Vijay Mallya issue: Optics are not looking good for BJP but Rahul Gandhi’s charge reeks of irony and lacks substance

The optics are not looking good for BJP in the Vijay Mallya case. Politics is a game of perception. And as Lee Atwater had said back in the 1980s, perception is reality. In the final scheme of things, it matters little whether scummy bankers arranged easy loans for the debt-ridden liquor baron, whether his misadventures were facilitated by “phone-banking” or whether his NPAs were ‘evergreened’ in the UPA era. It matters little whether a crooked babu looked the other way when Mallya was busy diverting his loans to shell companies or whether a corrupt officer gave him a tip-off at the right time.

These facts are of academic interest in elections. What matters is a simple ‘story’. The tycoon scooted away when NDA was in power, now claims that he “met” the Union finance minister and “offered to settle the loans” before he did so and the CBI now admits that it “goofed up” in handling the case. Congress must be licking its chops. The BJP has been pushed to the backfoot, forced to defend itself ahead of elections.

The Congress president has wasted no time. He first demanded the resignation of Arun Jaitley. On Friday, he trained his guns on the prime minister. Rahul Gandhi needs to tone down his excitement a wee bit. For all the real and perceived misdemeanors of those he is targeting, Rahul lacks the moral authority to target anyone — much less demand anyone’s resignation — on charges of corruption. Pots usually refrain from labeling a slur on kettles.

File image of Vijay Mallya. PTI

File image of Vijay Mallya. PTI

The BJP, however, should have no comfort on that count. It is struggling to counter the Congress narrative that one of the most powerful ministers in Narendra Modi cabinet ‘helped the disgraced industrialist fly away from India’.

In one stroke, Congress charge dilutes the seriousness of the legal battle the Government of India has waged in extraditing Mallya from the UK. It also discredits the reforms NDA has undertaken by bringing in tough laws such as Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code to clean up the NPA mess and weakens the impression that the government is ‘tough and uncompromising’ on crony capitalists. Most importantly, it sullies the prime minister’s image of incorruptibility.

There’s been a give-and-take between the BJP and Congress on Mallya that makes for little substance but great political theatre. The controversy erupted when the fugitive businessman, who is facing charges of money laundering and an extradition attempt from India, told reporters in London that he had “met” Jaitley before he left for Geneva when he apparently “repeated an offer to settle with the banks”. The finance minister was quick to rebut his claim and clarified in a Facebook post that he had not given Mallya any appointment to meet him since 2014.

Jaitley, did, however, reveal that Mallya had “misused his privilege as a Rajya Sabha member” and caught him briefly while the minister was walking out the House to enter his room and made a settlement offer. Jaitley held that “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.’ I did not even receive the papers that he was holding in his hand.”

Mallya’s subsequent clarification, that no formal meeting took place and he “happened to meet Jaitley in Parliament” and had “no formal meeting scheduled with him” seems to buttress Jaitley’s statement. Congress, however, claims that one of its leaders PL Punia had seen Jaitley talking “discreetly” with Mallya for 15-20 minutes on 1 March, 2016 (a day before he fled) and has demanded Jaitley’s resignation and a “probe”.

It is unclear why Punia had kept quiet for so long if he was in possession of such explosive information. Or if he had let it on internally to the party, why Congress chose not to bring it to public notice till now. It is inconceivable that any political party will let go of such an opportunity. It is unlikely, however, for this theatre to provide any specific answers. The more important thing is to try and understand why the CBI changed the 2015 ‘Look Out Circular’ against Mallya from “detain” to “inform” that may have allowed the liquor mogul to escape.

This is an interesting angle to explore. As usual, Rahul has jumped the gun and claimed that CBI had “approval” from the prime minister in “quietly” downgrading the notice and leading to Mallya’s “Great Escape”.

Rahul’s direct charge against Modi stems from his longstanding desire to show that the prime minister is not incorruptible or inhabitant of a higher moral universe but as “guilty” as rest of the pack. If such an allegation sticks even partially, Rahul’s political battle becomes easier.

CBI claims that it changed the Look Out Circular (LOC) from “detain” order against Mallya to “inform” because the “detain” order was unsupported by evidence, backed by no warrants and issued in error.

