When a Pre-Emptive Strike Becomes a Self-Goal

You know you're doing something right when the ruling dispensation tries to rebut a story that has not even been published yet.

Mehul Choksi. Credit: Gitanjali Jewellers

It is heartening to know that The Wire, a multimedia news platform which is barely three years old, can have an impact with a story which it has not even published.

On October 6, 2017, a questionnaire we sent to Jay Amit Shah, son of the BJP president, so unnerved the Narendra Modi government that it promptly authorised additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta to represent him in any litigation that may ensue. That was two days before the impending article had even appeared.

Something similar appears to have happened this week when questions from The Wire prompted evasive action by the ruling dispensation. That it ended up scoring a self-goal is another matter.

On March 9, reports appeared in two BJP-leaning websites claiming that The Wire was planning to publish a story which would “try to ensnare finance minister Arun Jaitley in a new ‘scandal’ … The plan seems to be … to link Arun Jaitley’s daughter’s legal firm to Mehul Choksi’s Geetanjali Gems, and thus attack Jaitley, firing off his daughter’s shoulders”, said the OPINDIA website.

But how would The Wire do this?

The OPINDIA article claims that Arun Jaitley’s daughter’s firm, Jaitley and Bakshi, was engaged by Mehul Choksi’s Geetanjali Gems Ltd in December 2017 on a retainership contract which lasted barely a month. The contract was annulled and the initial payment was returned the very next month by the law firm after newspapers reported the PNB scam involving Choksi’s firm.

Mehul Choksi fled the country a few weeks after signing the retainership contract with the law firm. In short, a retainership was accepted by the law firm and returned after some weeks on discovering Choksi’s involvement in the scam.

OPINDIA then goes on to allege that The Wire was planning to run a story “steeped in innuendo and nudge-nudge-wink-wink signs which would somehow link Jaitley with Choksi.” Therefore the website decided to pre-empt The Wire by giving the real facts of the case.

Well, we must congratulate the BJP-friendly website for outing the facts of the case.

The Wire was indeed investigating the story and had done due diligence by sending a questionnaire to the law firm owned by Jaitley’s daughter and son-in-law, Jaiyesh Bakhshi. In his reply, Bakhshi confirmed the retainership received in December 2017, which was returned in January 2018 as reported:

“In reply to the questions in your email, we state that in December 2017, [the] Chambers of Jaitley & Bakhshi were approached by M/s Geetanjali Gems Limited with a request for a retainer to represent them in their litigation and advisory matters. At that time, we were informed that there were litigations pending in various courts in connection with property disputes relating to their showrooms and/or other immovable properties.

However, before any legal work could be sent to us, a news item appeared in the media with regard to their involvement in a banking scam. We therefore felt it appropriate to unilaterally cancel their engagement and return their retainer. It is clarified that the entire retainer amount received from M/s. Geetanjali Gems Ltd has been refunded back by Chambers of Jaitley & Bakhshi.

It is reiterated that we never got any opportunity to either represent M/s Geetanjali Gems Limited or to do any legal work for them, since we terminated their retainer as soon as we heard of their involvement in a banking scam.”

In a second email, The Wire‘s reporters sought clarity on when exactly the engagement was cancelled. Bakhshi replied:

“To reiterate the facts, we were retained by M/s Gitanjali Gems Limited in the month of December 2017. We have rendered no legal service under the retainership agreement since no work was assigned to us.

When the news item started appearing “and this is after 31st January 2018” about the company’s involvement in the banking scam, we immediately unilaterally cancelled the Legal Mandate and refunded the entire retainership amount. The same was refunded through the banking channels.

Since the above information clearly indicates no wrong doing or impropriety on behalf our Law Firm whatsoever, we hope you will accurately reproduce our version, without any improper slant or bias.”

In the wake of the Punjab National Bank controversy, various law firms have come under the scanner. Last month,  the Mumbai office of Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas – which had taken up an assignment just a few weeks before the scam was uncovered – was raided by a CBI team as part of its investigations into the fraud.

“Sources reveal that the firm fully cooperated with the CBI team that undertook the raid sometime last week. It is also understood that the firm has never dealt with Nirav Modi or his companies prior to this,” a media report at the time noted.

It was this action of the CBI which led our reporters to look at other law firms that might have worked for Choksi or Modi.

The irony is that given Bakhshi’s categorical assertion that his firm had not actually undertaken any legal work on behalf of Choksi, The Wire’s initial conclusion was that there wasn’t much of a story after all.

OPINDIA deserves full credit for bringing into the public domain the details of this still-born retainership. Of course, how the pro-BJP website, which credits a “source” for the information, came into the picture is not clear. Either the intelligence agencies are monitoring the phones and emails of The Wire’s staff and/or of Bakhshi, and passed on details about the story to OPINDIA. Or the “source” is Bakhshi or an associate, or a person tasked by them.

Our reporters did not find anything unusual or untoward in the sequence of events involving Choksi’s brief association with the law firm which got annulled when the latter discovered the former’s involvement in the PNB scam, but there are questions of  a broader nature which may arise if the ruling elite cares to do some introspection.

While law firms have every right to represent clients who are being investigated by the government, there is always an element of risk involved when the firm in question is owned by a minister’s daughter and son-in-law. It is presumably for this reason alone that the law firm chose to return the brief immediately after Choksi’s name appeared in the PNB scam.

Technically and legally, they could well have continued to represent Choksi, as other lawyers are doing now. Even a person accused of scamming is entitled to counsel. Why, then, did Jaitley’s daughter and son-in-law choose to return the brief? Precisely because they wanted to avoid the political damage this might have caused to a close relative holding one of the highest positions in the cabinet.

What if Mehul Choksi (and his associate Nirav Modi) had managed to extend the Ponzi scheme they were running for another year without getting exposed? It would then have become a very tricky situation for everyone, and the BJP-oriented websites would have had an even more difficult time building a bigger conspiracy theory against The Wire!