The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018 or the ordinance prior to it is a classic case of bolting the stables after the horses have fled.
As the government is left red-faced yet again, this time at the Antiguan citizenship of Mehul Choksi, questions are being asked as to just how deep-rooted is the conspiracy in the $2 billion Punjab National Bank scam.
What was the level of involvement of bank officials, the lacunae in investigations by federal agencies and how far back had Mehul Choksi and nephew planned their escape? Besides, as the Golkulnath Shettys are charged with bank fraud, the question is when exactly was Choksi and Modi tipped off and by whom.
The plan to flee had been chalked out months in advance. The application of at least six Indians (Anituguan authorities won't specify who these are) was processed in June 2017, the citizenship to Choksi granted in November. CBI sources had confirmed to DailyO that the Modi-Choksi clan had fled in the first week of January.
To be precise, Nirav Modi left January 1 for Dubai, his brother Nischal for Brussels also on the same day, Mehul Choksi left on January 4 for Dubai and the last off the airport was Ami Modi, a US citizen and Nirav Modi's wife, who fled to Zurich.
What's important is Choksi was travelling on an Indian passport. Its only after all of them were comfortably ensconced abroad did the Punjab National Bank inform the stock exchanges and the CBI decided to act.
The question that next arises is despite biometric scans being available now in practically every major airport, how was a multiple passport holder like Choksi allowed to travel unhindered.
As a storm brews in the Caribbean island of Antigua about citizenship being conferred to a fugitive, Prime Minister Gaston Browne is reported to have texted journalists that, "Evidently there was no negative information on him way back in November 2017".
The CBI says it has written to the Antiguan authorities in a bid to get Choksi back. Antiguan authorities say they are yet to receive any such communique from the Indian government. The question is who is really telling the truth here.
Nirav Modi. (Photo: Facebook)
Or consider the Red Corner Notice. Early January CBI officials had confirmed to India Today that "Interpol" notices had been issued thereby suggesting the Modi-Choksi team would be detained at the first airport they arrived at.
Earlier this month, government sources told DailyO that not only was the ED’s Red Corner Notice sent three months ago rejected by Interpol but the CBI’s as well with the result that both had to rely on a legally non binding diffusion notice till their chargesheets were ready.
Finance Ministry sources admit, “The ED sent an extradition request soon after the PNB scam broke under pressure from the media even though this was not legally sustainable because a formal chargesheet had not been filed.”
The CBI, however, says, “Interpol asked for clarifications following which the RCN was withdrawn and the diffusion notice issued,” sources said. Officials hide behind the plea that a chargesheet has to be first filed for Interpol to act. But that is not borne out by RCN notices issued against, for instance, a Vijay Mallya.
But would an RCN work is the question now that Choksi at least is no longer a citizen of India. Till date, another "fugitive" from the law, Lalit Modi, cannot be brought to India as Interpol has refused to issue an RCN for want of evidence.
(Photo: India Today)
Interestingly details of the Red Corner Notice cannot be viewed on the website as the CBI has gone for the "hidden" option. The only offence that can be viewed is of money laundering. "Why is the CBI shying away from putting out details. Whom are they trying to protect," is a question CBI insiders are asking.
Was media pressure also to blame for the Enforcement Directorate cooking up figures of seizures made which was done on the basis of book value rather than the actual value of the goods. Or was the Enforcement Directorate trying to save the government the blushes of having to witness another economic offender turn fugitive.
Overnight the value of gems and jewellery seized across the country was placed at over Rs 6000 crore, thereby sending the message that over half the money looted had been recovered. But was it. Conservative guesses put the actual value of goods that have so far been assessed at less than a tenth of the actual value.
If the Choksis and Modis are brought to justice, this is a figure that will come to haunt the prosecution. For now, the government will have to bear with taunts that the chowkidar is also a bhagidar along with big businessmen out to palm off thousands of crores of the tax payer.