By Zafar Agha, Avirook Sen: Where the privileged can’t gain access, he can. Where there is scandal, he is there. Like an elusive chameleon changing colours – and also allegiances – Chandraswami roamed the globe, seeking his friends in places high and low, using and abusing his power, but never believing for a moment that he could ever be pinned down.
Until very recently, that is. In July the then internal security minister, Rajesh Pilot, ordered investigating agencies to inquire into the complaint of a Bangkok-based businessman, Somchai Chaisrichawla, that Chandraswami, the godman-cum-power broker now at the centre of the nation’s burning controversy, had duped him of Rs 1 crore.
On August 26, after the CBI raided the premises of Arif Mohammad Khan in connection with the Jain hawala case, the former minister and the godman’s one-time friend alleged that the raids had been conducted at Chandraswami’s behest, since he had refused to cooperate in the investigation of the St Kitts forgery case. And it transpired that S.K. Jain had earlier told the CBI that Chandraswami was the conduit for payments to the prime minister. And even before the Khan report receded from the headlines came the revelations from Babloo Srivastava – Dubai-based don Dawood Ibrahim’s alleged hitman who was recently extradited from Singapore – that Chandraswami had links with Dawood, and that he himself had been sheltered by Chandraswami while he was on the run from the police.
Pilot moved quickly and ordered that Chandraswami be arrested as per procedures provided by law. When a home ministry official pointed out that more proof was needed for arrest, Pilot had his secretary draft a letter ordering the arrest. Said Pilot: “Let me see if after this letter they still ask for proof.”
Pilot’s twin assaults raised quite a few eyebrows. Not surprisingly, two days later Pilot was shunted out of the high-profile Home Ministry. His transfer, however, was not solely the result of his offensive against Chandraswami. His detractors say Pilot’s removal from the sensitive portfolio was only a matter of time. “By moving against Chandraswami a day before the scheduled cabinet reshuffle, Pilot’s only motive was to ensure that Rao would not touch him, for fear of public indignation,” said a senior minister.
If Pilot, who is an MP from Rajasthan, was aiming high, it was not without reason. For long, he has been building up a constituency. His tough handling of the BJP rally in New Delhi after the Babri Masjid demolition endeared him to the Muslim community, while his recent kisan rallies have attracted good response. The offensive against Chandraswami was only the logical step to realise his two objectives: to project himself to the country as a politician who values probity in public life; and within the party, to emerge as a rallying point for Congressmen disenchanted with Rao’s leadership.
His timing on both counts has been perfect. The recently released Vohra Committee report warns of a “mafia running a parallel government, pushing the Government into irrelevance”, while reports about corruption in the Government were front-page news in the national dailies. And, with Rao facing virtually no major rival in the party, Pilot was merely seeking to fill the vacuum. Pilot’s followers claim many party MPs called him to commend him for ordering Chandraswami’s arrest, even though no more than a handful are actually known to have come out in public.
This is the conventional Congressman’s dilemma. The numbers of the disgruntled are ever increasing, but few come out openly to challenge the leader. V.P. Singh did – and to devastating effect. Arjun Singh tried and ended up a damp squib. Will Pilot go Arjun Singh’s way.? Or can he do in ‘9 5 what V.P. Singh did seven years ago?
Neither, it would seem. Despite the kudos. Pilot knows that where Arjun Singh failed to find backing, he is unlikely to succeed. There is thus every likelihood that he will take his fight only up to a point. Said a close Pilot aide: “He will not commit the same mistake as Arjun Singh and get thrown out of the party.”
But Pilot is no VP. Singh either. After admitting to taking “help” from the Jains of the hawala case fame, he can scarcely claim to be Mr Clean. Worse for him, Rao is no Rajiv. The prime minister knows how to deny Pilot the martyr’s role that he seeks. When the CBI began investigating Chandraswami, far from pressing the panic buttons to bring the probe to a halt, Rao allowed it to continue.
