The Nirav Modi scam has not only exposed the frailties of the banking system in the country but also sullied the sparkling image of the Modi government. It was but natural for a political slugfest to break out as a result of this scam, but in the confusion created by the allegations and counter allegations, truth has become a casualty.
The ruling party says that the scam began in 2011 and it has done a great national service by uncovering the scam. The Congress party, now in opposition, says that the main scam took place in 2017 and therefore the present government is fully responsible for it. The silence of the Prime Minister and specially the Finance Minister is deafening. Why have they not taken the people of the country into confidence and assured them that the banking industry of the country can still be trusted is surprising, to say the least. In the first few days of the scam, the spokespersons of the ruling party dismissed the scam as the handiwork of some lowly-placed functionaries of the Punjab National Bank, though they did not hesitate to blame the UPA government, the Congress party and even Rahul Gandhi as being directly responsible for the scam during the UPA regime.
In the earlier scams also, like the 1992 Harshad Mehta scam, it was the government of the day and in particular Dr Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister who was charged for being responsible for the scam. Similarly, in the Ketan Parekh scam, the government of the day and myself as Finance Minister at the time who were held responsible. Both Dr Manmohan Singh and I faced an enquiry into the scam by a Joint Parliamentary Committee. We both appeared personally before the Joint Parliamentary Committee to explain our role.
There is no doubt that such scams including the Nirav Modi swindle are the result of systemic failure. Some people in the system are aware of its weaknesses and take advantage of them to indulge in corrupt practices. It is not possible for any Finance Minister to personally supervise the day-to-day functioning of every organization and institution under his control; yet, under our parliamentary system the ultimate responsibility will rest with the minister who is responsible for that ministry. So, the Finance Minister cannot be absolved of his constitutional and democratic responsibility for this scam.
I will now list the various points on which further information is absolutely necessary to arrive at any worthwhile conclusion. It is the responsibility of the government to make public such information as quickly as possible to clear the confusion. I am sure the government is in possession of these facts. but is not making them public for reasons best known to it. These points are:
1) If the Nirav Modi scam started in 2011, then how many Letters of Undertaking (LoU) were issued year-wise? For the sake of further clarity, May 2014 should be treated as the dividing line and the figures should indicate the number of LoUs issued till May 2014 and thereafter in the rest of the year.
2) The amount involved in each LoU.
3) The period for which the LoU was valid i.e. was it 90 days, 180 days, 365 days or more?
4) Since an LoU is a guarantee of payment issued by the Punjab National Bank to another bank branch abroad, it is important to know how much money was withdrawn from the foreign branch of the other bank against each LoU.
5) In how many cases was the transaction completed by the scamster/s paying the LoU amount to the Punjab National Bank? Similarly, how many LoUs where not honoured?
6) If the foreign bank branch did not receive the payment in time, did the branch bring it to the notice of the PNB? In how many cases was the guarantee of the PNB invoked to secure the due payment?
7) Since all this involved foreign exchange transactions, how did it escape the attention of the Reserve Bank of India?
8) It has been claimed that Nirav Modi had set up 200 shell companies through which these transaction where conducted. How does this fit in with the government's tall claim that almost all the shell companies were closed in the months following demonetization?
9) The investigating agencies have been quick to give estimates of the goods seized from the raids on Nirav Modi's properties and the spokespersons of the ruling party have claimed that the entire amount involved in the scam would thus be recovered. My point is that if the investigating agencies can so quickly calculate the value of the goods seized, why cannot they put out the simple information I have mentioned above?
10) And finally, who benefits from the prevailing confusion? Let us not forget that shelf life of this news is only until the next big news hits the media. After that, Nirav Modi would become history like Vijay Mallya.
I have no doubt in my mind that the way the spokespersons of the ruling party and the senior members of the government are defending the government, the way they are raising irrelevant issues to divert attention, is clear proof of the fact that the Modi government has much to explain in the coming days. I must also state that notwithstanding the government's claim to the contrary, the banking industry stands nearly destroyed in the last four years. Now its credibility is at stake not only in India, but also throughout the world.
(Yashwant Sinha is a senior BJP leader and former Union Minister of External Affairs.)