Wednesday, November 04, 2009
The former Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Mr Madhu Koda, who these days represents Chaibasa constituency in the Lok Sabha, has done what others who have been caught with their snouts in the trough have been known to do: He has checked into a hospital where obliging doctors have found a bed for him in the intensive care unit. According to a health bulletin issued late Tuesday evening by Abur Razzak Memorial Weavers’ Hospital, whose doctors obviously hold the Hippocratic Oath in utter contempt, Mr Koda is suffering from a stomach-ache. Cynics would gleefully point out that it’s a case of indigestion caused by Mr Koda stuffing himself with too much lolly, but such frivolity need not distract us from the offences he has been accused of committing.
Nor should we hold Mr Koda’s humble beginnings — he was a welder and before that a mine worker till the late-1990s — against him. Others have risen from rags to riches by doing ‘social service’, which is how politicians describe their profession in their bio-profiles, and not all of them went to the right school, college and university. Indeed, politics offers a level playing field for those who have no compunctions about acquiring ill-gotten wealth. Perhaps that’s the way it should be — after all, there is no reason why those from the ‘masses’ should be at a disadvantage compared to those from the ‘classes’ when it comes to sharing the proverbial loaves and fishes of office.
Yet, Mr Koda’s alleged transgressions, ranging from illegal mining operations to kickbacks to money-laundering, are stunning because of the scale of the loot and the speed with which it was conducted. They also show that with the right determination and cunning, a nondescript milkman and the son of a chewing tobacco vendor can become the ‘business associates’ of a Chief Minister and front for him while negotiating ‘investment deals’ in places as far and wide as Dubai, Liberia and South Africa. But for their association with Mr Koda, neither Mr Vinod Sinha, who used to supply milk at homes in Ranchi, nor Mr Sanjay Chaudhary, whose father would hawk chewing tobacco (better known as khaini) from the carrier of his ramshackle bicycle, would have been among India’s most-wanted men today.
Mr Koda and his associates who are on the run would tell you that it’s all about seizing the right opportunity when it comes knocking on your door and not turning it away. For Mr Koda, who had contested and won the Assembly election on a BJP ticket, it came with the creation of Jharkhand in November 2000, a State carved out of Bihar ostensibly to ensure better governance and development for what was then considered a neglected tribal-dominated region. Statehood was considered fulfilment of the long-standing demand to protect tribal interests by delinking their fortunes from those of Bihar.
Mr Koda became Minister in the first Government of Jharkhand headed by Mr Babulal Marandi; he retained both his job and portfolio — Mines and Rural Engineering Organisation — after Mr Arjun Munda took over as Chief Minister. In 2005, Mr Koda was denied a BJP ticket, but that did not deter him from contesting the election as an ‘Independent’; he won with a handsome margin from Jagannathpur.
In a hung Assembly, Mr Koda and four other ‘Independent’ MLAs played a crucial role, first in helping the BJP to form a Government (in which they became Ministers) and later in pulling it down at the behest of the Congress, the RJD and the JMM. That was Mr Koda’s second opportunity: He manoeuvred himself into the Chief Minister’s office in September 2006 and remained in power till August 2008, when Mr Shibu Soren pulled the plug on him.
Apocryphal stories abound in Ranchi about how Mr Koda acquired huge wealth and clout in less than a decade. His iron ore-rich constituency became the hub of illegal mining: Trucks would be loaded and despatched across the border with Orissa to Paradip Port from where the ore would be shipped out to foreign destinations. A senior journalist in Ranchi recounted how industrialists were delighted when Mr Koda became the Chief Minister: He ran a ‘single window operation’ whereby those wanting to short-circuit the tedious process of submitting tenders and competing with others would pay him directly. Apparently, he had fixed ‘fees’ for favours — for example, he would charge Rs 1 lakh for every acre of mines being leased out; whoever paid the ‘fee’ got the lease.
It is, therefore, not surprising that he should have amassed assets worth Rs 4,000 crore, which is almost a fifth of Jharkhand’s annual budget, as is being claimed by the Income Tax Department. What is, however, surprising is that he should have thought of investing the slush funds in diverse businesses, including hotels, apartment blocks and shopping malls across nine cities. It is also a measure of the ingenuity of his two close associates, Mr Sinha and Mr Chaudhary, that they should have set up a bogus investment firm, Balaji Bullion and Retailers, in Mumbai, which funnelled money — according to one estimate, as much as Rs 990 crore — to a Dubai-based ‘investor’ called Abdul Bhai.
Was Mr Koda operating all by himself? Or was there somebody else, apart from Mr Sinha and Mr Chaudhary, who was advising him how to salt away the money he had looted? A former mine worker may be sufficiently brazen to demand bribes for favours and run an illegal mining operation, but would he be clever enough to invest in Liberian and South African mines? Recall how Mr Shibu Soren, far more crafty than Mr Koda, went and deposited the money he got for voting with the Treasury Benches so that PV Narasimha Rao’s Government would not fall, in a bank from where it was later seized and used to implicate him and his party MPs.
We could, of course, ignore the possibility of a larger conspiracy to mint millions by defrauding the people of Jharkhand, whom Mr Koda and tribal leaders of his ilk insist they represent, and blame it all on coal which has proved to be a boon to the unscrupulous few and a bane to the many who still wait for deliverance from gruelling poverty in one of India’s richest States.