Old Operations OPERATION FALCON CLAW: COVER STORY

OPERATION FALCON CLAW: COVER STORY

The investigation, panning over a year, exposes 11 MPs from within the Congress, BJP, BSP, JDU and AIADMK willing to issue letters of recommendation to promote a fictitious Australian oil exploration company in exchange for fees ranging between Rs 50,000 to Rs 50 lakh. Six of these MPs even wrote the letters for a fee.


cobrapost - May 8, 2017

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The Dirty Eleven
The investigation, panning over a year, exposes 11 MPs from within the Congress, BJP, BSP, JDU and AIADMK willing to issue letters of recommendation to promote a fictitious Australian oil exploration company in exchange for fees ranging between Rs 50,000 to Rs 50 lakh. Six of these MPs even wrote the letters for a fee.
By K Ashish

For several months, I posed as a representative of an oil firm that does not exist—
Mediterranean Oil Inc, apparently based in Queensland, Australia, with interests in oil, diamonds, metals and mineral exploration. The Cobrapost investigation team created a website and produced brochures, and I tapped a few middlemen to approach the staff of Members of Parliament from the BJP, Congress, JD-U, AIADMK and BSP. Introducing myself as a consultant with Mediterranean Oil Inc, I requested the MPs to write letters of recommendation to India’s Petroleum Ministry for my company, saying it was planning to bid for oil exploration rights in the Northeast. The proposed project was pegged at Rs 1,000 crore.
Eleven MPs agreed to write the letters for a fee. Of these, six promptly issued recommendation letters. For proffering these letters, they settled on prices between Rs 50,000 and several lakh; Khiladi Lal Bairwa of the Congress put his price at Rs 50 lakh.
Apart from Lal Bairwa, the MPs are Vikrambhai Arjanbhai, also of the Congress; Lalu Bhai Patel, Ravindra Kumar Pandey and Hari Manjhi of the BJP; K Sugumar and C Rajendran of the AIADMK; Vishwa Mohan Kumar, Maheshwar Hazari and Bhudeo Chaudhary of the JD-U, and Kaiser Jahan of the BSP. None of the parliamentarians bothered to check the antecedents of Mediterranean Oil Inc. The JD-U’s MP from Samastipur, Bihar, Maheshwar Hazari helpfully offered to bring along a bunch of five MPs to lobby effectively with the Ministry. The price: Rs 5 lakh for each MP.
MPs like to keep deals as discreet as they can. They tend not to get into direct negotiations or talk money. A network of touts, personal staff, and occasionally relatives, works alongside these MPs; they control access to lawmakers, organise meetings, talk money and iron out the terms of negotiation. However, Vikrambhai Arjanbhai of the Congress asked me to forward the money through an angadia (a hawala channel). I came across plenty of such touts on South Avenue, North Avenue and Baba Kharak Singh Marg in Lutyen’s Delhi, where parliamentarians are housed. One tout, Avnish Singh, negotiated deals with two MPs but got suspicious when my recording instrument started beeping intermittently as the battery ran low. “Kuchh gadbad toh nahin hai na bhai sahib…yeh aajkal ka samay theek nahin hai na (Hope there is no problem… these are bad times).” Thereafter, we couldn’t get in touch with him.
Maheshwar Hazari, the MP who offered to gather other MPs for the task of lobbying, is a prominent JD-U leader. Hazari is a lawmaker from Samastipur, Bihar. It does not take much to inspire him to write a recommendation for the fictional oil company. “Suno na, aapko kahin jaane ki zaroorat nahin padegi (Listen, you don’t have to go anywhere else),” assures Hazari.“Chitthi ki copy de dijiyega… sansad aur sabse hum chitthi likhwa denge (Give me the copy of the letter… I will get more parliamentarians to write letters for you).” In fact, Hazari is confident that he can see the deal through; “Aur abhi itna hi nahin, chitthiyan hi nahin denge ladkar kar kara denge poora (It is not only that we will issue you the letters but would also fight it out to see your job done).”
