The Jaitlag

‘Factually false’ Mallya cures govt amnesia on how he ran into Jaitley

By Our Bureau
  • Published 13.09.18
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JAB WE MET... FOR JUST ‘ONE SENTENCE’

Mallya smokes outside the court in London  on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Arun Jaitley at a news conference in New Delhi on September 5. (PTI)

New Delhi: Finance minister Arun Jaitley has confirmed that he met Vijay Mallya before the tycoon fled the country but added that it was a forced encounter in the corridors of Parliament and not a structured meeting.

As a political storm broke, one factor stood out.

The encounter was revealed by Mallya. It was only after Mallya had made the claim outside a London court on Wednesday that the finance minister issued a formal statement confirming the exchange and describing the absconder's statement as "factually false".

Mallya had fled the country in March 2016 after his businesses defaulted on bank loans of Rs 9,000 crore. For the past two years, the controversy had repeatedly hit the headlines. But until Jaitley issued a statement on Wednesday evening, few could recall the minister having explicitly confirmed on his own that such an encounter did take place.

Legally, Jaitley was under no obligation to confirm whether he ran into Mallya or not. But had the finance minister done so, it would not only have set an exemplary standard in public life but also blunted the edge of the attack he is facing now.

Not that Jaitley, who had not desisted from blogging extensively even while convalescing from a surgery that required a temporary relinquishment of his ministry, did not have the opportunity or avenue to set the record straight.

On March 14, 2016, the Congress had said Mallya had reportedly met the finance minister in Parliament on March 1, the day before he fled.

"But the government and Jaitley maintained a conspiratorial silence, and acceptance now comes after two years. Jaitley has a lot to explain," Congress communications chief Randeep Surjewala said.

On Wednesday night, Congress president Rahul Gandhi asked Jaitley to resign until an independent probe finds out the truth. 

Mallya's revelation was made outside a court in London, which will decide on December 10 whether he would be extradited to India.

Asked by journalists whether he had left India because of a tip-off, the 62-year-old businessman replied: "I left because I had a scheduled meeting in Geneva."

He added: "I met the finance minister before I left. Repeated my offer to settle with the banks. That's the truth."

Mallya did not name the minister. Jaitley was finance minister in 2016.

After Jaitley issued the statement confirming the encounter and dismissing it as a "one-sentence exchange", Mallya appeared to tone down his statement but made another claim that raised more questions. Mallya claimed that he had told Jaitley he would be leaving for London.

PTI quoted Mallya as saying in London, referring to his earlier statement that he had "met" Jaitley: "I am afraid this is a controversy created by my friends in media. I was standing during the lunch break and I happen to answer a question on the circumstances under which I flew out. I said I happened to meet Mr Jaitley in Parliament and told him that I am leaving for London. I did not have any formal meeting scheduled with him."

Mallya added that he met Jaitley "often enough in the Parliament, in the House, in the Central Hall.... It was a totally innocent statement made by me that I told Jaitley that I was going to London".

Mallya's initial statement brought out a swift and lengthy rebuttal from Jaitley.

"My attention has been drawn to a statement made to the media by Vijay Mallya on having met me with an offer of settlement," Jaitley said. "The statement is factually false in as much as it does not reflect truth."

Jaitley's statement went on: "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 Rajya Sabha and he occasionally attended the House, 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'.

"I did not even receive the papers that he was holding in his hand. 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."

Additional reporting by Amit Roy in London