The arraignment of former Union Minister P. Chidambaram on corruption charges is a flashpoint in relations between the ruling BJP and the principal Opposition party, the Congress, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election. It also came on the eve of the debate in Parliament on a no-confidence motion against the four-year-old Narendra Modi government. The CBI has filed a charge sheet against Mr. Chidambaram, his son Karti Chidambaram and 16 others, on the ground that Foreign Investment Promotion Board approval was granted for investments made in Aircel by Global Communication Holdings Service , a Mauritius-based subsidiary of Maxis, a Malaysian conglomerate, in violation of norms. Mr. Chidambaram is accused of cheating and bribery, and having exceeded his authority by clearing investments amounting to ₹3,200 crore, whereas any investment above ₹600 crore needed the clearance of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs. For a case that essentially turns on documentary evidence, the CBI has taken unusually long to come to this conclusion. Mr. Chidambaram’s statement on the FIPB approval was recorded in December 2014, and since then his son has been under the scanner. The filing of a charge sheet against Mr. Chidambaram ends the uncertainty about the agency’s intentions. The Congress leader had said he was the real target though it was his son and those associated with him who were subjected to repeated searches and questioning.
The two cases are vastly different, but given that the main case against former Union Communications Minister Dayanidhi Maran relating to the Aircel-Maxis investment was thrown out at the pre-trial stage by the Special Court, the CBI has a greater burden of proof to discharge. Mr. Chidambaram has maintained there was nothing amiss about the FIPB approval, which was given only after being processed at various levels. It may not be enough for the agency to prove that the Aircel-Maxis investment supposedly worth ₹180 crore actually had a value of ₹3,200 crore if the premium attached to it was taken into account. It also has to establish a clear link between the FIPB approval and some payments received by companies said to be controlled by Mr. Karti. Special Judge O.P. Saini, before whom the charge sheet has been filed, has a record of not accepting theories of quid pro quo behind government decisions without sufficient evidence. Both in the main 2G spectrum case, in which former Minister A. Raja and others were acquitted, and in the Aircel-Maxis case related to Mr. Maran, the judge had rejected prosecution claims seeking to link some transactions with the decisions of the ministers concerned. The case against Mr. Chidambaram will be a test for the CBI not only on merits, but also in disproving the allegations of political vendetta.