May 2013. During an informal conversation that followed a panel discussion at the India International Centre in Delhi, Jethmalani told me—in the presence of around half-a-dozen individuals (including a Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP)—that the documents that had been seized by income tax officials from the offices of the Sahara India Group were “explosive” as they suggested that Modi had received huge cash payments. I repeatedly asked the 93-year-old lawyer if he would show me the documents but he was non-committal. A number of phone calls to him over the next few weeks elicited no response.
More than two months later, a source close to a politician slipped a brown-paper envelope containing a bundle of photocopied documents under the door of my residence in the national capital region. As I made inquiries with my sources in the government and among my fellow journalists, I realised that at least twenty individuals known to me had access to these papers. Some of them offered me documents that I did not possess at that time. I asked them why they had not filed reports based on the documents. A few of them said they were not sure of the authenticity of the papers. I asked them if they had tried to ascertain the veracity of the documents from the persons named in them. They said they would.
A senior journalist alleged that the government had prepared a “cover-up” plan, according to which it would claim that a disgruntled employee from the Sahara India group had manufactured these documents in an effort to blackmail his boss, Subrata Roy. Roy—in relation to another case filed by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI)—has had to spend two years in Tihar Jail on the orders of the Supreme Court for allegedly defrauding investors and failing to deposit funds to obtain bail. (He was let out of jail on parole in May after his mother passed away. The regulator still insists that the company needs to repay Rs 47,000 crore, nearly 6 billion dollars). Meanwhile, the bunch of papers with me started getting thicker.
I subsequently discovered, that on 28 June, Jethmalani had writted to Satyendar Jain, minister in the government of the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi. Jethmalani had attached the documents recovered from the raid and a copy of an official letter that the income tax officer Ankita Pandey had signed in December 2015, with a request to verify whether the signatures on the two sets of papers belonged to the same person. On 1 July, Anurag Sharma, assistant director (Documents), Regional Forensic Science Laboratory, Government of the NCT of Delhi, wrote to G Sudhakar, the secretary to Jain, stating that the signatures on the two documents “appear to be written by one and the same person”.
After documents are seized by income tax officials during a raid, these are examined and evaluated by a different officer who then prepares a detailed “appraisal report” outlining the possible future course of action. According to a report by Ritu Sarin and Pragya Kaushika, published in the Indian Express on 16 November, a voluminous appraisal report running into “thousands of pages” on the papers pertaining to Sahara has been prepared and is being looked into by an assessment officer.
A day earlier, on 15 November, The Hindu had carried a report by Josy Joseph titled “Bhushan Seeks Investigation into ‘Political Payouts’” but without the names of Modi or other prominent politicians. Subsequently, Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi dropped a bombshell on the floor of the Delhi Assembly. Kejriwal disclosed the contents of a document that had been seized during the search and seizure raid by the income tax department on the premises of the Aditya V Birla Group of companies on 15 October 2013. The document contains an entry which states “Gujarat CM – 25 cr (12 done – rest?).”
Although BJP spokespersons promptly denied the implications of the contents of the document seized from the premises of the Birla group of companies, Modi had not issued any formal denial at the time that this story was being published. The documents annexed in the Common Cause PIL include handwritten transcripts of interrogation sessions with A V Birla group executive Shubhendu Amitabh, during which he claimed that the references to the “Gujarat CM” were “personal jottings” made by him and referred to a caustic soda manufacturing company called Gujarat Alkalies and Chemicals.
What do the three excel sheets—which are possibly just a minuscule part of the entirety of the documents that were seized—allegedly indicate? The log sheets show cash receipts aggregating Rs 115 crore over a period of ten months between May 2013 and March 2014—the months leading up to the 2014 general elections.
In the case of Shaina N C, the alleged payments total Rs 5 crore between 10 September 2013 and 28 January 2014. These payments were apparently made by one “Uday ji.” In a separate sheet, there is a somewhat cryptic entry stating that “help” was being sought from her to ask “A. General to withdrawal (close) Bombay case.”
The former chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, allegedly received Rs one crore on 23 September 2013 from one “Jaiswal.”
The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Chouhan allegedly received Rs 10 crore between 29 September 2013 and 1 October 2013 in two instalments from one “Neeraj Vashisht,” while his counterpart in Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, apparently received Rs 4 crore as a single one-off payment on 1 October from “Nand ji.”
The instances of alleged payments to “CM Gujrat” totalling Rs 15.1 crore were made between 30 October 2013 and 29 November 2013 in four instalments by one “Jaiswal ji.” Then, eight payments were allegedly made in Ahmedabad between 30 October 2013 and 22 February 2014 to “Ahmadabad Modi ji” by “Jaiswal ji” totalling Rs 35.1 crore and another apparent payment was made to “Ahmadabad Modi” on 28 January 2014 amounting to Rs 5 crore. Thus, the total alleged payments made to “CM Gujrat,” “Ahmadabad Modi ji” and “Ahmadabad Modi” add up to Rs 55.2 crore.
Will an independent investigation take place to ascertain the authenticity or otherwise of the implied or suggested payments detailed in the documents seized by the Income Tax Department?
This is not the end of the story.
On 25 November 2016, a bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices J S Khehar and Arun Mishra told the petitioner Common Cause that it cannot order an investigation into allegations that representatives of the Sahara and Birla Groups had bribed politicians including Narendra Modi when was the chief minister of Gujarat. The bench told senior advocate Shanti Bhushan, who was representing the non-governmental organisation, that the documents that had been adduced to its petition were not reliable and asked Common Cause to produce “better” material when the case is heard again on 14 December.
The observations made by Khehar, who is in line to become the next Chief Justice of India on 4 January, included: “Are you relying on Sahara’s documents? They never have genuine documents… Anybody can make a computer entry against a Chief Minister or Prime Minister. Can we order a probe based on all that? Bring better material…”
Referring to documents seized by the Income Tax Department after conducting raids on companies in the Aditya Birla Group in October 2013 and on the Sahara India Group in November 2014, Khehar added: “If we accept what you say, then somebody can tomorrow make an entry that I sent PM this much of money… see how far-reaching this could be. We are not shying away from taking action against anybody but you must have something even prima facie to show wrongdoing. We cannot initiate proceedings only because you name a big man. There has to be something… If any suspicion arouses our conscience, it is a good suspicion but your suspicion does not do it… this is only insinuation. Show us better material because we are not satisfied at all with this. It is zero for us.”
Demanding a court-monitored probe by a special investigation team, Common Cause had alleged that there had been a “cover-up” following the raids, the seizure of documents and computers and appraisal reports prepared by the Income Tax authorities. The bench said that the petitioner should take its petition back from the court if it fails to gather “credible evidence”.
Disclosure: the author is also a member of the governing council of Common Cause.
Advait Rao Palepu (firstname.lastname@example.org), who is an intern with the EPW, provided research assistance for this article.
This article has been published in collaboration with the Economic and Political Weekly.
This article was updated on 29 November to reflect the Supreme Court hearing held on 25 November.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is an independent journalist.