Down memory lane
Nearly 12 years after I published a series of news reports in Hindustan Times on how money from India was being stashed away to Swiss bank accounts in the name of the once-proposed Punjab Intranet Company (PIC), the Income Tax departmentÔÇÖs decision to file a case against former Chief Minister Capt Amarinder SinghÔÇÖs son Raninder Singh in connection with his foreign accounts has once again revived my memories of 2004.
That was the time when Capt AmarinderÔÇÖs government had filed corruption cases against his predecessor Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal, besides several former Akali ministers, and had even arrested several top personalities, including Punjab Public Service Commission Chairman Ravinder Pal Singh Sidhu in connection with a cash-for-job scam.
Then Chief Minister, Capt AmarinderÔÇÖs popularity soared overnight for showing strong resolve in rooting out corruption from Punjab. I, too, was enamored by his seeming functioning, and being a young journalist, a little overzealous in publishing stories against the Badals who were facing serious corruption charges in those days. In fact, Capt AmarinderÔÇÖs anti-corruption campaign jolted the Akalis so much that most of BadalsÔÇÖ well-wishers and trusted lieutenants chose to desert them. In those days, I would vouch for Capt AmarinderÔÇÖs integrity during all my private and public interactions, and blindly support him till I stumbled upon some documents that showed how questionable foreign currency transactions were taking place in the name of ÔÇÿconsultancyÔÇÖ for the Punjab Intranet project, by RaninderÔÇÖs one-time close friend and a Dutch national, Leonard Freeke.
After the first round of investigations, a news item ÔÇÿQuestionable transactions in the name of Punjab Intranet?ÔÇÖ appeared in the HT on December 28, 2003. Intially, most people were not ready to believe that the family of Capt Amarinder, who had waged war against corruption, could be involved in such deeds.
That morning, I remember a large number of readers, critics included, calling up to ascertain the facts. The then Opposition leader Parkash Singh Badal, too, rang me up through his media adviser Harcharan Singh Bains and wanted to understand the story. Since the report was against a sitting Chief Minister and I was getting all kinds of feedback, I was in a different state of mind. I told Badal that it would be better if he asked his ÔÇÿsensibleÔÇÖ media adviser to read out the news and explain the facts to him. Soon, the PunjabÔÇÖs Public Relations department started informing journalists that the Chief Minister had convened a press conference at 5:30 pm, and he would be addressing the media along with top bureaucrats, including his Principal Secretary Sanjit K. Sinha; Secretary (Information Technology) Nirmaljit Singh Kalsi, Media Adviser Bharat Inder Singh Chahal and a battery of lawyers.
I was confident that the facts were irrefutable, yet expecting all kinds of motives that could be attributed to me for exposing this story. While getting ready for the Chief MinisterÔÇÖs press conference, I received a call from a friend and powerful Inspector General (IG) in the Punjab police who wanted to meet me before the press conference. He insisted that we met for 10 minutes before I went to the Punjab Bhawan, thus we agreed to meet at Barista coffee house in Sector 35, Chandigarh.
He had a message to convey and wanted some assurances from my side before we both left for our respective destinations. The press conference got delayed by almost 20 minutes before the Chief Minister walked into the conference hall. He briefly addressed the media saying that he was sure the story was done in ÔÇÿgood faithÔÇÖ but noted that Leonard A. Freeke was on Christmas vacation and was likely to come back after a few days. He further said that he would like to brief the media only after ascertaining more facts. Fellow journalists who were expecting a strong reaction from Capt Amarinder were, however, left baffled, some even wondering as to why the Chief Minister chose not to counter the facts in the news report.
A couple of days later, the government announced the setting up of the Justice B S Nehra Commission of Inquiry to enquire into the truthfulness of the news report. Reacting to this development, Raninder admitted that Freeke was his close friend, but denied his involvement in any such transactions. Badal, who had been pushed to a corner by then, sensed an opportunity to take on the Chief Minister and question the integrity of the very leader who was so far being seen waging war against corruption in Punjab.
The Badals, who felt the sting from being hounded by state vigilance sleuths, now had cause to strike back. Not just the Badals, but even several detractors of Capt Amarinder within the state Congress, held a series of press conferences to demand an inquiry either by the CBI or the Enforcement Directorate (ED) into the Swiss bank transactions, allegedly involving the Chief MinisterÔÇÖs son Raninder.
The course of politics in Punjab had changed forever.
To be continued…