Prashant Bhushan, supreme court advocate and activist
What is the thinking behind launching the Swaraj party?
To answer that question, we have to go back in time and see why we formed the Aam Aadmi Party [AAP]. Those in power, in assemblies and parliament, feel that now that they have got power, and they are the ones who make laws and policies, why they should listen to civil society people who are not going to affect any elections, who are not going to win elections themselves. That is why we thought we should form a political party to establish alternative politics in the country, and contest elections, so that their grip should loosen up. For such a party, alternative politics would mean transparency and answerability. A politics that helps shape thought, character, next generation and leaders. With that thinking, we formed the AAP. Unfortunately, the top leader of this party, Arvind Kejriwal, did not want to lead in a democratic manner. He did not want transparency and answerability. He only wanted to do the politics of power, like any other party does. People who had come to this platform in good faith and commitment were feeling disheartened. So that their energy is not dissipated, so that their dreams do not go unrealised, we decided to make a second attempt. We first founded a campaign organisation [Swaraj Abhiyan] which will continue to work outside the party. And then the party.
One experiment of alternative politics has, in your view, failed. What precautions are you taking that yours does not meet the same fate?
Transparency will be the watchword. The party on its own will place itself within the ambit of the RTI Act [whereas all the existing parties have refused to]. Moreover, there will be concrete mechanisms to ensure answerability. There will be a Lokpal [ombudsman] who will be from outside the party. Candidate selection will be done by a committee consisting of people from outside the party. It will ensure that wrong people are not given the ticket. We will do what we could not do in AAP. In AAP, we had formed expert committees to draft policies. When their reports were presented before the working committee, Arvind said there’s no need for all this, which we can dump in the waste basket. He said if any issue arises in future, it would be tackled then.
Are such measures practical, given the way politics has been practised in India all these years?
It is not going to be quite easy. Politics today is run on the basis of money, caste, religion and communalism – money above all. There are two levels of the representative system: firstly, whoever gets the maximum votes – even if they are only 25 percent – becomes the representative of the whole constituency. And when the government is formed, it is of the party that has the most winners. So the voter does not think who is the best among the candidates; they rather think who is the least bad among those who can win. How do they perceive a candidate’s winning potential? That comes on the basis of money, which helps the candidate gain publicity, and thus, visibility.
When the AAP won in Delhi the first time, it was our volunteers, working without any remuneration, who created the visibility [of the party and its candidates]. And the party too had emerged from a movement and thus it had visibility. That is how it became possible to create the buzz with little funds.
This is why small parties usually cannot win. People may think these people are nice but if they are not going to win what is the point of voting for them?
How will your new party fare in the municipal elections in Delhi in April?
It would be too early to say… but the people of Delhi have rejected the Congress and the BJP, and they know very well how AAP is performing. In such a situation, if there is a new party, if we get some visibility, if voters feel these people can win, then I hope Swaraj India can do well.
As an anti-corruption activist, how do you view demonetisation?
It was only a jumla [a popular or proverbial saying]. They attempted to show as if this was a step against black money and corruption. If the objective was to put an end to black money and corruption, a lot more needed to be done earlier. Demonetisation can end neither of them. I had written a letter to Modiji in June 2014, soon after he assumed office, listing out the measures needed to block the sources of black money. Participatory note for stock market investment is one route. Even the government does not know whose fund it is and the black money becomes white through it. I said stop it. FDI through tax havens like Switzerland and Mauritius is another route. And these days two-third of the FDI comes from this source. There is no way to find out whose company it is, whose money it is. So, a law should be passed that makes transparent at least whose money it is. That has not been done.
I have documents about black money being laundered and routed into India. I had also written a letter [to the authorities] during the UPA time. They also did nothing in this regard. I had written about a Singapore company investing Rs 6,500 crore in four companies of Mukesh Ambani. On this, India’s high commission in Singapore wrote to the finance ministry saying this is from a bogus company. It was obviously laundered money. The matter had come out in the UPA time. UPA did nothing. I wrote to Modiji, and he did nothing either. Anil Ambani’s two companies also received $750 million in the same manner from Singapore. The income-tax department had done some investigation too. But nothing happened afterwards. Instead, Anil Ambani’s firm got contract for Rafale, whereas his companies have been charge-sheeted in the 2G case and the group owes more than Rs 1 lakh crore to banks. On [Gautam] Adani, the directorate of revenue intelligence had carried out investigation and found that his firm had over-invoiced by Rs 20,000 crore in coal imports. No action was taken. Instead, Modiji took him along to Australia and [for a business bid there] ensured Rs 6,500 crore loan for him from State Bank when all Australian banks had refused loan to him.
