It's only natural that many of us felt an outrageous sense of deja vu when billionaire businessman and “king of good times” Vijay Mallya ran away from the country just in time to escape Indian law because this is exactly what Lalit Modi did five years ago. When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs revoked Mallya’ passport on the request of the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the parallel between the two became gnawingly similar.
But what makes the deja vu really eerie is not the story so far, but what is likely to happen in the coming days.
Lalit Modi chose to be a fugitive, although his friends and supporters argue he is not, exactly five years ago when the Congress-led UPA was in power. The 22 charges that the BCCI levelled against him had everything that could have kept an ordinary Indian in jail, pending trial, for a long time, but he ran away in the nick of time. In an apparent attempt to bring him back, various investigating agencies of the UPA government filed several cases against him, mostly related to FEMA violations, and even revoked his passport.
Under normal circumstances, he would have been in jail in India, but nothing happened. Even without a passport, the UK government didn’t kick him out, instead gave him documents to travel freely across holiday hotspots; the ED hardly moved an inch against him in any of the cases; and finally his passport was restored by the Delhi high court.
What’s more, two top leaders of the BJP, Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Sushma Swaraj, stood up for him in his bad days. In fact, it was their support that secured him the protection of the UK government.
In 2015, when the vulnerability of Swaraj and Raje was exposed, the BJP vowed to bring him to book and made some accompanying noises to make their resolve sound genuine. In fact, the ED had the teeth to do that despite the legal setbacks because the list of cases against him also included money laundering under the PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act).
Although Modi was right in arguing that his presence was not required in India for investigations under FEMA (and hence he is not a fugitive), under PMLA the ED could have told him that his presence was indeed required because the law allows for custodial interrogation.
This is the route the ED should have taken, had it been serious. It also should have asked the MEA to go on appeal against the restoration of his passport. But both didn’t happen. After the initial noise died down, the ED trail went cold and the MEA became silent. Did the ED really pursue the PMLA charge against him? Did the MEA do anything to file an appeal against the Delhi High Court verdict on his passport?
There is no information on this in the public domain. Neither did the Congress nor anybody else from the opposition ask for the details. The media too forgot about it in due course. In all likelihood, both the ED and the MEA kept his case in cold storage and before the end of last year, we completely forgot about Lalit Modi and our moral outrage.
This is the formula that Mallya is also likely to use - buy time and use friends in Delhi to soft-pedal.
The revocation of his passport makes ordinary Indians happy and the BJP look good, but it means nothing because he can continue to stay in the UK without a problem. That’s what happened to Lalit Modi.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of the UK had clarified in Modi’s case that the permission to stay in the country doesn’t expire when one’s passport is cancelled.
This is what the FCO had reportedly said on Modi: "Legally, an individual does not require a valid passport in order to remain in the UK, so long as their leave to enter or remain in the UK remains valid. Such leave is granted to the individual and therefore does not automatically expire upon the cancellation or expiry of the passport in which it is endorsed.”
So, the revocation doesn’t make Mallya a fugitive that we can capture through Interpol. Instead, he can build a case of criminal persecution by political rivals for a bonafide business failure and build certain invincibility around him.
His next step will be to find a more permanent residence in the UK and the British authorities will not treat him the way they treat ordinary Indians or Bangladeshis. In the worst case scenario, which is highly unlikely, he can even take a new passport from the Central African Republic and possibly become its Ambassador in some first world country. All you need is money parked across the world.
It’s foolhardy to believe that the government will ever be able to bring Mallya back to face investigation and possible trial because that’s how rule of law works for cronies and people with money in countries such as India. Had the government been serious, he couldn’t have escaped Indian shores because he was a wilful defrauder of massive amounts of its money for a few years.
If it really wants him to either pay up or face the law, the government can still do it by leveraging its political power. Can’t a country, aspiring to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council and dishing out billions of dollars worth military contracts, ask the UK for the return of a highly prized fugitive?
Otherwise, what has Narendra Modi gained in all his whistle-stop shuttle-diplomacy?