The news that the notorious industrialist Vijay Mallya had a discussion with Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, just before fleeing the country, came as bombshell. It hit me personally hard. That day, I had been invited to Rajdeep Sardesai’s show on India Today TV to take part in a discussion on a church-related issue.
I had to sit as a mute witness to the fiery arguments made by the spokesmen of the BJP and the Congress. By the time our subject was taken up for discussion, there was not much time left for Sardesai to conclude his show and go home. I wished that Mallya had made the statement a day earlier or a day later so that I could have got more time to articulate my viewpoint.
Journalism is a profession where the unexpected gets precedence over the expected. And as a practitioner of journalism, I would not be able to blame Sardesai for keeping me and fellow panelists waiting for a long time.
Mallya’s accusation was denied by Jaitley who claimed that he never gave an appointment to the industrialist since his airline Kingfisher began plunging deeper and deeper into the red. A Congress MP claims to be an eye-witness to the meeting Mallya and Jaitley had in the Central Hall of Parliament a day or two before he fled the country in March 2016.
It is pointless to discuss how long they held a discussion when CCTV footage can reveal exactly how many minutes and seconds they spent confabulating. Jaitley’s version is that while he was on the way to his office in the Parliament House from Parliament, Mallya out-paced him and muttered to the effect that he wanted to settle his issues with the banks. The minister advised him to approach the banks, instead.
Jaitley could not have forgotten the discussion as Mallya’s vanishing act happened immediately after that crucial meeting. To make matters worse for Jaitley and the BJP government, the maverick MP, Subramaniam Swamy, has been using his Twitter handle to suggest that the finance minister knew that Mallya was leaving the country for good.
Swamy’s tweets are a confirmation that Mallya could not have left with so many huge suitcases for London via Geneva without the help of those in power. There was a notice issued to all the airports to block him in case he tried to leave the country. But there was a last-minute change in the notice. It said that the airport authorities should report, not block, his departure to the authorities concerned.
That is what the Delhi airport did. It reported to the Union government that Mallya left for Geneva in first class with the correct number of oversized suitcases. It should have occurred to the airport officer that nobody would make a routine business trip with so much luggage but, then, he was duty-bound to report and, not to block his departure.
The needle of suspicion points at the finance ministry which was headed at that time by Jaitley. The question is: Did the Finance Minister facilitate Mallya’s outbound journey? In that case, he is as guilty as the industrialist, who forced hundreds of girls from middle and lower-middle-class families to wear a uniform that revealed, rather than covered, their legs to keep their jobs as Air-hostesses.
While defending himself, Jaitley said that Mallya took advantage of his position as a member of the Upper House of Parliament to reach up to him. But, then, who facilitated his presence in the Parliament House as an honourable MP. It was with the BJP’s support that he became a Rajya Sabha for the second time. So he and his party cannot escape the blame.
Mallya proved to be a trail-blazer. Diamond merchant Nirav Modi and many others of his ilk bolted the country after cheating the banks of thousands of crores of rupees that should have been used to set up schools and colleges and to build roads and bridges. They all left in the same manner that Mallya left.
A few days before Nirav Modi left the country, he went all the way to Davos to meet the more famous Modi. Whether he could meet the Prime Minister nor not, he could at least find a place in a group photograph with him.
Mallya is a classic example of businessmen using the legislature to further their own business interests. The first time he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka, he got the solid backing of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda’s JD(S), besides the support of some Congress MLAs. He won the second time with the support of the JD(S) and the BJP.
In fact, during the last 12 years, all the four MPs nominated by the JD(S) for the Rajya Sabha seats were businessmen—Mallya, MAM Ramaswamy, Rajeev Chandrashekhar, and D Kupendra Reddy. It is reasonable to presume that they all got the nomination by paying money to the party. The surplus votes from the Congress and the BJP were garnered, obviously, by paying money to those MLAs.
Why else should they vote for Mallya, who never had time to attend Parliament?
This is not a new phenomenon. Mahatma Gandhi’s politics was bankrolled by industrialists like Ghanshyam Das Birla in whose premises he was assassinated. I remember his son KK Birla contesting as an independent for a Rajya Sabha seat from Rajasthan. The Congress promised him all its surplus votes. He needed some more votes to win. When the result came, Birla had more votes than one of the official candidates of the Congress.
Why were party-men, not necessarily Congress, eager to vote for a businessman, instead of a politician like them? The answer is simple: Birla could give them money and the choicest mangoes from his sprawling mango grove at Motihari in Bihar about which I wrote once. I interviewed the mali (gardener) who had written a biography of each of the mango trees there — on what date it was planted, what date the first manure was given and what height it had after one year and which year and month it gave its first crop.
