Inside the Zu-pta web of corruption

Published: March 28, 2018 - 13:27

A closer look into the Gupta family’s network in India may open a Pandora’s box

Did the Gupta brothers –– Ajay, Atul and Rajesh––  play a role in South African Airways (SAA) stopping its flights to India, allowing Indian flier Jet Airways and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways to take over the bilateral arrangement between the
two countries?

The decision to suddenly shut down the Mumbai-Johannesburg sector which had a seat load factor of 82-88 percent in March 2015 intrigued the travel and tourism sector. SAA, which had been flying to India for the past 19 years, did not give enough notice to tour operators who had booked flights uptil November 2015.

Why did SAA, in the name of streamlining its operations, abandon one of its routes that serviced the historical ties between India and South Africa? The airline had then claimed that Mumbai was in fifth spot on the list of 10 sectors that were incurring losses. The seat load factor, according to industry sources, tells another story.

According to an external affairs ministry source, the Guptas wanted to benefit Jet Airways, whose aircraft the family had chartered to ferry guests from India to Johannesburg to attend the controversial wedding in the family in 2013. It was this wedding and the manner in which State facilities were made to serve the interests of the Indian brothers due to their proximity to ex-President Jacob Zuma that caused outrage in South African society. What happened thereafter is history.

After SAA withdrew from India, Jet Airways filled that slot. Now it takes passengers from India to Abu Dhabi, from where they are lifted by Etihad for the onward journey to South Africa. Etihad picked up a 24 percent stake in Jet Airways in late 2013 and has a code-sharing arrangement with SAA, which means that it plies in this sector. By realigning these routes, alliance partners Etihad and Jet Airways have monopolised the India-South Africa sector, which can only be challenged if SAA reclaims its bilateral arrangement with India, which seems unlikely now.

A government source refused to comment on whether the South African police or HAWKS were checking on the manner in which the SAA flights to India were cancelled, but there is a possibility that more details of the Gupta web of corruption and criminality could be exposed, with the Indian law enforcement agencies raiding their properties in their hometowns of Saharanpur and Dehradun. What is not clear is who ordered the probe into their affairs so quickly after Atul Gupta, who was seen relaxing in his Dehradun mansion, was allegedly tipped to leave the country — quite like some of the Indian businessmen who had swindled banks. The Guptas, until recently, were also given Z security by the government, which is normally reserved for the very powerful.

The raids by the Income Tax Department on several properties of the Guptas could have been prompted by the South African law enforcement agencies which have declared the Guptas “fugitives from justice.” However, a High Commission source denied that there had been any request from them to Indian revenue authorities to look into the Guptas’ financial network. The revenue authorities told the local media that they were trying to ascertain whether the temple they were constructing in Saharanpur on a disputed Muslim burial ground was a conduit for laundering money. Another inquiry that was conducted, which clearly seems to have a South African origin, was to find out whether the temple construction became a route for the Guptas to bring back their trapped funds from the country of their choice, South Africa, to the country of 
their birth.

What needs to be seen in the coming days is the seriousness of intent of the investigating agencies to find out the extent of the Guptas’ web of corruption in India. There is plenty of evidence –– videos on YouTube that show the kind of support the Guptas enjoyed in India. The most formidable supporter is the yoga guru-cum-spiritual entrepreneur, Baba Ramdev, who has millions of disciples and enjoys proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many others in government. Ramdev played a big role in building support for Modi and his party to help them come to power. The yoga guru travelled through South Africa in the company of the Guptas. There are also videos of Ramdev telling an audience the Guptas will be investing in his ventures. There are other enterprises the Guptas were exploring for investment, including some media companies.    

 

Editor of Delhi's Hardnews magazine and author of Bad Money Bad Politics- the untold story of Hawala scandal.

Read more stories by Sanjay Kapoor

This story is from print issue of HardNews

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