He leaves the price to us. “You tell me something… after all, we have to fight elections that are so expensive.” This is the argument I hear from almost every MP: elections are expensive. One of the touts says: “Our leaders would not have become corrupt if the elections had not become so expensive nowadays.”
I offer Hazari Rs 1 lakh for every letter of recommendation. “What use is Rs 1 lakh?” Hazari snaps. “Shell out at least Rs 5 lakh for each letter. We will sit there to see the work is done… all five will go there personally.”
Remember the din the JD-U created in the Lok Sabha over FDI in retail? The party’s own MPs, however, do not hesitate before writing a letter of recommendation for an Australian company. Or offering to lobby for it.
JD-U MP Vishwa Mohan Kumar, who represents Bihar’s Supaul in the Lok Sabha, also agrees readily to endorse Mediterranean Oil Inc. In our meeting with Kumar at his North Avenue residence, he negotiates terms. Reacting to a low fishing offer, “Give at least 50,000, sir,” says Kumar. “All people come and pay 50–50… nothing can be done in less than this.”
I tell him that there are MPs who have written us recommendation letters without taking a penny. Kumar says he could oblige us similarly, but he has a rally to organise: “I also write for free… but there is a burden of this rally on [the 15th] on my head.”
Eventually I pay Kumar Rs 50,000 for the recommendation.
The tout, Dharmendra, leads me to more MPs of more parties than I had bargained for. I am at the door of another JD-U MP, Bhudeo Choudhary, from Jamui, Bihar. Dharmendra has briefed the Lok Sabha MP about me; once I am ushered into the meeting, Choudhary suggests with gestures that he can provide the letter. I agree to a price of Rs 50,000, but am able to procure the recommendation after paying his staff only half the sum, promising to cough up the rest soon.
I meet Lalu Bhai Patel, the BJP MP from Daman and Diu, at his residence in South Avenue with the help of a revolver-brandishing tout, Jaiswal, who says he can take me straight to Union Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily for my work. “I will also come along… wherever you want we will follow it up… all officials in the Petroleum Ministry are my friends… I have a very good rapport with Veerappa Moily.”
Patel sits through our meeting silently, occasionally uttering ‘haan’ or making gestures. Jaiswal does all the talking, and makes various assurances on Patel’s behalf. I strike a deal for Rs 50,000 for a recommendation letter. Jaiswal says such letters are no big deal; “Ask for some big favour, then the MPs will work … what will they do sitting idle?” At this point, Patel says, “Haan (yes).”
Jaiswal boasts of Patel’s influence in the Government, irrespective of which party is in power: “If we wish we can ask any ministry to come here… the Government is ours… but MP sahib has good relations with the Government… his work will be done on priority.”
I have been advised against talking money with Patel by his PA and Jaiswal; I try nevertheless. The BJP MP, however, feigns ignorance when I tell him that I will pay his PA Rs 50,000: “What for?”
After I collect the recommendation letter from Patel, I sneak a chance to speak to him, saying that I have left my phone behind. Jaiswal waits outside. I repeat to Patel that I have paid Rs 50,000 to his staff for the letter. “Mujhe nahin bolo..mujhe kyon bola aapne?” (don’t tell me this thing..why did you tell me this), retorts Lalu Bhai.
Jaiswal speaks of a previous Cobrapost expose: “There was this scandal… there was this scandal… four MPs were suspended for [accepting a bribe of] Rs 25,000–50,000.” This was Operation Duryodhan, an undercover investigation by Cobrapost in 2005 that caught MPs from both Houses accepting money to ask questions. It led to the dismissal of all those MPs from Parliament who were exposed in the investigation.
Patel seems to be rather close to the tout Jaiswal, who claims he is a liquor don from Chhattisgarh with “20 arms licences”.
Jaiswal does not part with the recommendation letter until I pay him his cut—Rs 25,000. Jaiswal claims that he is close to Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh, and has political aspirations himself. He claimed to have secured the support of a builders’ lobby in his area to fund his campaign for the coming Lok Sabha polls.