The mangoes were sent as gifts to ministers, MPs and senior bureaucrats. MS Oberoi was another MP. He founded the Oberoi group of hotels. He wanted to become a member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). He met the Jharkhand Party leader and Olympian Jaipal Singh. He was elected on the Jharkhand Party ticket from Bihar.
After that, Oberoi wanted to be a member of the Lok Sabha. Again, Jaipal Singh obliged him. He was elected from a tribal constituency in what is now Jharkhand. Those days, Jaipal Singh’s word was the law for the tribals. God alone knows what Oberoi did as an MP.
However, he did one good thing. He allowed Jaipal Singh to check into any of his hotels anywhere in the world and stay free of cost for as many days as he wanted.
Why do businessmen want to become MPs, especially members of the Rajya Sabha. It is easier to contest a Rajya Sabha election than a Lok Sabha election. Navin Jindal might find it easy to contest a direct election but Nandan Nilekani found himself swept away by the Modi wave in 2014. In a Lok Sabha constituency, a person has to win the confidence of several lakhs of people. In a Rajya Sabha election, the businessman needs only 40 or 50 votes to win.
There is greater certainty of victory in a Rajya Sabha election than in a Lok Sabha election. The membership of the House gives them an address in Lutyen’s Delhi and access to the Central Hall of Parliament where he can rub shoulders with Union ministers and bureaucrats. Most of them prefer to stay in five-star hotels but their personal staff use the government-allotted flats for their liaison work.
Many people do not know that Parliament functions mostly through its committees. Every ministry has a parliamentary consultative committee attached to it. It is the committee which drafts the Bills to be presented in Parliament.
One of the first things that a new MP is asked to do is to answer a query from the Speaker which consultative committee he would like to be a member. Their requests are seldom rejected.
You can imagine which ministry Mallya would have chosen to be associated with. No doubt, it was the Civil Aviation Ministry. The incongruity of the owner of the Kingfisher Airlines sitting in a committee which decides the aviation policy did not occur to the Speaker or the government of the day. As a member, he had access to the officials in the ministry who draft the policies.
Mallya was not an exception. “Kupendra Reddy, a real estate baron from Karnataka serves on the select committee on the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill, 2013. Shyama Charan Gupta, a BJP MP and beedi baron from Madhya Pradesh, was in the news when, as a member of a parliamentary committee on subordinate legislation, he said that tobacco use did not cause cancer.
“The committee on public undertakings found itself in a controversy in 2009 following complaints that three of its members—T Subbarami Reddy and Lagadapati Rajagopal of the Congress and Nama Nageswara Rao of the Telugu Desam Party—were using their position to further their business interests”.
In 2006, Anil Ambani, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha from UP on the Samajwadi Party ticket, resigned from the membership of the House as he feared that his membership could be questioned on the grounds of holding another office of profit in the UP government. There was a time when businessmen financed the election of their favourites in political parties.
While I was with the Hindustan Times in Patna, I remember receiving a call from Shobhana Bhartia, daughter of KK Birla, who wanted to know about the electoral chances of Shyama Sinha, daughter-in-law of Satyendra Narain Sinha, former Chief Minister of Bihar. I told her that she had little chance. A few days later, she visited the candidate in her constituency, allegedly with gifts from Delhi.
Sinha lost the election while Bhartia got nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2006. There is nothing wrong in a businessman or businesswoman becoming an MP. In the US, Donald Trump was a successful businessman before becoming President. If a lawyer like Jaitley can be elected to the House, why can’t a businessman become an MP and continue his business?
It is for the political parties not to allow themselves to be led up the garden path by people like Mallya. Political parties pretend to be standing for the common people but they do worse things in the name of the people. Sachin Tendulkar and Latha Mangeshkar were MPs but they seldom participated in the proceedings of the House.
Membership of the Rajya Sabha is not an honour to be bestowed on people. Rather, it should be given only to those who have the time and the inclination to attend and take an active part in its proceedings.
Politicians like Jaitley should also stop the practice of running with the hare and hunting with the hound. It was not long ago that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj took an extraordinary interest in facilitating the out-of-England journey of a famous fugitive from India, Lalit Modi.
One of the worst charges that KK Birla faced in life was that during the Emergency, he took a group of businessmen to meet Indira Gandhi and they danced to the beats of her 20-point programme and her younger son Sanjay Gandhi’s five-point programme.
Today, we have a Prime Minister who does not mind putting one hand on Mukesh Ambani’s shoulder and another on his wife’s. He does not take any journalist with him on his visits to foreign countries but he is always accompanied by the likes of Adani. Businessmen are, as a rule, guided solely by Shubh Laabh but a political leader must always remain more concerned about equity than profit.
Had Mallya been kept where he should have been, he would not have dared to “accost” the Finance Minister. Instead, he would have remained behind bars and not smoking away to glory in London waiting for the December 19 verdict on the extradition plea the Indian government has made at a tremendous cost to the national exchequer.
(Published on 17th September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 38)