Sting operation: Shooting the Messenger?

By Sandeep Sahu

sandeep-sir-284x300The zeal with which the Vigilance has gone after Ravi Sharma, the alleged mastermind of the sting operation, which showed four ruling party MLAs – Simarani Nayak of Hindol, Sushant Behera of Chhendipada, Bijay Nayak of Karanjia and Anam Nayak of Bhawanipatna – asking an undercover journalist posing as an industrialist for sums ranging from Rs 5 crores to Rs 40 crores, is commendable.

The agency conducted simultaneous raids at the office of India 24X7, the web channel floated by Sharma, at Madhusudan Nagar in Bhubaneswar and the house of Saroj Kumar Kamila, the cameraperson who allegedly shot the sting on the MLAs, at Dudpal village in Balasore on September 2. Three laptops, three hard disks, five pen drives and a recorder seized during the raid at the India 24X7 office in the Capital city had been sent for forensic examination, Vigilance Director RP Sharma informed the media on the day of the raid.

When questions were raised by the media about the propriety of the raids without first serving a notice on the concerned person, a notice was hurriedly pasted on Tuesday evening asking Sharma to appear before the Vigilance team by 11 am on Wednesday (today). With Sharma choosing to remain untraceable even after the formal notice, DGP KB Singh today said a second notice would be served on him, ‘if needed’.

Earlier, Vigilance sleuths had also visited the office of the TV channel that aired the sting though it is not clear if they found any clues there that would help the investigation.

While the Vigilance is moving heaven and earth to trace the fugitive mastermind of the sting, the four MLAs at the centre of the investigation are sitting pretty. Forget being questioned, they have not even been served a customary notice so far, though the Vigilance DSP did say today that ‘all those’ connected with the case would be served notices ‘in due course’.

The unseemly hurry to go after Sharma and his associate and the convenient recourse to ‘due process’ in the case of the MLAs prompted a wag to comment thus: “It is not clear whether the Vigilance is investigating the case entrusted to it by the Chief Minister or the one that the four MLAs have filed against the mastermind of the sting operation!”

For the uninitiated, the four ‘stung’ BJD MLAs filed a case against the mastermind of the operation at the Kharavela Nagar police station in Bhubaneswar on September 1, three days after the footage showing them asking for money to give a No Objection Certificate (NOC) and facilitate land acquisition for the ‘proposed’ industry was aired on TV.

They said in their FIR that the person claiming to be a representative of the company sought to blackmail them with the recording of an informal conversation and aired it on TV when they refused to pay up. They were being victimised because they were Dalits, they added later for good measure. It is another matter, however, that they are yet to respond to the revelation made by the channel that aired the sting video that they had been pestering the ‘industrialist’ about the junket to Kashmir that had apparently been promised to them.

Even as the Vigilance is on hot pursuit of the fugitive Ravi Sharma and his associate, no one knows the fate of a third case filed by the BJP at the Capital police station in Bhubaneswar against the four MLAs accusing them of malfeasance and asking for action against them.

Part of the reason for the confusion all around could be that this is the first time Odisha police is dealing with a case of this kind.

The confusion appears to have gone right up to the ‘Third Floor’ that ordered the Vigilance to probe the case. No answers are forthcoming on why on earth was the Vigilance, by definition expected to crack disproportionate assets cases, entrusted with the investigation when it simply does not have the experience or the expertise to deal with something like this.

Given its ‘sterling’ record in protecting ministers and ruling party MLAs and leaders in previous cases – the most prominent being the chit fund scam – one would have thought the Crime Branch had the right credentials to be entrusted the investigation of the sting operation. The grapevine has it that the decision to bypass the Crime Branch in favour of the Vigilance is indicative of the falling stock of the head of the former and the rising stock of the man who heads the latter.

It is, of course, entirely the government’s discretion to choose the agency to investigate a particular case. But the single-mindedness with which the chosen agency has gone after the India 24X7 head on the one hand and its refusal to even serve a perfunctory notice on the four MLAs trapped in the sting more than a week after it was entrusted with the investigation begs the inevitable question: Is it not a case of shooting the messenger rather than acting on the message?