Like the JD-U, the BJP had opposed the Congress policy on FDI in retail. Indeed, these protests were underway at the time of this undercover investigation. Yet, BJP lawmakers don’t mind writing recommendations for foreign oil firms seeking licences to operate in India.
I am introduced to Ravindra Kumar Pandey, the BJP MP from Giridih in Jharkhand, by the tout Dharmendra. Pandey is rather obliging when I request a letter, implying he could secure more such letters to endorse the firm which might secure the company the licences it needs. “It would serve your purpose if some others also write letters [for you]?” he asks.
It would certainly serve our purpose if we got more letters, I say. The asking price is Rs 2 lakh. We haggle, but Dharmendra is unyielding: “This is the fifth term of our MP… he enjoys such a stature that no matter where he stands from, the party rallies behind him.” I manage to speak to Pandey again: “Sir, Rs 2 lakh is a bit high. We can pay Rs 1 lakh upfront for the letter.” Pandey says, “No.”
Dharmendra introduces me to BJP MP Hari Manjhi from Gaya, Bihar, at his North Avenue residence. Here, I also meet Manjhi’s cousin Kamlesh. I have been told in advance that I will have to shell out Rs 1.5 lakh for a recommendation letter. I ask Manhji to help my company lobby with the Ministry as well. The MP is reassuring: “Will go… will come along. Lineup karna padega (It will have to be lined up).” He adds, “Will have to meet the minister—meaning, I will have to speak to him.”
When I ask to speak with Manjhi ‘separately’ to discuss money, he directs me to his henchmen instead: “Yes, you can talk to them.” He reassures me: “There is nothing to worry… you can talk with him… you can talk anything with him.”
The price fixed with Manjhi’s men for the letter and lobbying job is Rs 1.5 lakh. I try to negotiate, and secure my recommendation letter for Rs 35,000, promising to pay the rest when my company releases funds.
Several MPs are not comfortable discussing money directly. Take the MP from South Chennai, C Rajendran of the AIADMK, an influential politician who is believed to enjoy Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s confidence. When I mention money, he leaves the room displeased. Middleman Nair reprimands me: “He’s angry… You can hand [it] over [to us]. He never interferes in this.”
My request for a letter of recommendation, however, is met with an “Okay.” I say, “This guy told me that… on behalf of [sic] recommendation letter you need some money, sir.” Rajendran says, “You give him,” referring to his personal secretary, Martin.
Martin is paid the money at Rajendran’s office-cum-residence on North Avenue. The cost of the letter of recommendation: Rs 50,000.
Rajendran’s party colleague K Sugumar has no qualms talking about money. I meet the MP from Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, at his North Avenue residence after briefing a middleman on my purpose.
Sugumar asks a few questions about the company and is satisfied with my answers. Asked if he would write a “recommendation letter”, Sugumar nods, “Okay.” Although the price has already been settled with the middleman, I broach the issue of money. “Okay, you can talk,” says Sugumar. We settle on Rs 50,000 for a recommendation written on his “letterhead.”
I meet Khiladi Lal Bairwa, the Congress MP from Karauli-Dholpur, Rajasthan, at his South Avenue residence. He flatly refuses to play ball: “Hum kaise chitthi likh denge, bhai (Why should I write the letter)?”
So far, none of the MPs I met have refused. I persist, asking if he could suggest some other way of doing this. “Kitne ka consulting hua hai (How big is this consulting gig)?” Bairwa asks. I say the project is placed at Rs 1,000 crore, and I have a budget of Rs 1 crore to obtain five recommendation letters for the company. “Then, how much is a letter worth?” Bairwa asks. I raise the stakes, “Rs 20 lakh”. He scrutinises every document I show him, and after asking several questions, says: “Gadbad mamla… yeh coal jaisa mamla hai…recommendation ki thi na coal ki? (There is something fishy… this is like the Coal[gate] affair..had recommended coal).”
