New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress indulged in a war of words over the Vijay Mallya affair on Thursday, with both the parties accusing each other of colluding with the beleaguered aviation tycoon.
Hitting out at finance minister Arun Jaitley over his “meeting” with Mallya, Congress president Rahul Gandhi accused him of lying to hide the “free passage” he allegedly gave to the fugitive businessman to flee to London.
Gandhi, at a hurriedly-called press conference, also presented “proof” in the form of party leader PL Punia, who vouched to have seen Jaitley having “an elaborate 15-20 minute meeting” with Mallya on March 1, 2016, a day before the businessman left India.
“Mr Vijay Mallya was given free passage out of the country by the finance minister and the finance minister has clearly said the criminal told him that he is going to run away. Well, why did you let him run away? Why did you not stop him because you were colluding with him?" Gandhi alleged and challenged Jaitley to get CCTV footage of March 1.
Rebutting the claims, the ruling party alleged that the Gandhi family tried to salvage the sinking Kingfisher Airlines with a “sweet deal”.
The BJP also attacked former prime minister Manmohan Singh, saying he had told the media that he sought to bail out private airlines making losses, referring to Kingfisher.
While the opposition party demanded the immediate resignation of Jaitley and an independent probe into the whole affair, the BJP alleged it was the previous UPA government that gave a "sweet deal" to Mallya as if it was the Gandhi family that proxy-owned the airline.
Kingfisher had to be grounded in October 2012 under a burden of over Rs 9,000 crore of unpaid loans and several other liabilities, including defaults on employee salaries and other payments.
Adding fodder to the Opposition’s 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".
The 62-year-old Mallya, who was famously known as 'King of Good Times, said in London on Wednesday 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.
Seeking to shift the blame, the BJP leaders, including top Union ministers, alleged many Congress leaders had tried to save Mallya and his sinking business empire.
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the Congress was raking up the issue to deflect attention from the UPA government's “cronyism and favouritism” and the demand for Jaitley's resignation over a “brief conversation” with Mallya was motivated.
Jaitley has rebutted Mallya's claim as "factually false", saying he never had any structured meeting with him and it was a brief conversation which Mallya forced on him by misusing his privileges as a Rajya Sabha member at that time.
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.
Activist Shehzad Poonawalla also came out in support of the ruling party, claiming that Gandhi had met PNB fraud accused Nirav Modi at a hotel in the national capital in 2013, a charge denied by the opposition party.
Gandhi, who had sought Jaitley's resignation on Wednesday night too, alleged the finance minister had "colluded with the criminal" and allowed him to escape from the country. "Mr Jaitley is lying, the government is lying on Rafale and the government is lying on Vijay Mallya. A meeting was held with Mr Arun Jaitley and Vijay Mallya. The logistics of Mr Mallya leaving the country were discussed in that meeting," Gandhi told reporters.
"The criminal had told him, 'I am going to run away to London'. The finance minister has accepted publicly that he has been told by a criminal that he is going to run away and the finance minister has not done anything, has not informed the CBI, and has not informed the ED. What does that mean? It means, he is colluding with the criminal.
Straightforward," Gandhi said.
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,” Patra said.
(With PTI inputs)