News that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is finally ready to close the case against Mulayam Singh Yadav and his family for having amassed wealth beyond their income led us to revisit, on the NDTV show Truth versus Hype, the depressing history of one of the most politically supervised investigations in the agency's history. Some would argue that the case was born out of politics: the petitioner who went to the Supreme Court, Vishwanath Chaturvedi, is a Congress activist from Lucknow. But the court found his political affiliations no reason to dismiss the merits of his allegations, and asked the CBI to begin a preliminary enquiry.
After going through the tax documents of the Yadavs - Mulayam, his late wife Malti Devi, Akhilesh and Dimple - the CBI told the court in an October 2007 preliminary enquiry (PE) that in the period under investigation (1993 to 2005) the family had spent about Rs 6 crore and earned about Rs 4 crore, which suggests that they had disproportionate assets of around Rs 2.6 crore.
By the general standards of political pelf in India, this may seem like pocket change and which any halfway competent chartered accountant can suitably explain away. But the CBI suggested that that there were enough "hidden" assets and anomalies, which if properly investigated, would push the actual figure much higher.
For example, the Yadavs appeared to have used the common technique of buying prime plots of land in Lucknow at grossly undervalued rates. Between June and August 2004, Akhilesh and Dimple bought about 4,000 sq ft in a plot on Lucknow's M G Road for about Rs 27 lakh, which comes to the absurdly low figure, even for that time, of Rs 700 per sq ft. The prevailing market rate: around Rs 5,000 per square foot. In January 2005, Akhilesh and Dimple made another bargain buy, a 24,000 sq ft plot in Lucknow's elite Vikramaditya Marg, the avenue of chief ministers, for Rs 35 lakh, at Rs 300 per sq ft. The prevailing rate: Rs 3,000 per sq ft, which would make it a Rs 7.2-crore buy.
The argument advanced by the Yadavs that these are transparent deals would hold greater water if it weren't for their uncanny, Vadra-esque knack of buying land on the cheap, but selling at market rates.
On October 7, 2005, Akhilesh sold about a bigha of land in Lucknow's Faizabad Road to a Liza Builders of Moradabad for Rs 2.5 crore. (Akhilesh had bought this land in 1997 for about Rs 13 lakh). His stepbrother, Prateek, sold the adjoining plot for the same amount, Rs 2.5 crore, also to Liza. In other words, they were selling the land at around Rs 1000 per sq ft, three to four times more than what they were buying land for in another part of Lucknow in the same year!
A back-of-envelope calculation suggests that in a matter of three to four years, the family had acquired land assets adding up to Rs 50 crore to Rs 60 crore by spending only a fraction of that amount. Did the CBI probe this discrepancy, and find it kosher? We don't know.
We also do not know what came of the CBI's contention that more than 50 per cent of the income declared by Mulayam and Akhilesh is listed by them simply as "gifts", which the CBI suggests is based on "forged or false documents".
We do not know if the CBI followed through on its suspicion that quite apart from the Yadavs' declared assets, they also might possess benami wealth, either in the name of trusts and institutions run by the family, and/or front companies in Lucknow and Etawah in the name of local businessmen proxy-controlled by the Yadavs.
We know none of these things because five months after the CBI's plea to the court for permission to register a formal case against Mulayam, Akhilesh and the others so it could begin a probe, we had the nuclear deal. And eight days before the trust vote, we had Dimple Yadav directly petitioning the prime minister with her tax returns, asking that her assets not be clubbed with the rest since all four Yadavs were individually assessed. It's another matter that this was, (a) a court-ordered probe, quite outside the ambit of the PMO's jurisdiction, and, (b) all purchases by the Yadav family were made jointly. In fact, the biggest entry in Dimple's otherwise slender balance sheet is a loan from Akhilesh for Rs 56 lakh in the financial year 2004.
But by then Operation Save Mulayam was in place, and a legal opinion by the Solicitor General emphatically agreeing with Dimple's argument led to the CBI, in December 2008, asking the court permission to withdraw the case, "in view of the legal advice and directions of the Union of India".
Last year, the Supreme Court ordered Dimple's exclusion from the case on grounds that she is a private person, despite her proximity to the Yadavs. The rationale of this order, given what is already in the public domain, and its implications for future cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act, is offered without comment. But what can be commented upon with less trepidation is the CBI leaping with alacrity on the court's order to justify a final closure of the case. "Without Dimple", a high ranking CBI official told me last week, "our case is finished". I did attempt to point to the agency's own findings, which indicate that Dimple's assets constitute less than 30 per cent of the total overrun of the family, quite apart from the suspicion of benami wealth, as yet unprobed. But he was adamant.
And so it appears to be curtains for CBI PE 2(A)/2007/CBI/ ACU-IV/ New Delhi. Of course, presumably after the Food Security Bill is safely passed, thanks to a fortuitous U-turn by the Samajwadi Party. Don't we love happy coincidences?