Modi Government Has a Dismal Track Record on Absconding Billionaires

The status of cases against the likes of Vijay Mallya, arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari and former IPL chief Lalit Modi is the same as theirs – lost in transit.

Note: This article was first published on September 5, 2017 and is being republished in the light of Vijay Mallya’s statement that he met finance minister Arun Jaitley before leaving India, and Jaitley’s confirmation of this meeting, which he said was fleeting.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often boasted about his ‘zero tolerance’ for corruption and his chief aide, BJP president Amit Shah, has claimed that no scams have happened on his saheb Modi’s watch.

But do billionaire absconders like Vijay Mallya, arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari and former IPL chief Lalit Modi get “special handling”? And are the facts at par with the crackdown on corruption jumla?

Consider the following cases.

In December of last year, Bhandari, following in the footsteps of Mallya, managed to slip out of the country and is believed to be in London where Mallya is also based.

Authoritative sources confirmed that Mallya was tipped off about his imminent arrest by the ruling party, since after showing up in parliament in the Zero Hour, he left the country accompanied by his partner and masses of designer luggage in March last year. A senior Enforcement Directorate (ED) official described Mallya’s slipping away as “an assisted escape.”

On March 1, 2016, Mallya – who held a diplomatic passport by virtue of being a member of parliament – whizzed through immigration with ease and boarded the London-bound Jet Airways flight 9W-122 from New Delhi. He flew first class and had booked the entire cabin for himself and his companion. Mallya was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 2010 as an independent candidate from Karnataka with the help of the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular).

He showed up at the release of a book by socialite Suhel Seth titled Mantras for Success: India’s Greatest CEOs Tell You How to Win on June 16,  2016, in London’s South Asia Centre of the London School of Economics, and tried to accost Navtej Sarna, the then high commissioner of India to the UK, causing him huge embarrassment.

Sarna left the event after spotting Seth. After I wrote on the subject, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, was forced to issue a clarification that Sarna had left the venue after seeing Mallya. Attempts were made to pretend that Mallaya had “gate crashed” the event “uninvited”. This came to naught and did not spare the government any blushes as it was angrily denied by Mallya himself who said on Twitter that he had gone to the event because he was “invited”.

A similar situation unfolded with Bhandari, who is considered the best networked arms dealer in the country had a host of top-level connections, including those with a senior editor of one of Delhi’s largest newspapers. The Income Tax authorities discovered that the editor, known to be exceptionally close to the current establishment in the BJP, had exchanged 500 calls with Bhandari when the Augusta deal was being negotiated.

Interestingly, despite requests from the Income Tax (IT) department, Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Intelligence Bureau, which asked Delhi police to register a case under Sections 3 and 5 of the Officials Secrets Act after classified papers of the defence ministry were found during a raid at Bhandari’s residence in April 2016, the case doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Bhandari was allegedly linked to Robert Vadra – the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi – after IT sleuths found an email trail linking the two. Vadra, via his lawyers, has denied these claims. The ED attached Rs 21 crores of Bhandari’s assets in June this year under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, however, the government does not have answers to Bhandari whereabouts and its plans to bring him back. The circumstances under which he fled are themselves circumstances with sources telling the New Indian Express in December 2016:

Sources said Bhandari was always a step ahead of law enforcement agencies owing to his deep bureaucratic and political network and he must have been tipped off about his imminent arrest. “The cops wanted him. The enforcement agencies, including I-T department and Enforcement Directorate were probing into his companies allegedly involved in round-tripping of slush funds. But, despite multi-agencies’ eyes on him, Bhandari proved to be well advised and fled without leaving any trace,” the sources said.

According to a senior official, “Bhandari is the key link to the biggest political players in India. We need to be serious to ensure his return as he was a cross-party player. So far, the government has only allowed us to touch the tip of the iceberg.”

Despite the editor being outed publicly with his phone records, the newspaper has taken no action against him. Both Bhandari and Mallya seemed to be privy to planned official action against them as Mallya had got to know that senior counsel Dushyant Dave on February 28, 2016, had advised the State Bank of India (SBI) to ask the courts to retrain Mallya from leaving.

Curiously, the SBI took its time to act but Mallya did not. The CBI also told the Supreme Court that it had “downgraded” its lookout notice against Mallya from him being stopped at airports to immigration authorities “merely informing the CBI of the fact that he had taken a flight.”

The original lookout notice for Mallya was issued on October 16, 2015. This was surprisingly amended a month later on November 24, 2015. Why it was modified remains a mystery to this day.

The NDA government is clearly very kind to billionaire absconders. Earlier, in June 2015, it became known that Swaraj had helped procure IPL czar Lalit’s travel papers after his passport was cancelled. She said that she had helped him on “humanitarian grounds”.

Vasundhara Raje, Rajasthan chief minister, had given a “witness statement” in favour of her friend Lalit. Currently the ED is investigating 16 cases against him and has issued show cause notices in 15 cases.

So while the billionaires continue to abscond, the status of the cases against them is the same as their status – lost in transit.

Swati Chaturvedi is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi. She tweets at @bainjal.