This Friday was a busy day in political circles from Delhi to Patna. There was a flurry of press conferences and sound bytes over Catch's story questioning the Narendra Modi government's claim of iron curtain secrecy surrounding the demonetisation. It stated that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had bought land worth crores of rupees days before the policy was made public.
Catch accessed deeds of at least 10 such property transactions done by BJP functionaries in Bihar for the party. The report also quoted one BJP leader as saying that such purchases were not limited to Bihar alone.
The Congress raised the issue in a press conference inside the Parliament premises. Addressing journalists at their party office, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leaders also cited the Catch report to reiterate the allegations of a massive scam behind the demonetisation. On the other hand, senior BJP leader Sushil Modi defended his party at a press briefing in Patna.
While it is nobody's argument to question BJP's right to buy land through legal means, the timing of these dealings raises questions. Prime Minister Modi had declared Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes as illegal tender on 8 November.
Later, he elaborated that the preparations for the move had started six months ago and only a handful of party leaders and bureaucrats were privy to the decision.
What the documents reveal
The documents show that BJP was on a land-buying overdrive in around a dozen districts of Bihar between August and the first week of November. Sanjeev Chaurasia, BJP MLA from Digha, told Catch that the instructions to buy land had come from party's central leadership. He was among the senior party functionaries who was made a signatory in several of these deals. The money for the purchase also came from the party command, if Chaurasia is to be believed.
Another BJP leader Prem Kumar defends the land purchase. "humne zameeno ki khareed ki hai, iska uddeshya har zile mein party ka mukhyalaya sthapit karna hai. Hum to abhi bhi zameenein khareed rahe hain" ("We have bought land parcels for the purpose of building party offices in every district. We are purchasing land even now)" he says.
However, this explanation is not likely to allay suspicions over the motive of the land deals. The same leadership that was supposedly preparing for the demonetisation was also sending money to local party units at the same time, asking them to go on a land purchase spree. Is it not a clear-cut case of conflict of interest?
What was the urgency to buy land on war-footing just before the note ban? Was the BJP trying to save itself from the fallout of demonetisation by investing in real estate? Nobody in the party is ready to answer this question. Sushil Modi has only claimed that none of the purchases was illegal. However, he has not disclosed any details of cheques or bank accounts that were used to pay for the deals.
Catch spoke to some of the people associated with these purchases. Many persons covering the issue were also contacted. Considering the sensitivity of the matter, none of them was willing to come on record. But at least two of these sources confirmed that money was paid in cash.
A person party to one of the purchases told Catch that Rs 70 lakh were paid in cash for the land registry. All efforts to contact the other buyers went in vain as they have stopped taking phone calls.
BJP leader Babu Singh has purportedly played an important role in these dealings. On Thursday, he had admitted before a news channel that land was indeed bought with cash. However, he refused to speak to Catch, claiming that he was ill.
Another BJP leader Dileep Jaiswal also finds a place in the list of land buyers. Incidentally, he is also the party's treasurer. According to the available information, Jaiswal also runs a medical college in Kishanganj. He has stopped attending phone calls altogether after the controversy erupted.
Most political parties never come out with the sources of their funding. They claim to receive the bulk of the money as public donations not exceeding Rs 20,000. The law requires them to declare the source of income only if the amount is more than this amount. The BJP's case is that it has bought land worth crores of rupees across the country by accumulating such small donations. Does this explanation hold water?
Sushil Modi would like us to believe so. "All rules have been followed in these land deals," he said. The former Bihar Deputy CM also insists there was no financial fraud involved.
"It is not illegal to take a loan for buying property. As far as I know, the money was paid through demand drafts. The Bihar government must have the details if there was any bungling," Modi added.
Maintaining that demonetisation was a closely guarded secret that was known only to a select group of individuals besides the Prime Minister, Sushil Modi claimed "even the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was unaware of the decision."
Senior party leader Sudhanshu Mittal also refutes the allegations. According to him, "The land was bought under a long-term plan. The party has been making such purchases for the past one-and-a-half years."
"The BJP is trying to open its offices at the district level ever since Amit Shah took over as the National president. To link it with demonetisation, is only a figment of the imagination of a contorted mind," Mittal further adds.
Opposition demands a probe
Meanwhile, Opposition parties are crying foul after the revelation. AAP spokesperson Raghav Chadha stated, "Such unconfirmed reports have been coming for quite some time. For example, it was alleged that BJP's West Bengal unit had deposited Rs 3 crore in the bank hours before the note ban. But there is little doubt (over BJP's complicity) if the party was also investing money in real estate,"
The JD(U) has asked for the Supreme Court's intervention on this matter. The party has suggested a probe monitored by the apex court to know the truth of these deals. Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala demanded an investigation into all the property deals done by BJP's central and state units during the past year.