In a major setback to Congress leader P Chidambaram, the Delhi High Court Tuesday rejected his anticipatory bail application in two cases of alleged corruption and money laundering linked to INX Media. Calling it a “classic case of money laundering”, the court said that “facts… prima facie reveal” that Chidambaram is the “kingpin, i.e., the key conspirator in the case”.
With the High Court also rejecting the former Finance Minister’s plea for interim protection from arrest, his legal team, led by Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, approached the Registrar (Judicial) of the Supreme Court for an urgent hearing. It was asked to mention the matter before the appropriate bench Wednesday morning.
Later, officers from the CBI and ED, which are investigating the cases, reached Chidambaram’s residence in Delhi. “We are looking for him, our teams have fanned out across the city. If we find him tonight, he will be arrested,” an ED official said. The CBI issued a notice to Chidambaram asking him to appear before the investigation officer “within two hours”, after failing to find him at his residence.
Sources said the CBI team, which was the first to reach the Jor Bagh residence around 6.45 pm, left after questioning the occupants. Minutes later, a team from the ED entered the residence and left after a few minutes.
In the High Court, Justice Sunil Gaur observed that “custodial interrogation” of Chidambaram “is required for an effective investigation” and that the “offenders must be exposed, no matter what their status”. The Judge, who is scheduled to retire Friday, vacated his July 2018 order granting interim protection from arrest in both the cases.
The High Court said: “…it cannot be forgotten that the petitioner was Finance Minister at the relevant time and he had given FDI clearance to the INX media group for receiving overseas funds to the tune of Rs 305 crore”.
It declined Senior Advocate Dayan Krishnan’s request that Chidambaram be given protection from arrest for another two-three days, saying he was being protected over the last one-and-half years.
In its 24-page order, the High Court said that “simply because he is a sitting Member of Parliament would not justify grant of pre-arrest bail to the petitioner in the sensitive case”. It also observed that the “law enforcing agencies cannot be made ineffective by putting legal obstacles for offences in question”.
“Economic crimes of such mammoth scale are craftily planned and executed. Grant of bail in cases like the instant one will send a wrong message to the society,” Justice Gaur said. “In this case, in view of the enormous material placed on record in respect of distinguished entities, various transactions, etc., this court unhesitatingly opines that bail plea is not acceptable,” he said.
The court was of the view that “it is preposterous to say that the prosecution of the petitioner is baseless, politically motivated and act of vendetta”. “This court is conscious of the fact that the personal liberty of a citizen is sacrosanct, but none is above the law. Lawmakers can’t be allowed to turn into lawbreakers with impunity, particularly in cases of this magnitude,” it said.
“What is so far to be seen is the tip of the iceberg. Pre-arrest is not meant for high-profile economic offenders. Time has come to recommend to the Parliament to suitably amend the law to restrict the provisions of pre-arrest bail and make it inapplicable to economic offenders of high-profile cases like the instant one. It is the need of the hour,” the court said.
Arguing that when economic offenders are on “pre-arrest bail”, investigation is “superficial”, the judge said: “This court can’t permit the prosecution in this sensitive case to end up in smoke — like it has happened in some high-profile cases. Tendering of the charge-sheet after obtaining sanction for prosecution of petitioner can’t dilute the gravity of the offence in question.”
On Chidambaram’s contention that he was cooperating in the investigation, the court concluded that denial of pre-arrest bail is based on two factors: gravity of offence and evasive replies given to questions while he was under protective cover. “The court is of prima facie opinion that it is not a fit case for grant of pre-arrest bail to the petitioner,” it said.
The former minister is also under investigation in another case — alleged corruption in the Aircel-Maxis deal — but was granted protection from arrest by a trial court in the case lodged by CBI and ED.
On May 15, 2017, the CBI registered an FIR, alleging irregularities in the Foreign Investment Promotion Board’s (FIPB) clearance for INX Media to receive overseas funds of Rs 305 crore in 2007 during Chidambaram’s tenure as finance minister in the UPA government. Last year, the ED lodged a money laundering case.
On May 31 last year, Chidambaram had first moved the court seeking interim protection fearing arrest in the case. His son Karti Chidambaram is also an accused in the case and was arrested by the CBI on February 28 last year. He was granted bail later by the High Court. On July 4 this year, a Delhi court allowed Indrani Mukerjea, the former head of the media company, to turn approver in the CBI case.
In his plea before the High Court, Chidambaram had said that the ED had not provided him a copy of the FIR. The plea claimed that during the investigations for over a year, no summons has been issued to him, and that there was no allegation of him evading or fleeing the process of law, or interfering with the probe.
On Tuesday, after the High Court’s order, Sibal and Chidambaram were joined in the Supreme Court by senior advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Salman Khurshid and Krishnan. Sibal told reporters that he was told to mention the matter before the “senior-most” Judge at 10.30 am.
The matter will be mentioned before the next available most-senior judge since Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and the second most-senior judge Justice S A Bobde are on the Constitution bench hearing the Ayodhya case.
(With Ananthakrishnan G & Deeptiman Tiwary)