The deportation (not extradition) of Dubai-based businessman Rajiv Saxena, a co-accused in Rs 3,600-crore AgustaWestland chopper deal scam, and corporate lobbyist Deepak Talwar from the United Arab Emirates comes at an interesting time in national politics. It also tells us something about Narendra Modi’s foreign policy. More of that later.
First, let us take a look at the context. With the General Election to Lok Sabha almost upon us — a pivotal occasion for India in more ways than one — one of the major planks before the Opposition is the prime minister’s apparent image of incorruptibility and personal integrity. Corruption is a complex issue in elections. In emerging economies such as India, there are many instances of corrupt politicians not only contesting in elections but even winning it.
Scholars such as Milan Vaishnav of Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace point out that voters sometimes elect criminal or corrupt politicians in countries such as India because “governance has simply not been able to keep up with the pace of rapid economic, political, and social change. This has opened up a gap between what citizens demand of the state and what the state is able to deliver.”
And yet, big-ticket corruption that stunts a country’s growth and weakens democracy by eroding its public institutions invites punishment from voters. One of Modi’s biggest planks as a prime ministerial candidate in 2014 was the numerous scams under Congress-led UPA and his promise of a clean government.
Though this complexity makes a straightforward inference difficult, it is easy to see why Opposition parties such as Congress believe that it will be a politically unwise step to let BJP go to town with claims of a ‘clean government’ juxtaposed with the scam-mired tenure of the UPA years. If we add Modi’s image to the mix, then the contrast becomes starker.
For instance, the first-ever National Trust Survey in India conducted by Firspost and Ipsos — involving 34,470 individuals from 291 urban wards and 690 villages in 57 socio-cultural regions across 320 (over 60 percent of 543) parliamentary constituencies, spread over 285 districts across 23 states in India — find that Modi is the most trusted leader in the country. Around 52.8 percent people want to see him return as prime minister in 2019. The figure is 26.9 percent for the next candidate, Rahul Gandhi.
The survey also finds that the Prime Minister’s Office enjoys the highest levels of trust — 74.4 percent — among all important institutions of public trust, including the Supreme Court.
Data analysts in Congress believe that Modi’s image of “incorruptibility” can be dented, and accordingly, party president Rahul has launched a high-decibel campaign over alleged corruption in the Rafale deal where he has made Modi the ‘prime accused’. Though the Congress president has failed so far to furnish any fact or evidence to buttress his claims, the National Trust Survey finds that Congress' campaign is getting traction among voters.
— CNBC-TV18 (@CNBCTV18Live) January 25, 2019
In this game of perceptions where narratives attempt to shape the reality, the deportation of Saxena (a Dubai-based businessman said to be close to AgustaWestland middleman Christian Michel) and Talwar (a corporate aviation lobbyist who carried out shady deals during the UPA regime) give BJP the chance to highlight Modi’s image as an “anti-corruption crusader” and a “doer” who “keeps his word”.
The BJP-led NDA has faced constant questions over its inability to bring economic offenders such as Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi back to India. It made Modi vulnerable to charges from the Opposition of collusion with crony capitalists. The BJP has tried to counter it by saying that they have introduced more stringent laws to ensure that the properties of these economic offenders who hide in foreign lands are seized and every effort is being made to drag them back. But the fact that fat cats and tycoons flew away under NDA’s watch after sucking the banks dry make for a powerful story that the BJP has been unable to counter.
During a recent interview with ANI, Modi expressed confidence that “those who have fled the country earlier, they have not returned. But those who fled during this government, they will be brought back, today or tomorrow. Diplomatic channels, legal courses and seizure of properties through legal means are being implemented. Those who have stolen India's money, they will have to compensate for each and every penny.”
While none of the three above-mentioned gentlemen is yet to land in India, the dragging back of a middleman (Michel), his close aide and a lobbyist is a statement of intent that does two important things for the BJP at this stage.
One, it sends a larger message that the government is determined to bring culprits to book, even if they are hiding in so-called safe havens. Media reports say Saxena is wanted in connection with the Rs 3,600 crore AgustaWestland money-laundering case, while Talwar is being chased by the ED and the CBI for “misusing” over Rs 90 crore taken through the foreign funding route. The ED chargesheet accuses Saxena of round-tripping and creating a maze of transactions to route the proceeds of bribe money.
According to a PTI report, ED investigation found that Saxena, his wife and their two Dubai-based firms routed “the proceeds of crime and further layered and integrated in buying the immovable properties/shares among others”. The UK-based AgustaWestland apparently routed kickbacks worth €58 million through two Tunisia-based companies Gordian Services Sarl and IDS Sarl. In turn, these companies transferred the funds to Interstellar Technologies Ltd in Mauritius. These funds were then re-transferred to Saxena’s Dubai-based firms.
Talwar, a lobbyist who apparently wielded a lot of clout in the aviation sector during the UPA regime, slipped out of India last year when probe agencies turned up the heat on him. According to a report in Times of India, many politicians and Delhi A-listers in elite circles have received favours from him. The motive of the investigators, according to the report, is to tally the “explanations and versions” of Michel and Saxena’s statements. This is expected to aid the investigation in the AgustaWestland scam.
This takes us to the second point why deportation of Saxena and Talwar comes at an opportune time for BJP. With Rahul training the Rafale guns on Modi, the prime minister may have caught hold of a smoking gun in the Agusta probe. Saxena is an important piece of the Agusta puzzle, and his relationship with Michel — who apparently took the name of a ‘Mrs Gandhi’ during ED questioning and “tried to tamper with evidence” — gives the case a whole new dimension. It is a crucial move in the chessboard of national politics.
Finally, the way Saxena was deported makes it apparent that India’s relationship with the UAE — which had earlier served as a safe haven for many fugitives from the law in India — has improved dramatically and Modi’s personal touch in foreign policy may have something to do with it. Had there been no deeper understanding between the two countries — a seemingly recent phenomenon — it is difficult to understand how the UAE could have acceded to India’s request.
Saxena’s lawyers have told news agency ANI that he was "illegally extradited to India. No extradition proceedings started in the UAE" unlike the Michel case. “He was not allowed access to his family or lawyers or essential daily medicine. He was on-boarded onto a private jet from a private terminal at Dubai international airport. When his lawyers were asked to speak to the UAE state security and demanded to understand what happened, they were told that he’s on the flight and can’t be stopped. When they queried further, they were told to ask the Indian government.”
This audacious picking up of offenders from previously inaccessible locations point to India’s growing clout and the personal equation that Modi has been able to strike with heads of foreign states. This development also gives BJP a potent weapon in its arsenal. The election campaign just became more intriguing.
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Updated Date: Jan 31, 2019 23:21:00 IST