Arun Jaitley rejects Congress charge: MLAs not targeted, searches not linked to Rajya Sabha polls
A political storm raged Wednesday and the Election Commission sought a report from the Finance Ministry within two days after the Income Tax department searched 60 premises linked to Karnataka energy minister D K Shivakumar and recovered Rs 10 crore cash as part of its probe into an alleged tax evasion case. The Congress approached the Election Commission after accusing the BJP government at the Centre of targeting Shivakumar since he has been overseeing the stay of 42 Gujarat Congress MLAs at a resort near Bengaluru.
The Eagleton Golf Resort, where the Congress MLAs have been lodged to prevent their poaching by the BJP ahead of the August 8 elections to Rajya Sabha from Gujarat, was among the premises searched by tax officials. Six MLAs have so far quit the Congress and three of them have joined the BJP. While the BJP has fielded party president Amit Shah, Union Minister Smriti Irani and Congress defector Balwantsinh Rajput for the Rajya Sabha seats, the Congress has again named Ahmed Patel, political secretary to its president Sonia Gandhi, for the third seat.
The raids angered the Congress which paralysed proceedings in Rajya Sabha and walked out of Lok Sabha. Ghulam Nabi Azad Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, sought to know why were the searches being carried out now “and not a month later or before”. Rejecting the Congress allegations, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the searches had no connection with Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat. He told members of the two Houses that according to information received from the Income Tax Department, “there has been no search (operation) at a resort… nor has any Gujarat MLA been searched by the department… there has been no contact (of the tax department) with them”.
“It is true a search has been conducted on a minister of the Karnataka government and his associates… The man whose house was being searched reached the resort. Since a person who was raided had to be confronted with the recoveries made from his premises, the tax department personnel went to the resort where he had been hiding. He was taken from there to his house. There is no tax department official at the resort,” Jaitley said, maintaining that the resort was not an area where the Karnataka minister could get “immunity from the law”.
When Congress members in Rajya Sabha accused the government of using central agencies like CBI, ED and IT to target their party and leaders, Jaitley said, “Whether it is use or abuse, it depends on recovery (made during the searches)”. The Rajya Sabha witnessed four adjournments due to disruptions, the last at 2.45 pm for the day. In Lok Sabha, Congress floor leader Mallikarjun Kharge charged the government with “political vendetta”. As Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi watched, he said: “I appeal to the government not to terrorise and threaten the MLAs. You will also have to face this tomorrow… If there is any offence, then action should be taken, even if it involves me. You are resorting to this to defeat one person (Ahmed Patel) in the Rajya Sabha polls.”
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar said the searches were part of action against black money and corruption. He said the Karnataka government had decided to slap a penalty of Rs 942 crore on the resort. “Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Ahmed Patel should explain this. They should come out clean on this matter,” Ananth Kumar said. As the House went ahead with other matters, Sonia Gandhi and Kharge led a Congress walkout. Later, HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters: “There is no vendetta. No Gujarat MLA has been summoned, investigated. No Gujarat MLA staying there has been raided. The raided man is a Karnataka minister, it has nothing to do with Gujarat.”
Armed with 39 search warrants, the IT department carried out searches in Bengaluru, New Delhi and Chennai on premises linked to Shivakumar, his family and business associates. The minister’s homes in Bengaluru, Delhi, and in his constituency Kanakapura, and properties belonging to his brother and Congress MP D K Suresh, and S Ravi, a relative and a member of the Karnataka legislative council, were among those searched. Real estate, jewellery and power businesses which have had transactions with companies run by the wealthy minister — Shivakumar declared Rs 251 crore wealth in his election affidavit in 2013 while his brother declared Rs 81 crore — were also searched by IT officials early Wednesday.
IT sources said Rs 8 crore in cash was found at the minister’s Safdarjung Enclave home in Delhi and another Rs 2 crore was recovered from other premises. The searches were part of an ongoing investigation into the undisclosed wealth of the Congress leader, the IT department stated. Since the searches extended to a room of the Eagleton Golf Resort, where the minister was present with Gujarat Congress MLAs, the Congress said the IT raids were “politically motivated’’. Congress MLAs from Gujarat have been at the resort since July 31 as part of a strategy to keep the party flock together to ensure the support of 45 MLAs that is needed for Ahmed Patel to be elected again to Rajya Sabha.
“BJP is on an unprecedented witch-hunt just to win one Rajya Sabha seat,” Ahmed Patel said in a tweet following the IT searches on premises linked to Shivakumar. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah called the raids on his colleague a political conspiracy. “Using the IT department as a weapon of political vendetta is not only a blatant misuse of power but also goes against the principles of democracy and cooperative federalism,’’ Siddaramaiah said. The office of the Director General of IT (Investigations) for Karnataka and Goa region said the department was conducting searches only in the case of Shivakumar and not with respect to the Gujarat MLAs at the resort.
“The search is the continuation of an investigation which has been in progress for a considerable period of time… The timing of the search was decided well in advance. The events involving certain MLAs of another state being brought to Karnataka were unforeseen and unpredictable events,” the IT department said. “The minister being searched was staying at a resort near Bangalore where some MLAs from another state are put up. Hence the minister’s room alone is being searched,” the IT department said. “The search team has no concern with the MLAs and there has been no contact with MLAs and the search team,’” the department said.
But by evening, the Congress took the matter to the Election Commission. Congress leaders met Chief Election Commissioner A K Joti and Election Commissioner OP Rawat and told them that the resort where the Gujarat MLAs were staying was “raided by Income Tax officers along with central forces of the CRPF.” The Congress said the episode showed that the central government was using central forces for “political purposes.”
The Congress delegation asked the Election Commission to issue appropriate directions to ensure the safety and security of its MLAs to enable them to vote in the elections. The poll panel later sought the Finance Ministry’s response on the details of the case and why CRPF personnel were brought in for the raids. The government has time until Friday to respond.