Clean chit gives Haryana liquor scam political twist

Is the state’s coalition government heading for major showdown in the high-profile liquor scam? wonders Rajesh Moudgil

The first-time Bharatiya Janata Party-Jannayak Janta Party (BJP-JJP) coalition government in Haryana is heading for a major showdown with the deputy chief minister (Dy CM) and JJP leader Dushyant Chautala giving a clean chit to a senior excise and taxation department officer whose role has been questioned by the state government’s special enquiry team (SET) in the high profile liquor scam case.

It was about four months ago that the chief minister Manohar Lal had set up the SET findings of which were recently shared with media by home minister Anil Vij. He recommended action against excise and taxation commissioner Shekhar Vidyarthi — an IAS officer — on the basis of SET’ observations. Within a day after Vij recommended the action, Dushyant gave Vidyarthi a clean chit.

The SET which was formed in May this year following reports of large-scale smuggling and sale of liquor across the state during lockdown period due to Covid-19 – in its report has pointedly observed that Vidyarthi only gave verbal instructions to order the closure of liquor vends during the lockdown, delayed information to SET and also hampered the visit of the SET to a distillery.

Dushyant who also holds the excise and taxation portfolio, differed with the SET’s observations and defended Vidyarthi and said he was a senior officer who had done a good job. He went on to say that the SET did not take into account many aspects before making such observations.

Taking a swipe at SET and the police department functioning he added that SET talks about 14 FIRs majority of which were registered before he took over the excise department. Asking what action was taken in these FIRs, he categorically said that was it not the police’s inefficiency that they could not investigate beyond the driver of the vehicles carrying liquor. He further tore into the police department functioning and said it was more of the police which failed to perform. “The SET has not examined several issues properly’’, he held.

The SET was formed on May 11 which gave its report on July 30. Headed by additional chief secretary T C Gupta, it had another IAS officer Vijay Singh and IPS officer Subhash Yadav as its members, though after Yadav’s retirement, another IPS officer Muhammad Akil was included in the team.

The SET has observed that the excise and taxation commissioner Shekhar Vidyarthi attempted to block SET’s visit to a distillery that it wanted to visit. The SET also mentioned that despite instructions given by Dushyant Chautala on March 26 to shut down all the liquor vends in the state due to Covid lockdown, Vidyarthi did not issue any written instructions in this regard.

Govt for action

The chief minister Manohar Lal on being asked for his take on Dushyant’s reaction on SET findings, has held that “while one could agree or disagree with SET’s observations, the government would go ahead with its (SET’s) findings as per the law’’.

Aside from departmental action against Vidyarthi, Vij has also recommended transfer of the case to state vigilance bureau and written to the chief minister in the context. He has recommended a comprehensive probe into the role of all the officers and employees of both the department — excise and taxation and police in the said case, by the vigilance bureau.

Of the total 90 assembly seats the BJP could win only 40 seats and struck a post-election alliance with JJP which won 10 seats to form the coalition government. While Dushyant became the deputy chief minister another JJP MLA, was made a minister. The JJP is a splinter group of Indian National Lok Dal (INLD).

The case

The case pertains to smuggling of over one crore liquor bottles from distilleries and sale of the same on high premiums during the lockdown period in Haryana and other states. It was also alleged that some influential people having political connections were also involved.

The state police and SET have arrested among a few others, Satwinder Singh Rana, a former two-time MLA and JJP candidate from Kalayat assembly constituency in last assembly election. He was said to have been arrested in connection with liquor theft from a sealed godown in Panipat district’s Samalkha area. According to police, Rana was one of the partners in the godown and the excise department had sealed the liquor stock in the godown in 2016 for illegal liquor. Aside from Rana, a liquor trader Bhupinder Singh, who was also said to have political connections, was also already in police net.

Opposition’s stance

Meanwhile, leaders of the Congress, the main opposition party in Haryana have reacted sharply on the ongoing case.

Party state president Kumari Selja and AICC media incharge Randeep Surjewala have alleged a collusion between liquor mafia and the state government. Demanding a high court judge monitored investigation to fix the real kingpin of the liquor scam, they said the SET has given a half cooked investigation putting only the small fries in the dock.

The Congress which had sought probe by special investigation team (SIT) had also objected the formation of SET as the SET was neither empowered to hold investigation nor had any legal validity.

The INLD leader Abhay Chautala also alleged involvement of home minister and excise minister in the case and sought a probe by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

It is not the first instance when the differences between BJP and JJP leaders have come to the fore.

About a fortnight ago only, taking a note of alleged large scale corruption in revenue department and unscrupulous registration of property in the state especially in Gurugram, the chief minister’s flying squad had lodged several police cases. Subsequently one  tehsildar and six naib tehsildars were suspended in Gurugram.

Khattar who admitted that irregularities had been detected, immediately ordered to stop registration of property pan Haryana. He held that the registration of property would be done only after improving the system in which plans are afoot to integrate all the concerned departments such as revenue, urban local bodies, town and country, police and litigation.

Dushyant, who also holds revenue portfolio, however, on the other hand, later briefed media and said that there was no corruption in the department and that the registration of property was stopped so as the entire system for the same could be further improved.

Earlier also, while the government acted sternly against some of the rice millers in the dubious procurement case in the state, Dushyant held there were no irregularities. The government, has, however, slapped fines of 90 crore on some of the millers.