Consider all the institutions to fight corruption. It is close to three years now [of the government] and the Lokpal has not been appointed. The whistleblower protection Act has not been notified. Now they say that they will amend it. Several amendments have been proposed to the Prevention of Corruption Act. Two of them will effectively end this law. One of them says permission from the government will be needed to probe any corruption. Now, [how can we expect] the government to permit investigation into corruption in it? The supreme court has twice ruled against such a provision, terming it illegal. And yet this amendment is being brought in. The other amendment is about the clause that says if any private concern benefits from your misuse of official position it is considered criminal misconduct. The proposal is to remove this clause.
The CVC [Central Vigilance Commission] has been weakened. At CBI, as the director retired, they first brought in a Gujarat officer as acting director. One competent officer [who should have been in contention for the top post], with 22 years’ experience in anti-corruption investigations, Rupak Dutta, was removed by creating a new position in the home ministry and sending him there.
You are destroying all the institutions meant to counter corruption, and then you are claiming to fight corruption and black money with demonetisation! No black money has come out – all currency has come back in the system. Those who have black money usually do not hoard it in currency notes. What little there was has been laundered through, for example, donations to political parties and religious organisations or by depositing in Jan-Dhan accounts.
For the common man, on the other hand, life went helter-skelter. People lost jobs and livelihoods.
In the budget they have floated a new ‘jumla’: that they will make political funding transparent. The upper limit for not disclosing the name of the donor has been reduced from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000. This will not make even an iota of difference. Then, they are introducing electoral bonds. This will keep the identity of the donor secret.
The Congress and the BJP both received funds from [the Indian subsidiary of] a foreign firm [the Vedanta group]. There has been no action against them despite a high court order. Instead, the law [the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act] has been amended. On the one hand, small NGOs are being harassed for getting foreign funds, and on the other hand, the political parties – for whom this law was made – are made exceptions.
So far, [larger] donations have been through cheques. Electoral bonds will make it anonymous, just like stock market investments through participatory notes. What little transparency there was has been snuffed out.
Your petition seeking probe into the Sahara-Birla papers that purportedly listed bribes to some politicians has been turned down. Your comments?
According to section 292(c) of the Income Tax Act, any documents recovered during a tax raid would be usually considered genuine unless proven otherwise. In this case, the documents seized from the officers of Sahara and Birla, from their computers, were vetted by the income-tax department and it concluded in its appraisal report that they were genuine. The Sahara spreadsheet listed on one side, various amounts, received by whom, when; and on the other side, how much was paid to whom, through whom, when. The department told the settlement commission that the ledgers of Sahara’s marketing and communication department showed exactly the same amounts getting withdrawn on those dates, and thus it was confirmed that the spreadsheet was genuine.
In the [Jain] hawala diary, there were no documents and yet the supreme court had ordered investigation on the basis of diary initials and amounts. Compared to that, these are very detailed documents, with emails, etc. In the hawala diary case, when the CBI did not find anything incriminating, the supreme court ruled that we cannot prosecute on the basis of mere initials. Here, in the Sahara-Birla matter, the question was only whether investigation should be done or not. There are any number of precedents of investigations being ordered on the basis of such documents. It was only on the basis of a diary that the AgustaWestland political pay-offs are being investigated.
What are your views on the two issues dominating the political debate these days – the uniform civil code and outlawing the triple talaq?
In my personal view, there should be a uniform civil code, but UCC does not mean imposing the Hindu version on all. Rather, various codes should be studied, the fair and liberal elements from all should be included in the new common code which should be applicable to all. What does not have pressing reason to be prohibited should not be prohibited. If there’s ground for it, it should be prohibited for all.
As for triple talaq, in my personal view, it is unfair, because men can take recourse to it but women cannot. Also, there should be opportunity for second thoughts.
When you are not busy fighting various causes, how do you relax?
Yesterday we all, from the staff, chamber and home, went to watch Jolly LLB 2! Sometimes during vacation breaks, we go to Palampur where we have our home as well as the institute we have set up – Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy and Politics. There are so many things to do… and so little time.
(The interview appears in the March 1-15, 2017 issue of Governance Now)
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