From postponement of Ayodhya hearing in SC to PMLA law, P Chidambaram must be mulling a bundle of ironies in custody

Sanjay Singh

When he isn't being interrogated by sleuths at Central Bureau of Investigation headquarters, P Chidambaram €" who has been remanded to the agency's custody till 26 August €"  will have plenty of time to mull the various ironies confronting him in his present situation. First and foremost: The reasons why senior counsel Kapil Sibal, Chidambaram's friend, party colleague and chief of his legal team, couldn't secure a hearing for him in the apex court because Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi was busy heading a five-member constitution bench on the Ayodhya matter. The CJI simply didn't have the time to hear "urgent" plea filed by Sibal and his team on behalf of Chidambaram.

Chidambaram and Sibal should consider this: In December 2017, arguing before a bench headed by then chief justice of India Dipak Misra, Sibal pleaded that the matter be deferred till July 2019, when the parliamentary elections concluded. Sibal argued that the dispute had wider (political) implications. Though he didn't say in as many words, his message was clear: that the hearing and potential verdict would be beneficial to the BJP.

It is matter of great coincidence that Sibal's December 2017 plea before the then chief justice's bench in the apex court turned into reality in August 2019. If the CJI had not been busy through better part of Wednesday morning and afternoon hearing the Ayodhya case, it is possible things could have turned out differently for Chidambaram.

Second, Chidambaram, Sibal and the Congress were thrilled when their leader, former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi in the run-up to the 2019 elections emerged with what they thought was a game changer: the catchphrase 'ab hoga nyay'. The Congress badly lost the elections, netting zero seats in 17 states and UTs. However, their catchphrase has come back to haunt them with Chidambaram being remanded into CBI custody and Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath's nephew Ratul Puri being arrested this week in corruption cases.

Third, on 30 April, 2011, Chidambaram as the then home minister, sat at a podium to inaugurate the swanky new CBI headquarters in New Delhi. On his left was then prime minister Manmohan Singh. On his right was Kapil Sibal, then HRD minister. Two other ministers, Veerapa Moily and V Narayansamy, sat on other side of Manmohan.

The mood was upbeat. There are pictures of Chidambaram and Sibal sharing lighter moments and laughing. Since Wednesday night, the former home and finance minister has been in custody in the same CBI headquarters he inaugurated eight years ago. He is also being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate for his alleged involvement in several other cases worth hundreds of crores.

Fourth, it would be worthwhile to remember what Manmohan said at the time €" and see how it ironically fits today regarding Chidambaram €" justifying the actions of the country's premier investigative agency: "The CBI is today investigating many high-profile cases of corruption that have attracted a great deal of public attention. The handling of these cases constitutes a litmus test for you. What is expected of you is thorough investigation, fair action and quick results. The CBI should act without fear or favour and bring to book all those who are guilty, irrespective of their position or status."

Fifth, Chidambaram as home minister and as a legal luminary in the government, helped draft the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) in the early stages of UPA government. Incidentally, the main charges against him are under PMLA. The Delhi High Court. denying him pre-arrest bail, said this was "a classic case of money laundering".

Sixth, to give the impression that he had been working through night and day with his team of lawyers, Chidambaram appeared in same clothes  he was wearing the day before €"  black trousers and a white shirt (the garb of lawyers) not tucked inside his trousers. His lofty statement read from a prepared text couldn't correct the public impression that he had been untraceable for 28 hours.

Seventh, by trying to claim that he was not in hiding, but instead "seeking protection from the law€¦ engaged in the pursuit of justice" he said "while my lawyers, all senior counsel, were moving the Supreme Court, other lawyers and I worked through the night. Today, throughout the day, I was with my lawyers following the proceedings in the Supreme Court." Chidambaram is supposed to be an eminent lawyer. But despite burning the midnight oil, he and his colleagues ended up drafting a defective petition.