Beleaguered business tycoon Vijay Mallya’s claim that he met Finance Minister Arun Jaitley before he left India has snowballed into a major political row, with the Congress and BJP engaging in a heated war of words. Even as Jaitley denied having had any formal meeting with Mallya, the Congress-led Opposition latched onto the opportunity to corner the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in the run up to the 2019 general elections.
Earlier in the day, Congress president Rahul Gandhi reiterated his call for Jaitley’s resignation and accused the Finance Minister of colluding with a “criminal” and not informing the probe agencies, ‘despite having information about the liquor baron’s plan to leave the country’. Speaking at a press conference, Gandhi also targeted PM Modi, asking, “Why did Jaitley allow Mallya to escape, or was it an order from the prime minister?”
“This is a clear-cut case of collusion. There is some deal between them. Finance Minister Jaitley must resign and this should be investigated,” he said.
CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury said Mallya’s statement has put the Government in the dock. “It is not the Finance Minister alone, we cannot be sure what other facts are being hidden even now. The fundamental point is how he got away despite lookout notices? he said.
Former Kingfisher Airline boss Mallya, who appeared before the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in the case regarding his extradition to India to face the trial on fraud and money laundering charges, Wednesday was asked by reporters if he was “tipped off” to leave the country. In his response, he said: “I left because I had a scheduled meeting in Geneva. I met the Finance Minister before I left, repeated my offer to settle with the banks. That is the truth.” Jaitley was the Finance Minister in 2016 when Mallya left India.
Mallya, however, sought to downplay his comments later, saying it was “not fair” to create a controversy over a “totally innocent statement” and that he had only “happened to meet” the Finance Minister.
Interestingly, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy tweeted that the Lookout notice issued by CBI against Mallya was modified on “orders from someone” in Ministry of Finance. “I learn from my sources that the Lookout Notice issued by CBI for Mallya was modified from “Block Departure” to “Report Departure” on October 24, 2015 on orders from someone in MoF. Who?” the senior BJP leader said.
In his fresh tweet on Thursday, Swamy said: “We have now two undeniable facts on the Mallya escape issue: 1. Look Out Notice was diluted on Oct 24, 2015 from “Block” to “Report” departure enabling Mallya to depart with 54 checked luggage items. 2. Mallya told FM in Central Hall of Parliament that he was leaving for London.”
Taking a dig at the BJP-led central government, Delhi Chief Minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal said, “People want to know what transpired in these meetings.” “PM Modi meets Neerav Modi before he flees the country. FM meets Vijay Mallya before he flees India. What transpired in these meetings? People want to know,” he tweeted.
Former Union minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha said: “Not only the finance minister, the entire BJP must come clean on its relations with Vijay Mallya.”
Hitting back at the Congress, the BJP alleged that the previous UPA government had given a “sweet deal” to the now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines to keep it afloat and suggested that the airline was perhaps owned by the Gandhi family. Attacking Rahul Gandhi at a press meet, BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra, showing a purported confessional statement of a hawala trader, alleged that the Congress chief had links with a shell company. He claimed that Gandhi was on the backfoot in the case of Kingfisher Airlines and its promoter Vijay Mallya as well as the entire Gandhi family travelled on the airline and their travel was upgraded to business class for free.
“The entire Gandhi family was in fact helping Mallya and Kingfisher Airlines with the sweet deal,” Patra said, while showing a bunch of documents related to the loans given by banks to the airline. “There is a series of letters between the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) and the SBI (State Bank of India). These letters show us how the previous dispensation under Sonia Gandhi was biased, partial and kept all norms and regulations at bay to give a sweet deal to Kingfisher Airlines,” he alleged.
Who downgraded look out circular against Mallya and why?
Following a nationwide uproar over loan defaults by Kingfisher Airlines, the CBI registered a case of cheating and criminal conspiracy against Mallya on July 29, 2015. The FIR was filed based on “source information” as no bank had approached the agency with a complaint against Mallya. On October 16, 2015, the CBI sent a look out circular (LOC) request to the immigration authorities asking them to detain Mallya, who was then in the UK, on arrival.
On November 23, immigration authorities informed the CBI that Mallya was arriving the next day. Curiously, the CBI then asked immigration authorities to downgrade his LOC from “detain” to “inform” on arrival. CBI sources say the agency did so because it realised that if he was detained, the agency would have to arrest him and at that time it did not have enough evidence to arrest him.
“We were still in the initial stage of the probe. All documents had not been obtained. No bank had even approached us with a complaint till then. We believed that Mallya would cooperate better with the probe if he was not arrested,” a CBI officer said.
Notably, after the dilution of his LOC, Mallya had left for London again on December 1 and returned to India on December 7, just before his interrogation on 9, 10 and 11. Subsequently, Mallya again left for the UK on December 23 and returned on February 2. He made another trip a few days later to London in February and returned. “We had no reason to believe that he would flee the country forever,” the CBI officer said.
Yet, this is exactly what Mallya did on March 2. He left for London and has been there since, now facing a case of extradition which is scheduled to be decided on December 10.
With inputs from Deeptiman Tiwary