Birla, Sahara Documents Link 'Gujarat CM', Other 'CMs' to Alleged Payments in 2012 and 2013-14

Why have the CBI, the income tax department and the Central Vigilance Commission refused to probe potentially incriminating documents seized from the two business houses, a petition before the Supreme Court asks.

Email from the Aditya Birla group. Credit: Prashant Bhushan

Email from the Aditya Birla group. Credit: Prashant Bhushan

New Delhi: The Sahara Group and an Aditya Birla Group company allegedly made massive payments to prominent Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress politicians in 2013-14 and 2012 respectively, according to a set of documents bundled along with an application in a pending writ petition filed by citizen collective Common Cause.

The 2015 petition (Common Cause & Ors. versus Union of India & Ors.) against the appointment of the central vigilance commissioner (CVC) and the vigilance commissioner is currently pending in the Supreme Court. Advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan is the counsel for the petitioners.

The allegations over payouts to politicians made in the application, filed on Tuesday, have been cited by Bhushan as proof of  K.V. Chowdary’s unsuitability for the post of CVC. The application alleges that he did not pursue the matter in his earlier job as head of the income tax department when junior officials first unearthed evidence of wrongdoing.

Payout Allegations

The Sahara payments were allegedly made to well-known political leaders. Among the entries against which large sums of money are listed  are the ‘CMs’  of Gujarat, Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in 2013-14. The Wire is not in a position to confirm whether these entries in the documents Bhushan has filed refer to the chief ministers of those states.

Common Cause’ s application calls for a probe into the sizeable set of documents allegedly seized by the income tax department (IT) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) during a search operation of Hindalco Industries’ offices in 2013 and a raid of Sahara India group offices in Delhi and Noida in late 2014.

On Tuesday, The Hindu first reported the existence of these documents.

The alleged payments made to politicians, for reasons not immediately known, are detailed in the form of Excel sheets and cryptically-worded emails in these documents.

Records of the Aditya Birla Group seized during the 2013 raid apparently “revealed that a payment of Rs. 7.08 crore was made during the period from 09.01.2012 to 02.02.2012 under the heading ‘Project-J-Environment & Forest’ ”.

According to the application, “it is to be noted [that] during Ms Jayanti Natarajan’s tenure as Minister, Environment & Forest, as many as 13 projects of Aditya Birla Group companies were cleared between 08/11/2011 and 17.06.2013.”

During the 2014 campaign, Narendra Modi, who was then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, attacked Natarajan for levying a so-called ‘Jayanti tax’ on companies – a charge she has strongly denied.

The documents also indicate noted Congress and BJP politicians among the list of recipients.

What does the interim application ask for?

Bhushan has alleged that both the CBI and the income tax department buried serious evidence of corruption against prominent politicians. He said that the documents recovered during the CBI raids on Sahara group (2014) and Birla group (2013) show that the corporates may have paid bribes – running into crores – to politicians in exchange for various favours, which are presently unknown.

The activist-advocate, who claims to have got the documents from unnamed whistle-blowers, filed the application on behalf of petitioners Common Cause on Tuesday to seek the Supreme Court’s intervention in the matter. Talking to The Wire, he said, “Ideally, the CBI should have investigated the contents of the documents found in its raids. Instead, it handed over the sensitive information to the income tax department, which quietly buried the matter.”

In their writ petition last year, Common Cause had alleged that the appointment of Chowdary as the CVC was “illegal and arbitrary”. Chowdary was the chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes, the apex body of the income tax department, during the time the CBI handed over the documents to the IT department. Immediately after his retirement from the post, he was appointed as the CVC and also as an advisor to the special investigation team that the Modi government constituted to probe black money sources.

Interestingly, he became the first Indian Revenue Service officer to hold the office of CVC – a position usually given to Indian Administrative Service officers.

Sahara payout

Common Cause’s application attaches a number of documents as annexures. Annexure A8, A9 and 11 contain copies of the documents allegedly recovered from Sahara India group offices during an income tax raid on November 22, 2014.

