A clean chit? Hardly. It is important to see the Supreme Court’s quashing of the disproportionate assets (DA) case against the former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mayawati, for what it is — a decision grounded entirely on legal technicalities. It is far from being a declaration of innocence as Ms Mayawati’s overzealous supporters would like us to believe. As the first line of the judgment states, “the only question” under consideration was whether the FIR lodged by the Central Bureau of Investigation against Ms Mayawati for allegedly possessing assets disproportionate to her income was “beyond the scope of directions” passed by the Supreme Court itself. In holding that it was, the Court has made a distinction between the Taj Heritage Corridor Project case — in which it had directed the CBI to register an FIR relating to the Mayawati government’s preposterous plan to construct commercial buildings on a two-km stretch behind the Taj Mahal without appropriate clearances — and a “roving enquiry” into her financial assets. Having maintained that “anything beyond the Taj Corridor matter was not the subject-matter of reference before the Taj Corridor Bench,” it was only a short step to reach the conclusion that the CBI had exceeded its jurisdiction in the case.
The CBI may be faulted for misunderstanding the Court’s orders and investigating Ms Mayawati’s assets from 1995 even though the Taj Corridor project was conceived only in 2002. But the manner in which the assets of Ms Mayawati and her relatives have mushroomed cannot but raise a suspicious eyebrow. The CBI had claimed that her assets increased from Rs. one crore in 2003 to Rs. 50 crore in 2007. Its affidavit in the Supreme Court talked of 96 plots, houses and orchards acquired by her and her close relatives between 1998 and 2003. The affidavit filed along with Ms Mayawati’s nomination for the Rajya Sabha a few months ago contains an estimation of her own wealth: Rs. 111.64 crore. If her defence in the now quashed DA case rang a familiar bell, it is because politicians have used it before: sharp increases in wealth are explained as the accretion of small contributions made by legions of followers out of “love and affection.” Acceptance of income tax returns is held out as proof that the income is genuine. In an environment in which clear financial trails are hard to unearth, disproportionate assets cases — where the onus of proof is shifted on the accused — are a more effective instrument against politicians and bureaucrats suspected of corruption. Given that the chargesheet in the DA case against Ms Mayawati was only being readied, there was hardly anything concrete against her to begin with. Sadly, with the quashing of the FIR, everything is maya.