According to a report in Indian Express, the CBI sent an LOC request on 16 October, 2015, to immigration authorities asking them to “detain” Mallya upon his arrival from the UK. More than a month later when Mallya was about to land in India, the CBI issued a fresh LOC asking immigration to keep them “informed” instead of detaining Mallya on arrival.

The newspaper reports: “CBI realised that if Mallya was detained, he would have to be arrested and they did not have enough evidence to do so.” The report also quotes a CBI officer, as saying, “We were still in the initial stage of the probe. All documents had not been obtained. No bank had approached us with a complaint till then. We believed that Mallya would cooperate better with the probe if he was not arrested.”

This obviously means that the first LOC was issued in error. The CBI admits its mistake and insists that there was a slip-up but “no foul play”.

The LOC with detention request had “no legal basis as no non-bailable warrant, a requirement under law, had been issued against him (Mallya)”, Times of India quoted an agency source, as saying. On why his passport wasn’t impounded despite the lodging of a cheating and criminal conspiracy case against Mallya in July 2015, the report clarifies that “according to a Supreme Court judgement, the passport of a person can only be impounded when he has been charge-sheeted or if a trial is pending against him.”

The report also says that a CBI officer had inadvertently ticked the ‘detain’ box during the first LOC and the error was subsequently corrected in the next one. The agency apparently had no reason to suspect that Mallya was flying the coop because he was a frequent flyer abroad with large business interests and was “cooperating” with the probe.

For instance, as news agency PTI has reported, “Mallya travelled abroad in October and returned in November, then made two trips in first and last week of December and also a trip in January 2016. In between, he had appeared for questioning thrice since the look-out notices were issued — once in New Delhi and twice in Mumbai between December 9 and 12, 2015.”

It does seem as if CBI’s move to downgrade the LOC was a procedural response and not any grand conspiracy to let Mallya off the hook. The agency did impound his passport, secured non-bailable warrants and charge-sheeted him once the probe established his crime. Whether or not there is any truth in CBI’s claim, the problem with Congress’s stance is that when it comes to Mallya, it is unable to adopt a holier-than-thou posture.

The BJP has accused the Congress of flouting all norms to offer a “sweet deal” to Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines to keep the airline afloat during the UPA regime. A party spokesperson cited four purported bank letters accusing the UPA of restructuring loans to assist Mallya and claimed “it seems the Airlines wasn’t owned by Mallya but by Gandhi family in the proxy. Benefits that Gandhi family got out of Kingfisher Airlines via business class upgradation, free tickets, etc, is in public domain.”

Even if one considers these as posturing, the fact remains that former prime minister Manmohan Singh had gone on record in November 2011 to say that his government would try to find ways and means to help Kingfisher Airlines emerge out of trouble. The airline was deep in crisis by then.

In 2017, reports emerged of letters purportedly from Mallya written to then finance minister P Chidambaram (dated March 2013) and prime minister Singh (dated October 2011) apparently seeking favours in loan disbursals.

Both Singh and Chidambaram later claimed that these were “ordinary piece of letters” marking “routine transaction”.

Allegations of helping Mallya have been raised directly against Rahul as well.

The trouble with Congress’ approach is that it seeks to weaponise a systemic issue with NPAs — dealt at length by Raghuram Rajan in his recent letter  — into a political tool to hunt BJP. While the BJP may have lot to answer for, and indeed appears vulnerable before the narrative of “helping Mallya”, the Congress cannot wield a double-edged sword without injuring itself.

This is even more so because the party is helmed by a dynast who is not exactly Ceasar’s wife on corruption. He and his mother Sonia Gandhi are out on bail in the National Herald misappropriation of assets case and in a recent order, the Delhi High Court has dismissed their pleas challenging the income tax notice seeking a tax reassessment for fiscal 2011-2012. The court has ruled that the I-T department has the power to “reopen tax proceedings”.

Incidentally, in August this year, the Delhi HC had rejected Rahul’s plea to restrain the media from reporting on this issue.

It raised speculation over why the Congress president, who claims to bat for “freedom of expression” would seek to gag the media.

The BJP might be in trouble. Even so, Rahul is hardly the leader who can lead the Congress charge against cronyism. That would be the deepest of ironies.


Updated Date: Sep 14, 2018 20:39 PM

Also See