BLOG/ Reality Bites: Why Sahara Papers require an inquiry

It’s not a crime for politicians to collect money and mount well-oiled poll campaigns. But if we are serious about cleansing election funding, an inquiry is a must into the alleged Sahara payoffs

Photo by Sneha Srivastava/Mint via Getty Images
Photo by Sneha Srivastava/Mint via Getty Images
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Uttam Sengupta

Did Narendra Modi win a ‘cashless’ election in 2014? Or did he run a spartan election campaign on a shoestring budget? Even his admirers would admit that he put up an awesome election machinery in 2014 which spent money like no other campaign in the past.


It is safe to assume that the war chest was built over several years. It is also safe to assume that the war chest was not kept in bank accounts. Politicians normally keep their war chests in ‘benami’, in the name of relatives, family friends, retainers and loyalists, who undertake to bear expenses as and when they are called upon to do so. A lot of this money is kept with business houses and jewellers, realtors and stock brokers. It does not therefore come as a surprise to learn that papers confiscated by the Income Tax Department and CBI from Aditya Birla and Sahara Group of companies show a list of politicians to whom different sums of money were allegedly delivered between October, 2013 and February, 2014. A sum of ₹40 crore was allegedly delivered to the then Gujarat chief minister in nine instalments.


BJP, several commentators and even the Supreme Court have questioned the “evidentiary worth” or worthlessness of such lists even if they are accepted to be ‘genuine’. One of the TV channels described Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s allegations based on the Sahara-Birla papers as “old wine in new bottle”, lies and irresponsible. Such lists could surely be fabricated, quipped the Supreme Court. Others favouring an investigation have argued that because these papers were recovered during raids by official agencies, signed by witnesses and company officials who have also been interrogated by the agencies, the result should come out in the public domain following an investigation.


Corruption in high places rarely leaves a trail. Politicians, in or out of power, do not sign receipts for money or favour received by them. It is usually a quid-pro-quo or circumstantial evidence that gets them convicted. And only a thorough investigation can establish it.


Sahara papers are significant for yet another reason. Its shadowy operations have long been suspected to be a front for money laundering. It has been suspected of keeping politicians’ or political parties’ ill-gotten money for safe keeping, charging a commission for the service and returning or spending the rest as and when called upon to do so by the depositors. Payoffs by Sahara, therefore, may not be bribes as Rahul Gandhi alleged, but actually the money may well have belonged to the politicians themselves. If the money trail is not investigated by either the Income Tax Department or a SIT, an opportunity to understand and unravel political funding will be lost.

Photo courtesy: Twitter/@SHShumanists
Photo courtesy: Twitter/@SHShumanists
Details from the Sahara papers were submitted by NGO Common Cause to the Supreme Court in a PIL that is still pending before the apex court

At this point I must also confess that my sympathies lie with politicians. They require money for everything, for travelling, for attending functions, for going to trouble spots, for connecting with constituents, for organising rallies, meetings, protests and of course for contesting elections. And we expect them to do all this, even in the case of a Prime Minister, from the salary of a mid-level bureaucrat.


Political leaders need cash. I have seen late Karpoori Thakur, a socialist leader who died virtually in penury, take out wads of cash to pay for his plane ticket. The representative of a private sector steel company at Patna once lamented that every time the then chief minister wanted to dole out cash—to his supporters, to victims of an accident or crime—he would call the representative to accompany him and of course make the payments.

At this point I must also confess that my sympathies lie with politicians. They require money for everything, for travelling, for attending functions, for going to trouble spots, for connecting with constituents, for organising rallies, meetings, protests and of course for contesting elections. And we expect them to do all this, even in the case of a Prime Minister, from the salary of a mid-level bureaucrat.


During his initial days as CM, Lalu Prasad Yadav would call up District Magistrates and ask them to keep the ‘Nazarat’ or the Treasury ready during his visits to the district. One such call came when the DM and I were having lunch at his residence. The unhappy DM admitted that the CM was in the habit of doling out cash and clothes to people. He would call officers to the stage and ask people if they recognised the officers. They would roar in the negative. He would then admonish the officers and tell people that these public servants had been posted by him to serve them. At some point he would call upon people to queue up and receive either cash or a sari or a dhoti from him. “Naturally there never would be enough of them and soon the CM would leave, leaving us to face the music. People would conclude that the CM had sent money for saris and dhotis but the officials had siphoned it off,” confessed the distraught IAS officer.


Curious I asked how the expenditure was accounted for and under which head. By now acutely uncomfortable, the DM reluctantly let out the secret. The task would be handed over to the most corrupt officer in the district, normally the District Supply Officer those days or a Chief Engineer, and it was his job to arrange the money, prepare vouchers and bills and explain the expenditure. “We do not even look at these papers so that we can truthfully say that we were ignorant,” he told me. But surely the most corrupt officer could easily claim to have spent a lot more money and pocket the balance? The DM gave me a wan smile and shrugged.


A few months later I travelled with a Janata Dal CM in his plane to Kanpur and Amethi. He was going to campaign for his party and the day being a holiday and with nothing better to do, I sought and was extended an invitation to fly out with him and return by night. On that trip I was startled to find three candidates climbing into the aircraft at Amethi one by one as we stood on the tarmac with the CM. Each one of them returned with fairly large bundles of something wrapped in newspapers. It did not require much imagination to guess what it was. Was it all accounted for? Your guess is as good as mine.

Uttam Sengupta is Executive Editor of National Herald. He tweets at @chatukhor

Read our full coverage of the Sahara-Birla Papers and the Common Cause case:


Rahul Gandhi attacks Prime Minister alleging personal corruption

Common Cause petition—Supreme Court keeps suspense alive

Common Cause hearing: Prashant Bhushan stuns the SC bench

Sahara Papers: Shivraj, Raman, Left, Congress leaders also named

Sahara Papers: Common Cause petition still pending before SC

Six undisputed facts around Sahara-Birla papers

BJP ties itself in knots on Sahara papers

BLOG/ Reality Bites: Why Sahara Papers require an inquiry

Indian Express reveals how the Government buried the Sahara Papers

Prashant Bhushan files more documents in SC on Sahara-Birla case

Congress: PM must face probe on alleged ‘Birla-Sahara’ payoffs

BLOG/ Reality Bites: The importance of Sachin Pawar to Sahara

SC dismisses plea for probe into alleged Sahara-Birla payoffs

Setback to campaign against corruption, says Prashant Bhushan

Sahara papers: Congress asks the PM to practise what he preaches

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Published: 26 Dec 2016, 12:47 PM
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