Enforcement Directorate officer Rajeshwar Singh goes on leave: How joint director became the god of Lutyens Delhi

Praveen Swami
Rajeshwar Singh handled the cases that shaped the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi: The 2G spectrum scandal and the bribery allegations around the Aircel-Maxis deal.

"The whole neighbourhood gathers to mourn when the police chief's dog dies," said the man who was until this week India's most powerful police officer, "But not even a dog shows up to bark when the police chief dies."

"Travails are our companions along the road of life," he continued. Now in the eye of the storm that is tearing apart both Indian policing and politics, the officer has reason to recall his own bravura dialogue, delivered in a 2011 movie starring Rajeshwar Singh as Rajeshwar Singh.

Blamed €" or deified, depending on who is doing the telling €" for setting off the implosion of the Central Bureau of Investigations, Rajeshwar handled the cases that shaped the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi: The 2G spectrum scandal and the bribery allegations around the Aircel-Maxis deal.

There are many questions that remain unanswered about those investigations €" questions that go to the heart of how successive governments came to use the anti-corruption bureaucracy as an instrument of vendetta. But there's one question more curious than all the others: How did an obscure deputy superintendent from Uttar Pradesh's provincial police service become a maker and destroyer of entire political empires, an arbiter of destinies, the unquestioned god of Lutyens Delhi?

Born into a middle-class Lucknow family, the son of a deputy inspector-general of police who rose from the grimy ranks of the Uttar Pradesh Police, 44-year-old Rajeshwar grew up at a time when Uttar Pradesh's political landscape was undergoing dramatic changes. He belonged to a generation of the landed Thakurs who had come to realise that bureaucratic power €" not just landholding €" was needed to protect its status as an élite.

Educated at Lucknow's Colvin Taluqdars' College, Rajeshwar followed his father into the police, and moved to the Enforcement Directorate. Elder brother Rameshwar Singh ended up in the Indian Revenue Service, last serving as director-general of investigations in Surat.

The extraordinary web of kinship the family patriarch built around his children is instructive. Rajeshwar is married to Laxmi Singh, an Indian Police Service officer who is now an inspector-general of police in Uttar Pradesh. Meenakshi Singh, one of the Singh family's two daughters, is an IRS officer who is, in turn, married to Uttar Pradesh Police additional director-general Rajiv Krishna. The other sister, Indian Administrative Service officer-turned-lawyer Aabha Singh, is married to IPS officer-turned-activist lawyer YP Singh.

In "Kya Yahi Sachch Hai(Is this the truth?)", a self-valorising allegory on YP Singh's police career, there is at least some insight into the cultural milieu from which this cohort of officers emerged. Raghu Kumar, the YP Singh-inspired protagonist, battles corrupt politicians and superiors to shut down bars, gambling dens and drug dealers€"torturing criminal suspects with electric currents and bastinado, and making dozens of young clients at a bar march to the police station, tied up like cattle.

This is, it doesn't take much to see, is a kind of sanskari version of Dabangg, shorn of the obligatory Bollywood blood and gore: Corruption is seen as an evil not just in itself but as part of a larger crisis, the breakdown of the traditional community and moral order. In this world, corrupt women human rights activists sleep their way to success. Good women set on fire by their drink-crazed husbands die without incriminating them in their dying declarations.

In this world, the role of the hero is to use his power to punish the perpetrators, without concerning himself unduly with the law or institutions.

There's likely some distance between the reel version of YP Singh's career, and his real-world role. Following an unremarkable tenure as superintendent of police in Wardha, he went to the CBI, dealing with major cases such as a securities scandal at the Unit Trust of India, and alleged corruption in contracts awarded to a Reliance-Enron consortium for the Panna-Mukta oilfield.

In YP Singh's version of events, he was subjected to political persecution as a consequence. The CBI, however, claims his tenure was cut short because of procedural errors, and poor investigation, built around little evidence other than newspaper reports. There were no convictions.

Either way, YP Singh quit the service in 2003, and began a career as a lawyer. His letter of resignation did not suffer from false modesty: "Despite being one of the most outstanding officers of the country, I exist, debilitated and belittled, like a living corpse".

