Former finance minister and Congress leader P. Chidambaram was taken into custody by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in what’s being billed as an “INX Media scam" in a swoop on his residence on Wednesday night. The arrest reflects India’s battle against corruption and the ruling party’s poll promise to that effect. Since Chidambaram is a senior member of the opposition, it was inevitable that the action would attract allegations of a “political vendetta" from his party, and so it has been. On his part, the former finance minister has denied any wrongdoing. It is important that the law takes its own course and justice prevails.
Whether the Congress leader has violated any law is for the courts to judge. The CBI has alleged that in 2007, when he was finance minister, he used his position to ensure that INX Media got the Foreign Investment Promotion Board’s approval for an overseas investment of ₹305 crore, which involved irregularities—allegedly in lieu of money routed to a consulting firm that his son Karti Chidambaram had a stake in. Both of them have called these charges false. The CBI is keen to press ahead with its prosecution. Whatever the outcome, what has come to concern observers schooled in law is the weight of force being used in this case. The merits of the case against him apart, the dramatic arrest does raise concerns about whether he was accorded a benefit that every citizen must get: The right to stay out of prison until proven guilty. To be sure, it was after the Delhi high court withdrew his anticipatory bail granted last July that law enforcers swung into action, but how justice delivery would have been constrained by his staying free still remains unclear. Suspicions of his conduct were fanned by the fact that he was “missing" for 27 hours, and that too, in the glare of television coverage. On Tuesday, raiding teams had converged on his house, and, when he wasn’t found, a notice was pasted on one of the walls directing him to appear before the investigating agency within two hours. Even a “lookout" notice was issued so that he didn’t flee the country. But then, he did indeed show up for a press conference at his party headquarters, before returning home, from where he was finally picked up. The charges he faces are not heinous, nor has he been declared an absconder. So long as he cooperates with the authorities, adheres to all legal procedures, and does nothing that could threaten the probe and judicial process, harsh treatment is hard to justify.
Some have argued that in high-profile cases, suspects should not get anticipatory bail. But why should the well-known be treated differently? If another standard is applied to famous people, then it would go against the canon of equality under the law. It is true that cases of political corruption evoke much public anger, but the law is still the same for all. It is also true that guilt rarely gets proven in complex cases. In the 2G telecom spectrum case, for instance, while the odd manner in which a first-come-first-served sales window was arbitrarily opened raised doubts over the integrity of the process, no corruption charges were proven against former telecom minister A. Raja. He was acquitted by the Supreme Court, but, ironically, not before spending time in jail. No matter how scandalous people may think a politician’s conduct is, the rule of law must prevail. So too for everybody, famous or not.