A day of courtroom drama and claims by probe agencies that he was evading arrest culminated with former finance minister P Chidambaram dramatically surfacing at the Congress headquarters to address the media on Wednesday evening, and his arrest little more than an hour later at 9.45 pm from his south Delhi home.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) will produce the senior Congress leader before a CBI special court within 24 hours, likely by Thursday afternoon, and the agency is set to seek his 14-day custody. Sources said he would be questioned on Wednesday night as well. After the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) would seek Chidambaram’s custody for a money-laundering probe, an ED official said.
The CBI and the ED are investigating money-laundering and corruption charges against Chidambaram — and the role of his son, Karti — in granting Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) clearances to the INX Media group and five other companies in 2007, when he was finance minister of the country.
At his press conference, Chidambaram said neither he nor any member of his family had been accused of any offence in the INX Media case. He said there was no charge sheet filed by either the CBI or the ED before a competent court. “Moreover, the FIR recorded by the CBI does not impute to me any wrongdoing. Yet, there is a widespread impression that grave offences have been committed, and my son and I have committed those offences. Nothing can be further from the truth. These are lies spread by pathological liars,” he said.
After the Delhi High Court refused him protection from arrest and the CBI and the ED issued him notices to join the investigation on Tuesday night, Chidambaram through his counsels Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid and others moved the Supreme Court (SC) on Wednesday morning, seeking anticipatory bail.
The SC agreed to list his plea on Friday. However, following his arrest, Chidambaram’s plea is now infructuous. He will have to seek regular bail from the CBI court on Thursday.
On Tuesday evening, the CBI and the ED had asked Chidambaram to present himself in front of their investigating officers within two hours. It was speculated that Chidambaram was running away from arrest. At a hurriedly-called press conference at the Congress headquarters at 8.15 pm, Chidambaram told the media that he was “aghast” that he was being accused of hiding from the law. He said he was on the contrary seeking the protection of the law.
Chidambaram said he would cooperate with the probe agencies if they were to arrest him before Friday, but hoped they would await the decision of the SC.
Chidambaram left the Congress office at 8.20 pm in a car, with Sibal and Singhvi, for his residence. Congress sources said he had gone to take a bath, which he could not the entire day, and the probe agencies, if they so desired, can arrest him. Dozens of Congress workers shouted slogans against the “dictatorial” attitude of the Narendra Modi government at the Congress headquarters as the vehicle left the bungalow for his home.
After much drama with CBI sleuths jumping over the boundary wall of the building where Chidambaram lives, which his son Karti in Chennai termed as “theatrics and voyeurism for the pleasure of the few” and a TV spectacle to divert attention from more basic issues, the Congress leader came out to be arrested at 9.45 pm. There were, however, allegations that Congress workers tried to stall his arrest.
At his press conference, Chidambaram said the foundation of a democracy and the spirit of the Constitution was liberty. “If I am asked to choose between life and liberty, I shall unhesitatingly choose liberty,” he said. He said that after the CBI and then the ED had summoned him to appear for questioning, he sought and was granted interim protection by the High Court on May 31, 2018 and July 25, 2018.
Explaining his absence, Chidambaram said he, along with other lawyers, worked through the night to prepare the papers and completed the task only this morning to file appeals in the SC.
Earlier in the day, a three-judge SC Bench led by Justice N V Ramana refused to hear Chidambaram’s plea and said the file would be sent to Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, who would take call on whether to list the case or not. On Sibal’s repeated insistence, Justice Ramana called the registrar (judicial) to the courtroom, who said that the petition would be placed before CJI Gogoi later in the day for appropriate administrative action.
Sibal’s assurance that Chidambaram was ready to give an undertaking that he would not run away had little impact on the outcome, as the Bench made it clear that they could do nothing until the matter was listed. While Karti has been accused of receiving ~10 lakh as kickbacks in connection with clearance worth ~305 crore for INX Media, Chidambaram has been accused of clearing the proposal at the behest of his son. The CBI has also alleged that Karti had received money from INX Media to scuttle a tax probe.