Kya Yahi€¦ premiered in 2011. Former deputy prime minister LK Advani, now-Union ministers Nitin Gadkari and Maneka Gandhi and Congress heavyweights Murli Deora and Jagdambika Pal watched a procession of villainous IPS and IAS officers literally prostrating themselves before politicians.

Ironies of this order marked the life of Rajeshwar, too. For much of his career, Rajeshwar maintained an intimate relationship with power. His daughter's fifth birthday was attended by the Congress' éminence grise Ahmed Patel and then-law minister Kapil Sibal. Then-ED chief Arun Mathur, three people present there told Firstpost, was seen to touch the feet of a Congress politician €" bowing-and-scraping of an order that even appalled New Delhi obsequious bureaucrats.

Brought into ED in 2009, Rajeshwar had a big reputation as a small-town "encounter specialist". He had no experience of investigating white-collar crime. The transfer to New Delhi was, at least in part, a favour from then-chief minister Mayawati, whose term saw record numbers of criminals killed in controversial police operations.

Rajeshwar's break came with the investigations of allegations that then-finance minister P Chidambaram had delayed clearance for a $40-billion investment by telecom giant Maxis in Aircel until a company controlled by his son, Karti Chidambaram, received a cut.

No one knows why Rajeshwar €" until then happy to flaunt his proximity to the Congress €" chose to go after Chidambaram. It is possible he was genuinely appalled by the corruption; alternatively, he may just have sniffed an opportunity.

His decision, however, won him the unconditional backing of maverick BJP politician Subramanian Swamy €" and a large cohort of media fanboys who paid court at his offices in the ED building near New Delhi's Khan Market.

Faced with efforts by Chidambaram to block Rajeshwar's absorption into ED and promotion to the rank of joint director, the Supreme Court in 2014 ordered an end to the UPA government's efforts to act against him.

That year, government sources say, Rajeshwar briefly considered leaving ED and joining politics. He was sounded out for contesting the Amroha Lok Sabha seat for the BJP but he wanted Gautam Budh Nagar. The idea was discarded when it became clear there would not be enough time for him to resign before campaigning began.

Modi's rise to power saw Rajeshwar rise to a position of unprecedented authority. His control of the Aircel-Maxis probe made him a valued asset, the man who could pay back Chidambaram for his own use of the CBI to harass BJP president Amit Shah. In the process, though, the normal institutional structures through which power is exercised in governments were subverted. In essence, Rajeshwar now answered to no one.

There are more than a few who allege Rajeshwar cashed in on his extraordinary position of privilege. A plea filed before the Supreme Court this summer by activist Rajneesh Kapur also accused Rajeshwar of engaging in corruption, even "to the extent of shaking hands with organised mafia elements". This time, the Supreme Court lifted the blanket protection and allowed the government to investigate Rajeshwar.

Meanwhile, a war was breaking out between the government's chosen anti-corruption establishment, with the CBI's powerful second-in-command, Rakesh Asthana, lining up against Rajeshwar and his own boss, Alok Verma. A furious Rajeshwar wrote to then-revenue secretary Hasmukh Adhia, accusing him of "siding with scamsters".

Even though Swamy continued to battle on Rajeshwar's behalf, the strains within the government had reached a breaking point €" leading to war of mutual allegations that forced the prime minister to step in, and send both Asthana and Verma on leave, pending investigation.

Now on three months leave on half-pay, Rajeshwar will return to work in transfigured circumstances: Investigation into his own operations will be on; the government, having seen the wages of subverting institutional process, will ensure his power is restrained.

There is no more ironclad rule in storytelling than this: Downfall follows hubris, as surely night does day. There is lesson there that Rajeshwar Singh won't be able to help but reflect on.

Also See: Alok Verma vs Rakesh Asthana: CBI battle has just begun but clean-up op at agencies needed before it's too late

CBI vs CBI: India faces major institutional crisis, but from it will hopefully emerge a stronger democracy

CBI vs CBI: BJP accuses Rahul Gandhi of indulging in 'petty politics', praises Narendra Modi for his 'statesmanship'

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