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Virbhadra Singh’s disproportionate assets and IT returns could land him in hot water. While he claims this is vendetta politics, he himself has not shied away from taking on former CM Prem Kumar Dhumal
By Vipin Pubby


For the last 23 years, the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh has seen only two chief ministers— Virbhadra Singh of the Congress and Prof Prem Kumar Dhumal of the BJP. Both have been swapping the top post in the state after every assembly election since 1993. Virbhadra Singh is senior to Dhumal because he first occupied the post in 1983 and is currently into his record sixth term as chief minister.

The rivalry between the two, therefore, goes back a long time and has, in fact, sharpened over the years. The two are known to open up inquiries or institute new cases against each other to set the record straight. The inquiries as usual take years and most of these get a quiet burial when the accused returns to the top post.

OLD ENEMY

This time, however, the situation has altered a bit for the current incumbent, Virbhadra Singh. For one, it appears that the stakes have gone up much higher, but the most important difference is that he is now faced with a BJP-led government at the center which is out to corner him. And the man who is in a commanding position there is an old political rival and counter-strategist Union finance minister Arun Jaitley who had remained in charge of BJP affairs in the state.

The changed circumstances may lead to a situation where Virbhadra may be taken in remand for a custodial interrogation by one of the agencies probing him—the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED) or the Income Tax (IT) Department. If this happens, it would perhaps be the first instance when a sitting chief minister is placed behind bars without being convicted (unlike the case of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa who was convicted and had to resign). Virbhadra has already made known that he would keep functioning from behind bars if it came to that eventuality.

For that to happen, the Delhi High Court has directed the investigation agencies to seek the court’s consent. Thus, there is a reprieve for the CM but he still faces the prospect of custodial interrogation. There is no bar on arresting a CM or any other minister except that the governor’s consent has to be taken. That should not come in the way of the central government as a former RSS pracharak is in the Raj Bhawan—Acharya Devvrat.

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INCOME TAX RETURNS

Interestingly, all the three agencies are looking at different aspects of a single transaction which came to light when Virbhadra was the Union steel minister in the UPA government. This pertained to revised IT returns filed by him to claim an income of about Rs 6 crore from his apple orchard in the state. He had claimed that he had given the orchard on lease to a contractor and that the additional income was from the farm income.

The ED case against him pertains to disproportionate assets as compared to his known sources of income. It is probing “unaccounted wealth” after his contractor, Anand Chauhan, who is also an insurance agent, subsequently purchased 19 insurance policies in the name of Virbhadra Singh, his wife and children. The ED has described it as a “textbook case of money laundering”. The CBI case pertains to the same money but is looking at the criminality angle. The IT department has opened up investigations into the returns filed by him over the years, including the revised returns.

Virbhadra Singh has been claiming that it was all part of political vendetta and was done only to harass him. Yet, he too has not shied away from instituting cases and opening up inquiries against Dhumal and his son, Anurag Thakur, MP, and powerful secretary of the Board of Cricket Control of India. The recent shifting of the World T20 match between bitter rivals India and Pakistan from Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh to Kolkata was part of the same “warfare”. The chief minister obviously did not want Thakur to steal the thunder. He took the plea that the local people were against holding an India-Pakistan match in view of the recent terrorist attacks in Gurdaspur and Pathankot. Ironically, he had inaugurated an India-Pakistan match at the same venue a few years ago.

UNPARALLELED RIVALRY

In fact, one of the first tasks undertaken by Virbhadra when he took over in 2012 was to take over the picturesque cricket stadium constructed by Anurag Thakur in Dharamshala and lodge a case against him for land grab, encroachment and misuse of funds. Overnight, teams were sent to seal the stadium. It was only after Thakur moved the courts that the government was directed to remove the seal.

Continuing with his rivalry, Virbhadra also ordered vigilance inquiries against Dhumal. The latest notice by the vigilance department to Dhumal has asked him to list all the purchases made by him during his previous tenure as CM, including pens and garments.

Dhumal, too, did his bit when he became the CM in 2007. Cases pertaining to corruption and nepotism were instituted against Virbhadra and a mysterious audio tape surfaced as evidence against him.

The veteran Congress leader, also called Raja Sahib because of his royal lineage, obviously enjoys a lot of clout with the party high command. This was proved when he insisted on leading the party to the elections in 2012. The party had another state chief and there were at least four chief minister aspirants who were staking their claim to lead the party. There was a juncture when he conveyed to the party leaders that he may form a regional party if the Congress did not give him a free hand. He finally prevailed and even though the Congress had been losing elections in other parts of the country during that period, he led it to a comfortable victory in the state.

Even now, the Congress is backing him as he is heading one of the seven states still held by it in the country. If it loses Assam and Kerala, it will be left with just five states to rule. Given the support Virbhadra enjoys in the state, it can ill-afford to project another leader in the eventuality of a consent by the courts to arrest him.
Interesting developments are on the cards.

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