“The petitioners have come in possession of a few pages containing a record of cash transactions from May 2013 to March 2014. The said pages were apparently signed by the income tax officer, one person from the Sahara group and two witnesses,” the application says.

What do these cash transactions show? According to the application, the “logs suggest that cash was apparently transferred to several important public figures”.

Annexure 8 includes a set of three Excel sheets, the third of which is signed by income tax officer Ankita Pandey. As shown below, on September 23, 2013, a sum of “Rs. 10000000.00” is shown against the entry “CM Delhi”. On September 29, 2013,  a sum of Rs. “50000000.00” is shown against the entry  “CM MP (sh neeraj vashisht)”.

On October 1, 2013, a sum of Rs. “40000000.00” is shown against the entry “CM Chattisgarh (sh nandi ji)”. Finally, on October 30, 2013,  a sum of Rs. “250000000” is shown against the entry “CM GUJRAT”.

How credible are these documents?

The interim application in the writ petition notes that one of these pages “came into the possession of Mr. Ram Jethmalani, senior advocate and Member of Parliament”.

Jethmalani, apparently, requested the Delhi government on June 28, 2016  to “compare the signatures of Ankita Pandey on the Sahara Diary with her known signatures”. It was referred to a forensic laboratory and the laboratory apparently “gave on a report on July 1, 2016 that the two signatures were made by the same individual”.

According to the interim application, the lab report “reinforces the credibility of the document that has now come in the petitioner’s’ possession”.

Birla payout

Documents relating to the Birla payouts come from an “investigation in relation to coal block allocations to Hindalco Industries, an Aditya Birla group company”. The CBI conducted simultaneous search operations in four cities – New Delhi, Mumbai, Secunderabad and Bhubaneswar on October 15, 2013.

The Birla documents apparently consist of two questionable payments. The first, as noted above, was the payment of Rs. 7.08 crore under the “heading ‘Project-J- Environment & Forest”.

The second, was an email obtained from the seized laptop of one Shubhendu Amitabh, who is an Aditya Birla Group executive president. “An e-mail dated 16.11.2012 containing the cryptic entry, ‘Gujarat CM- 25 cr (12 Done-rest?)’ was also recovered from the said laptop”, the application said.

Another document, enclosed as Annexure A3, signed by the income tax officials on November 30, 2013, shows income tax agents questioning Amitabh over this specific email.

‘Gujarat CM’ means ‘Gujarat Alkali Chemicals’, Birla man told IT department

“You have also stated that the first line containing note as “Gujarat CM -25 Cr (12 Done – rest?) related to Gujarat Alkali Chemical. Please state what does C and M stands for?” asked the income tax official. (sic)

“These are purely personal notes. Not meant for SMS or email transmission. I noted the three points purely for my personal consumption. And, the first note is only to note for my knowledge and consumption – a business development at Gujarat Alkali Chemicals, a company engaged in caustic soda as well…As they were personal random notes, I used abbreviations. GUj CM stands for Gujarat Alkali Chemicals,” Amitabh replied. (sic)

On further probing by the income tax officials on whether he used the abbreviation “Gujarat CM” for Gujarat Alkali Chemicals in other places, Amitabh said, “In my regular communication through email/sms, I might have at least written Gujarat Chemicals…but since this was a note for my personal consumption only, I did not expand upon them.”

Following this exchange, the income tax department in a report and as seen in the application, notes that given the “highly incriminating nature of the transactions” and “evasive replies” made by Amitabh, it would be imperative for the “assessing officer to scrutinise the data.”

However, Bhushan said that the documents show that after initial enquiries, the income tax department brushed the allegations under the carpet.

On Tuesday, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party cited the Birla entries to make allegations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat in 2013. The AAP tweeted a picture of the “Gujarat CM-25 cr” email from its official handle along with a direct allegation of corruption against Modi.

When The Wire reached out, both Congress and BJP leaders refused to comment on the charges levelled by Bhushan. They said that they have not read the contents of the application, and therefore, would not like to comment.

Note: This story was edited at 7:30 PM on November 16th to include the name of the petitioners.  An earlier version of this story erroneously identified Prashant Bhushan as the petitioner. He is their counsel. The error is regretted.