Having survived personal attacks on his integrity – the Harshad Mehta case, for one – Rao is well-equipped to deal with Pilot’s offensive. Within the party, he has a firm grip over all the important bodies like the CWC and the CPP. And though he was unable to satisfy everyone with last month’s cabinet expansion, the holding out of the promise of another cabinet reshuffle not too long from now has been enough to quell the murmurs of protest.
Besides, Rao can also take comfort from the fact that problems have begun to pile up for the Opposition. The events in Gujarat have come as a morale booster for him since he can now legitimately make nonsense of the BJP’s claim of providing stability and a clean administration.
And though opposition leaders have welcomed Pilot’s moves, he will have to reckon with the fact that their support is limited. Arjun Singh’s supporters, for example, are not yet convinced about Pilot’s credentials. Asks Congress (T) leader Rangarajan Kumaramangalam: “If Pilot was serious about breaking the politician-criminal nexus, why did he sit on the Vohra Committee report for two years?” The response from the main opposition parties indicates they are more keen on fuelling dissension within the Congress(I). “Pilot must resign from the Government,” said BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee, reflecting his party’s desire to fish in the Congress(I)’s troubled waters.
Pilot, however, has found the response heartening. Last week, he addressed seminars organised by the Capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Delhi Bar Association. And for much of the next month, he will don the crusader’s robes, addressing public meetings in Gujarat, Orissa, Bihar, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Karnataka.
Evidently, in the run-up to the elections, when every party is uncertain about its fortunes. Pilot is trying to broaden his constituency. In the past, he had attempted the same but with the support of the prime minister. If earlier he had won a place in the CWC and earned prominence with his attacks on Arjun Singh, he is now trying to stay there with a series of veiled attacks aimed at his former mentor. If Chandraswami is arrested, Pilot can legitimately claim much of the credit. On the other hand, if Chandraswami is not arrested soon. Pilot has indicated he will not rest. On September 28, as environment minister, he ordered an inquiry into a yagna that Chandraswami conducted in the protected forest area of Sanjayvan in the Capital’s Southern Ridge. Clearly, Pilot intends to keep the issue alive.
But that will require more than his fabled political skills. For, if the past is any indication, Chandraswami is a consummate escape artist. The St Kitt’s forgery case, in which he was nailed by the CBI, has been taken off the priority list by the Rao Government. Despite a Delhi High Court directive in ’93 to wrap up investigations into FERA violations within a year, Chandraswami has not been prosecuted so far. Charges of embezzlement against him are still pending with the CBI. And though the appraisal report of the income-tax raids on him in ’88 categorically state that he is a violator, no action has been taken. Instead, the Government has extended him Y-category security and is actually spending money on his physical well-being.
What is it that gives this man such immunity? His manners and physical attributes have helped. Dark, potbellied and long-haired, he conjures up visions of the archetypal tantrik. But his detractors say his spiritual “connection” is a carefully woven myth. His love for things worldly is well documented, his love for gold is evident in the heavy necklaces he wears. He lives in a palatial ashram on the outskirts of Delhi and when he travels, it is in a Mercedes Benz or chartered aircraft. As for his connections, one need not look further than the guest-list at his birthday bash last year. In New Delhi, his is perhaps among the few cars allowed right up to the prime minister’s portico, a privilege not granted to even Union ministers, who have to use a ferry car from the gates. Pilot, in fact, was voicing the concerns of security agencies when he recently told Rao that the godman’s access to 7, Race Course Road must be limited. Chandraswami enjoyed similar access to Chandra Shekhar too when he was prime minister.
In the garb of a sadhu, Chandraswami has often proved useful to his friends: for instance, Rao got Chandraswami to try and muster support for him among the sants during the Ayodhya crisis in ’92. But scandals, like his celebrity devotees – Elizabeth Taylor, Khashoggi, the Sultan of Brunei – follow him wherever he goes. When he was out of favour with Rajiv Gandhi, he tried to woo the Opposition by bragging that he had evidence that Sonia Gandhi’s family had received kickbacks from the Bofors deal. And when his bluff was called, he did a remarkable volte face: he testified that Rajiv was innocent and fabricated evidence against V.P. Singh’s son, Ajeya, in the St Kitts affair.
—With Harinder Baweja