In 2009, I travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to follow up on the mysterious case of the Pune-based stud farm owner, Hasan Ali Khan. Khan was accused of stashing a mindboggling $8 billion or Rs 50,000 crore in the Swiss bank, UBS. He had allegedly taken the help of a Kolkata-based businessman, Kashi Nath Tapuria, to squirrel away these funds. Who was Khan and why should he have so much money in a faraway tax haven? Quite clearly, these two shadowy figures were the benamis of someone bigger and more powerful – whose invisible hand guided the trajectory of the probe. Here are the reasons why I think this is the case.
When I approached the Swiss authorities for more information in the Hasan Ali Khan scandal, Falco Gelli of the Swiss Department of Justice told me that the Indian authorities had submitted “forged” documents; hence the transfer of funds to a Swiss account had no basis in reality. This revelation was all the more shocking as I was able to access this information quite easily. I wondered, if the Swiss Department of Justice could be so forthcoming about giving me this information then surely they must have informed the Indian income tax department too! Later, I discovered they had indeed done so.
Later I was told that the matter had been sorted out and now the Swiss had the accurate set of documents. There is a fog-like mystery shrouding the official allegations against Khan. A layman can hardly comprehend why he was incarcerated for long years under the directives of the Supreme Court and why the income tax penalty was imposed on him and then rescinded. Some believe that funds from defence purchases were parked in the UBS account. Some allege that Khan was a frontman for Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. What is clear is that the case was raked up by some ministers in Manmohan Singh’s government to discomfit a senior leader from West Bengal. Singh did not show great initiative in taking the matter to its logical conclusion. What he did was to rearrange his Cabinet and make Pranab Mukherjee the finance minister to quell rumours that the latter had something to do with the case.
The underlying truth of the case is very complicated, but what really emerged from the Hasan Ali Khan episode is that the hidden or invisible hand that is usually blamed for cover-ups is not always that of a politician but can be of a moneybag or an industrialist who enjoys a span of influence far beyond the five-year tenure of a minister in government. This industrialist is usually the person who parks funds in tax havens and distributes the bribes and pay-offs across the length and breadth of the political spectrum.
This modus operandi came into the news again when Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar spoke about the hidden hand that stalled the probe into the $500 million Agusta Westland helicopter scam. He was subtly naming and shaming Sonia Gandhi and other Congress leaders such as Ahmed Patel, whose initials have allegedly been found in a note given to the judge of the Appeals Court in Milan. In scams, the real people who benefit from mega defence deals are the comprador class or the indigenous agent capitalists.
Most of the large corporate houses, including those of the Tatas, Birlas and Ambanis, are either agents of major defence companies or their help is sought when a deal is being negotiated. If one goes through the fine print of some past defence probes which rocked the nation, such as the Bofors gun imbroglio, for instance, we would come across the names of prominent businessmen like the Hindujas and AC Muthiah of SPIC. Some of these businessmen figure due to trade agreements between the two sides, while others are there due to their proximity to the top leadership. For long, the Hindujas could not shake off the taint of being embroiled in the Bofors scandal.
Invariably, these defence agreement are messy affairs as they have to be negotiated over a long period. Seldom are they wrapped up within one term of a government. The Agusta Westland deal spilled over from the NDA government to the UPA one and then the NDA again. This is perhaps the reason the names of Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Principal Secretary, Brajesh Mishra, have surfaced. What is still concealed amid the haze created by the parliamentary discussion is a big Indian moneybag, none other than the real estate player, the Emaar-MGF group, who facilitated the smooth passage of the deal in 2013 when the UPA was in power. If the NDA government displays the required political will, it can locate the chief agent behind this and probably unearth much more. But will it? Now that is an open-ended question.