War of words erupts over Jaitley-Mallya meeting

Both BJP and Congress are accusing each other of colluding with the beleaguered aviation tycoon to help him leave the country without repaying 9,000 crore of unpaid loans and several other liabilities, TEHELKA BUREAU reports

A recent statement by fugitive liquor baron Vijay Mallya that he had met Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to settle matters with the banks before leaving India has sparked fresh controversy. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress are in a war of words over the remark, with both the parties accusing each other of colluding with the beleaguered aviation tycoon.

Mallya, while appearing for a hearing of his extradition at London’s Westminster Magistrate Court, added that the banks in India had filed objections to his settlement letters. “I left because I had a scheduled meeting in Geneva, I met the finance minister before I left, repeated my offer to settle with the banks… that’s the truth,” Mallya told reporters outside London’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where his extradition case is being heard.

Jaitley, in a Facebook post, denied a settlement had been reached. Jaitley said he had declined to hold an audience with Mallya by telling him there was “no point talking to me”. Immediately after Jaitley’s sharp rebuttal, Mallya appeared to tone down the seriousness of his comments, saying it was “not fair” to create a controversy over this issue as it was not a “formal meeting” and he only “happened to meet” the finance minister. “I happened to meet Mr. Jaitley before in Parliament and told him that I am leaving for London… I did not have formal meetings scheduled with him,” he said. Congress president, however, accused Jaitley and the government of lying on the issue.

On whether he met any other BJP leader before he left India for London, Mallya said, “Over a period of time, I have met many colleagues in Parliament and expressed to them my desire to settle with the banks. I don’t believe I owe any further details.” The 62-year-old Mallya, who was famously known as ‘King of Good Times, also said that he was not “tipped off” by anyone and he had “happened to meet” Jaitley in Parliament — a statement seen as a dilution from his earlier “innocent statement” that he had met the finance minister before leaving India and had told him about his settlement offer for banks. “I can confirm to you that nobody tipped me off. There was no need to run and the allegations are media created allegations.”

But Mallya’s “happened to meet” rectification or clarification could not stop Congress and other opposition parties from targeting the government for “hiding” the information. Demanding the details of Mallya’s meeting with the finance minister, the Congress said, “Mallya’s comment he met Jaitley confirms our assertion that government was fully complicit in flight of people like him and others. The government must explain how Vijay Mallya was allowed to leave India”. The Congress also asked the government to reveal the details of Mallya’s meetings with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Rahul Gandhi, on his part, accused Jaitley of colluding with a “criminal” and not informing investigating agencies about liquor baron Vijay Mallya’s plan to leave the country. Rahul also questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in Mallya’s flight to Britain in 2016. “Why did Jaitley allow Mallya to escape, or was it an order from the prime minister?” he asked. “This is a clear-cut case of collusion. There is some deal between them. Finance Minister Jaitley must resign and this should be investigated,” he said.

Senior Congress leader PL. Punia said that on March 1, 2016, when he was in the Central Hall of Parliament, he had seen Jaitley and Mallya talking “discreetly”. “On March 3, we heard from the media that he (Mallya) fledthe country on March 2. I have clearly stated about this in each of my interviews with the media. There are CCTV cameras, we can all see that for proof. If I am wrong, I will quit politics,” Punia said. He said the meeting between Jaitley and Mallya lasted for 15-20 minutes.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, in a tweet said, “Why did the Finance Minister hide this information till now?” “PM Modi meets Nirav Modi before he flees the country. FM meets Vijay Mallya before he flees India. What transpired in these meetings People want to know,” Kejriwal tweeted.

CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said, “It’s a fact that all of us had known earlier. Whatever denials government may issue, it confirms that all those who looted public money by taking loans from banks and absconded, not one of them happened to leave the country without knowledge of the government. They (govt) have to own up to the fact that they allowed this loot to happen and the fact that they are allowing this loot to happen, more are looting.”

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, meanwhile, termed as “motivated” the Congress’s demand of Jaitley’s resignation over his meeting with Mallya, saying it was a strategy to deflect attention from the UPA government’s “cronyism and favoritism” Sitharaman was quoted as sayin that a brief conversation which Mallya had with Jaitley in a corridor of Parliament is being “played up” and asserted that responses to the issue have “reinforced” the fact it was not a conversation of any merit.

Jaitley, she noted, had already explained as to how Vijay Mallya misused his privilege as Member of Parliament to speak to him. To a question about Congress lawmaker PL Punia’s claim that he had seen Jaitley sitting with Mallya in Parliament’s Central Hall and there would be CCTV footage to corroborate it, Ms Sitharaman shot back, asking if the footage would also have audio recording. “It already seems a very motivated allegation,” she said of the Congress’ charge against Jaitley.

Hitting out at the Congress, she said letters were written to the Reserve Bank of India and State Bank of India during the UPA’s rule to help Mallya. “They are in tour face. How favouritism naming that one company has been made… Whose period made it sick? Whose period had favouritism and cronyism entering in to suggest to the central bank and written instructions given to banks to lend to this defaulter,” she asked.

Joining BJP’s counter-offensive, law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad asked whether Gandhi and Mallya were “working in tandem” and claimed the liquor baron had allegedly benefitted from bank facilities during the UPA government. Railway minister Piyush Goyal termed Mallya a ‘criminal’ and said his words could not be taken seriously, adding that banks were pressured by the UPA regime to sanction loans to Mallya due to the Gandhi family’s “relations” with him.

Adding fodder to the Opposition’ charges, former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi told NDTV it was a “big coincidence” that Mallya left India on the same day a consortium of banks moved to recover their unpaid debt and it was possible that someone could have “tipped him off”.

Retorting to the claims, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra flashed a bunch of documents at a press conference and told reporters that a series of letters between the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and SBI show “how the previous dispensation under Sonia Gandhi was biased, partial and kept all norms and regulations at bay to give a sweet deal to Kingfisher. Sometimes it seems the airline was not owned by Mallya, but by the Gandhi family in proxy.”

The boss of the defunct Kingfisher Airline, who has been on bail on an extradition warrant since his arrest in April 2017, is fighting extradition to India on charges of fraud and money laundering amounting to around 9,000 crores. Kingfisher had to be grounded in October 2012 under a burden of over 9,000 crore of unpaid loans and several other liabilities, including defaults on employee salaries and other payments.