The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has arrested alleged chartered accountant and close aide of Karti Chidambaram, S Bhaskararaman, in connection with the fresh ‘bribe for visas’ case. Sources said Bhaskararaman was arrested late on Tuesday night after hours of questioning.
“He was not cooperating with the investigation and so we had to arrest him. He will be produced in a competent court today,” a CBI officer said.
The agency on Tuesday conducted nationwide searches at various premises linked to former Union minister P Chidambaram and his son Karti – both Congress MPs – in connection with a fresh corruption case registered against the latter.
The FIR, the sources said, is based on allegations that Karti accepted a bribe of Rs 50 lakh from the Vedanta Group to facilitate visas for 300 Chinese nationals of a company working in collaboration with a Vedanta subsidiary for a power project in Punjab.
The case was registered on the basis of a reference sent by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) way back in 2018. CBI, however, initiated a preliminary enquiry (PE) only in March this year and registered an FIR on May 14. The agency has not explained the reason for delay in initiating a PE even as Chidambaram has questioned the timing of the raids.
Notably, it was from Bhaskararaman’s laptop that ED had retrieved an email that discussed demand of Rs 50 lakh from Vedanta for facilitating visas for the Chinese nationals.
The CBI FIR has arraigned as accused Karti, Bhaskararaman, Talwandi Sabo Power Limited, Mansa, Vikas Makharia, a Talwandi Sabo representative, and Bell Tools Limited, Mumbai.
Though not arraigned as accused, the CBI FIR has said that the bribes were paid after Bhaskararaman had a discussion with Chidambaram senior about Vedanta’s requirements. It has also said that Chidambaram was on Vedanta’s board and his son had taken financial favours from a Vedanta subsidiary.
“P Chidambaram had been on the board of Vedanta Group whereas his son Karti P Chidambaram had taken financial favour from M/s Sterlite Optical Technologies Limited, Mumbai (a Vedanta Group Company), which had lent Rs 1.5 crore in November 2003 to his company namely M/s Meltraack India Limited, Chennai and the interest thereupon was waived-off in August 2004 (when P Chidambaram was sworn in as the finance minister, Govt. of India),” the CBI FIR has said.
According to the CBI, Talwandi Sabo, a subsidiary of Vedanta group, was in the process of setting up a 1,980-MW thermal power plant at Mansa and the job to establish the plant was outsourced to a Chinese company, M/s Shandong Electric Power Construction Corp (SEPCO) as EPC contractor.
However, as the project was running behind schedule, Talwandi Sabo tried to bring more Chinese professionals to their site at Mansa in order to avoid penal action for delay. For this, it needed project visas over and above the ceiling imposed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the CBI alleged in its FIR.
“It has been alleged that in pursuance of the same, the said representative of Mansa-based private company (Talwandi Sabo) submitted a letter to the MHA, seeking approval to re-use the project visas allotted to this company, which was approved within a month and permission was issued to the company,” a CBI statement said.
Claiming that the letter for visa approval submitted to the MHA was shared on email with Karti by a Vedanta representative, the CBI FIR said, “S Bhaskararaman, after discussion with P Chidambaram, the then Home Minister, demanded an illegal gratification of Rs 50 lakh for ensuring the above said approval.”
This bribe was eventually paid to Karti through a Mumbai-based company, the CBI has claimed.
Talwandi Sabo Power Project is a coal-based, super-critical thermal power plant located at Banawala village in Punjab’s Mansa district. The power plant is operated by the TSPL, a subsidiary of Vedanta.
Reacting to the searches, a TSPL spokesperson said, “The searches at our Punjab facility have been part of a larger CBI investigation. We are extending full cooperation to the authorities and facilitating the due process. We have no further comments.”
Sources said the searches were carried out at Karti’s Lodhi Estate premises and at the residence and offices of Bhaskararaman.
The case is based on a reference sent by ED to the CBI in 2018. The letter had claimed that during its probe against the Chidambarams in the INX Media case, it had stumbled upon evidence that a company, allegedly associated with Karti, was offered Rs 50 lakh by Vedanta group to facilitate visas for 300 Chinese nationals when P Chidambaram was the Union home minister.
The ED had alleged that Vedanta group had made the offer to Bhaskararaman in 2011. The ED assertions were based on email communications it had retrieved from the hard disk of Bhaskararaman’s laptop.