Donation label on JMM 'bribe' cash

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By PHEROZE L. VINCENT
  • Published 15.09.11
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New Delhi, Sept. 14: The Income Tax Appellate Tribunal has ruled that the money four Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs had received from the Congress in 1993, allegedly to save P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government in a trust vote, was a donation and not a bribe.

The September 2 order, passed 14 years after the four politicians had appealed for tax exemption on the Rs 1.6 crore received, comes at a time of another cash-for-vote scandal and drew criticism from experts The Telegraph spoke to.

“This completely destroys institutional respect. The same logic of bribe being donations can now be extended to the (July 2008) cash-for-vote case too,” former solicitor-general Harish Salve said. He alleged the tribunal had acted under political pressure.

Former Morcha MPs Shibu Soren, Shailendra Mahato, Suraj Mandal and Simon Marandi had appealed against a 1997 income-tax department order to pay taxes and penalties on the cash received, which the tax officials noted had been brought in “5-6 suitcases”.

In their plea filed the same year, the petitioners had said the money was a donation from a big party to a smaller one and could not be treated as income. Their decision to vote for the Rao government, they said, had come in the interest of “stability, national security and economic reforms”.

Asked during the hearings why they had kept the money in their personal accounts, they said the party had authorised them to do so because they were managing an agitation for a Jharkhand state.

In its ruling, the tribunal’s Delhi Bench-A has waived the tax citing “the absence of any incriminating material” during raids on the recipients. The income-tax department has 79 days left to appeal.

“Treating this as a donation confers legitimacy on the transaction which its character doesn’t merit. The obvious intent is to cover up a wrong,” Supreme Court lawyer Aman Lekhi said.

Congress leader and Union tourism minister Subodh Kant Sahai was unwilling to comment, saying it was up to the Morcha politicians to clarify how they got the money.

Over a dozen MPs were charge-sheeted in the bribery case but acquitted, while Rao and Buta Singh were convicted and later cleared.

The fortunes of the Morcha four, arrested in the case, have taken different paths.

Suraj Mandal now heads the Morcha’s trade union wing and was recently in the news for staging a token fast in support of Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption. Simon Marandi is a Morcha MLA and is believed to be sulking because he has not been given any ministry.

Shibu Soren rose to become Jharkhand chief minister for sometime, and now holds a cabinet-rank office in the state’s coalition government. Shailendra Mahato, who has been in most of the leading parties in Jharkhand at one time or another, joined the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha last month.