New Delhi: After 105 days in custody, former Union finance minister P Chidambaram on Wednesday night walked out of Tihar jail hours after the Supreme Court granted him bail in a money laundering case linked to the INX Media with some conditions like restraining the senior Congress leader from talking to the media about the case.
Chidambaram, 74, stepped out of Gate no 3 of the prison at 8:10pm to a rapturous welcome by hundreds of Congress supporters. His son Karti was on hand to receive the Congress veteran.
Dressed in his trademark long-sleeved white shirt and dhoti, the former union minister, whose custody entered the 106th day on Wednesday with most of the time spent behind bars, was surrounded by a posse of newsmen and photographers before he was taken in a car to his Jor Bagh home.
Asked to comment on his release, a calm and composed Chidambaram, a Rajya Sabha MP, said he cannot comment on the case and will obey the Supreme Court order but hastened to forcefully add that not a single charge has been framed against him.
"The fact is that after 106 days of pre-trial incarceration there is not a single charge framed against me as I speak now," said Chidambaram, who is expected to attend the Rajya Sabha proceedings on Thursday. The Congress leader said he will talk more on Thursday.
Chidambaram has been in the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and in Tihar jail since his dramatic arrest by the CBI sleuths from his Jor Bagh home in the national capital on the night of August 21. While the CBI is probing the corruption case linked to the INX Media, the ED is investigating the money laundering case.
"I am very happy that my father is coming home. It has been a long wait, it has been an unwanted incarceration. I am very grateful that the Supreme Court has given him bail," Karti told reporters.
The relief for Chidambaram triggered a political slugfest with the Congress welcoming it as truth prevailing at last and that his incarceration was "vengeful and vindictive" while the BJP derided the party for "celebrating corruption". The BJP also sarcastically said finally Chidambaram too joins the long list of OOBC (Out On Bail Club).
Allowing Chidambaram's plea for bail, the apex court also ordered that he can't leave the country without its permission and should neither try to influence witnesses nor tamper with evidence.
Making clear its order would not be construed to be the findings on merits of the case, the court said his alleged complicity would be examined during the trial.
Setting aside the Delhi High Court's November 15 verdict denying the former union minister bail, a three-judge bench, headed by Justice R Banumathi, granted the relief to him on a personal bond of Rs 2 lakh with two sureties of the like amount.
The bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, restrained Chidambaram from giving any press interview or making any statements with regard to the case.
The top court, which observed that economic offences are grave in nature, said "grant of bail is rule and refusal is exception".
It said the ED's claim that he can tamper with evidence cannot be accepted on "face value" as he is neither in political power nor holds any post in the government.
Chidambaram would have to join further investigations if asked by the probe agency, it added.
Chidambaram's wife Nalini, who is a senior lawyer, said she was happy that he got the bail.
The CBI registered its case on May 15, 2017, alleging irregularities in a Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) clearance granted to the INX Media group for receiving overseas funds of Rs 305 crore in 2007 during Chidambaram's tenure as finance minister. The ED lodged a money laundering case after that.
News that its senior leader would finally be returning home led to relief in the Congress camp but also triggered a political row with the BJP.
"Truth finally prevails #SatyamevaJayate," the party tweeted from its official handle.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi said Chidambaram's incarceration was "vengeful and vindictive".
"I'm glad that the SC has granted him bail. I'm confident that he will be able to prove his innocence in a fair trial," Gandhi said in a tweet.
Chidambaram's lawyer and Congress colleague Abhishek Manu Singhvi described the Supreme Court ruling as "excellent light after a rather long tunnel". He termed the order "balanced", "nuanced" and "comprehensive" and in favour of human rights and balanced jurisprudence.
Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor was more circumspect and said "justice delayed is justice denied". The bail should have been granted much earlier, he said.
Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury alleged that the government hatched a "big conspiracy" against the former finance minister as he had been its sharp critic.
The BJP, however, was unsparing in its criticism of the opposition party and brought in leaders such as Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in its response.
"Classic case of @INCIndia 'Celebrating Corruption'!!
"So finally Chidambaram too joins the long list of OOBC(Out On Bail Club) in the Congress ..He joins the coveted Club,some members of which are:1)Sonia Gandhi 2)Rahul Gandhi 3)Robert Vadra 4)Motilal Vohra 5)Bhupinder Hooda 6)Sashi Tharoor Etc Etc," BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra said on Twitter.
The apex court said it was initially not inclined to open the sealed cover material placed before it by the ED. But since the high court had perused the material, it was imperative for the top court to go through the documents, it added.
After pronouncing the verdict, the court directed its registry to return the sealed cover material back to the ED.
(With PTI inputs)