The MP invites me to his home in Jaipur: “Day after tomorrow, around 10–11.” I ask Bairwa if this is for another meeting, but he says he wants me to deliver the ‘material’ home: “Nahin … toh le ayein ye material (No… bring this material).” By material, Bairwa means money. But he says that my offer price, Rs 20 lakh, is too little. “You are paying less… it won’t be possible to do it,” Bairwa says. His price? “Pachaas (50 lakh).” Too high, I say. “Because this job involves risk,” he says, “I write a letter… then someone else writes, there are many things.”
Congress MP Vikrambhai Arjanbhai’s PA said that I have to route the money through Aangadia, a colloquial term for illegitimate courier of money. Arjanbhai’s personal secretary Ramsi Maru assures me that the letter of recommendation “will be done”.
Maru is powerful in Arjanbhai’s scheme of things. I ask him to offer his terms, including his commission for the deal. Maru promises that he will arrange it at a price lower than what the MP demands: “If he says, ‘Give me Rs 15 lakh’, I will tell him ‘Okay, leave it, do it for Rs 10 lakh’… so you benefit,” says the politician’s personal secretary.
At the meeting with Arjanbhai in the MP’s Jamnagar residence, Maru does most of the talking with the Congress MP. I am told to discuss money matters only with Maru. “Gujarat ka kisi ka letter hai aapke paas (Have you secured a letter from any Gujarat MP)?” Arjanbhai asks. No, I tell him, but I will get a letter from an Orissa MP. I tell Arjanbhai that since he is on a committee of the Petroleum Ministry, a recommendation letter from him will help considerably.
I also offer to help Arjanbhai with funds for the forthcoming polls. Maru seizes this moment to say that the price we’d fixed was before there was any talk of helping with election funds: “Woh toh election se pehle jo boli thi aapne (That thing you had told me before the thing about polls).” I say it was about paying Rs 5 lakh for the election fund. But Maru corrects me:
“Abhi ki baat hai (This is about the present deal).”
When I ask for the letter first, MP Vikrambhai Arjanbhai says, “letter pehle thode milta hai?
Pehle letter koi aapko de dega?” (you will not get the letter beforehand, has anyone given you the letter beforehand?). When I ask for the price, the MP impatiently replies, “inse baat karo jo bhi hai” (Talk to him, whatever it is).
After much discussion, Maru sets a price of Rs 6 lakh excluding his cut. They ask that the money be sent via an angadia [hawala channel]. Maru says his sahib, Arjanbhai, has instructed him how the money is to be paid: “Aap wahan baat kar lo paisa kaise ayega… sahib ne bola paisa baad mein doosre kisi aur ka naam mein … theek hai (You tell them how the money has to be paid… sahib says money has to be sent in someone else’s name, okay)?” When I bring up money with Arjanbhai, he is told to speak with Maru.
I finally pay Maru Rs 75,000 without securing the letter from Arjanbhai. I felt compelled to pay up, despite not getting the letter, because I felt I was at risk.
I am, nevertheless, confident that the Congress MP would have issued the letter if I had paid Rs 6 lakh via hawala.
I meet Kaiser Jahan, the BSP lawmaker from Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, at her South Avenue residence in Delhi. It is her husband, Jasmir Ansari, an MLA from Lahurpur, who does much of the talking. “How can it be done without our knowing you,” Ansari says. Kaiser advises us to speak to her personal secretary Ainul Hatim.
When Hatim learns the project is pegged at Rs 1,000 crore, he wastes no time: “He [Ansari] has asked to enquire who it is, what it is,” he says. “If they want us to write a letter only… or want to get the job done… if the job has to be done then how big is the project… what will be our share?”
Ansari is ready to go to Sonia Gandhi to see the project through. But he must meet my bosses, he says. “We will see your project through… by talking to Sonia or somebody else… Then whom should we talk to [in your company]?” He promises three letters in place of the one I’d asked for. I offer Rs 5 lakh. He agrees, but says, “I never do this kind of job… I am talking to you for the first time in my life and I am talking to you only because elections are due… I have to see all that.”
Later, Ansari says, “We don’t do any work for such a petty amount… give us some big job… will do that.”
K Ashish is Associate Editor with Cobrapost.com

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