Rahul Gandhi's 'proof' about Jaitley-Mallya meet stretches credulity; Congress chief forgets UPA-era collusion

Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s belated attempt to bring "proof” into the public domain to conclude that finance minister Arun Jaitley “colluded" with Vijay Mallya is interesting.

The “proof” for Rahul was the statement of Panna Lal Punia, his confidant and a Congress Rajya Sabha MP. Punia claimed that on 1 March 2016, a day before Mallya fled, he with “his own eyes” saw the erstwhile liquor baron and promoter of Kingfisher Airlines and Arun Jaitley chatting “very intimately” in the central hall of Parliament, first standing in a corner and then seated on a bench.

Rahul took this claim to be the final proof in the matter, and came to the conclusion that this was an “open and shut” case. He demanded that Jaitley must immediately resign.

A few questions arise out of Rahul’s accusations that the Narendra Modi-led government colluded with Mallya.

File images of Arun Jaitley and Vijay Mallya. PTI/AP

File images of Arun Jaitley and Vijay Mallya. PTI/AP

Before going into other details, one should understand the kind of place that the central hall of Parliament is. This is where the president addresses both Houses of Parliament at the beginning of the year. Visiting foreign dignitaries are invited to speak to parliamentarians here. Further, other important parliamentary functions — such as the roll out of GST, which happened at midnight on 30 June, 2017 — are held at this hall. For the rest of the year, when Parliament is in session, MPs of the two Houses, including ministers, and senior accredited journalists, sit there during leisure and informally interact over tea. The hall is an open house where people walk in and out. At any given point in the day, there are over 50 people present there.

In such a scenario, Punia couldn’t have been the only witness to the extended meeting between Mallya and Jaitley in the central hall. There would have been a whole lot of other MPs and mediapersons present there. It is a pertinent question as to how nobody other than Puniya made this charge, or ever claimed to have witnessed this conversation between Jaitley and Mallya. Puniya could not have been a chance witness.

Punia now claims that he had been speaking about this conversation since 3 March, 2016. Did he not inform his party leadership, Rahul Gandhi in particular, in the last two-and-a-half-years about having seen this? If he did, then did Rahul Gandhi and the rest of the Congress leadership not consider his claim to be serious enough to be presented as "proof" at a press conference?

Rahul, while alleging collusion between the Modi government and Mallya, conveniently forgot the way in which the Manmohan Singh government — controlled by him and his mother Sonia Gandhi — extended undue favors to Mallya and Kingfisher Airlines. A series of correspondences brings this aspect to light. For instance, on one occasion, a “relieved” and “pleased” Mallya had thanked Singh for “meeting” him and “responding positively” to his demands. On another occasion, Mallya met with Singh's principal secretary TKA Nair, and the latter spoke to concerned persons in the ministry, directing them to sort things out. On yet another occasion, Mallya had written to his colleague and made a reference to P Chidambaram speaking with a senior State Bank of India (SBI) official about a fresh loan to be granted to Kingfisher Airlines.

But the most damning fact is a series of correspondences between the Reserve Bank of India and State Bank of India. In one such correspondence, the RBI overruled the SBI and advised it not to downgrade Kingfisher's status in the books and re-structure loans to bail the airline out. The former asked the SBI to treat this as an exception, not to be used as a precedent for anyone else.

The Congress, surely, will have a difficult time explaining its position on these aspects. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had recently spoken of top Congress leaders during the UPA regime engaging in an unofficial “dial-a-loan” system.

Rahul, however, now believes that in Punia’s statement, he has found the ultimate proof to indict the Modi government in the Mallya case. He is using Mallya’s statement given in London on Wednesday as another proof. Mallya had said, “I happened to meet Jaitley in Parliament. I told him that I was leaving for London and want to settle with banks, and (asked if he would) facilitate discussions. I did not have any formal meeting scheduled with him”. To a question as to what was Jaitley's response, Mallya said “nothing”.

Jaitley was quick to issue a rebuttal. He said “The statement is factually false in as much as it does not reflect truth. Since 2014, I have never given him any appointment to meet me and the question of his having met me does not arise. However, since he was a member of the Rajya Sabha… he misused that privilege on one occasion while I was walking out of the House to go to my room. He paced up to catch up with me and while walking, uttered a sentence that `I am making an offer of settlement’. Having been fully briefed about his earlier `bluff offers’, without allowing him to proceed with the conversation, I curtly told him 'there was no point’ talking to me and he must make offers to his bankers. Besides this one sentence exchange, where he misused his privilege as a Rajya Sabha member, in order to further his commercial interest as a bank debtor, there is no question of my having ever given him an appointment to meet me.”

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Updated Date: Sep 13, 2018 22:30:58 IST

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