February 21, 2020
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Rao And The Ghost Of '83

Will Lakhubhai Pathak's testimony nail Narasimha Rao? The focus is back on an old chapter...

Rao And The Ghost Of '83

NARASIMHA Rao knows the heat is on. In his bid to wash his hands of Chandraswami, the former prime minister even made a rare statement disclaiming all links with him. But the deposition of London-based businessman Lakhubhai Pathak before a court in Delhi this fortnight—charging Rao with involvement in the $100,000 fraud case, in which the godman and his accomplice Kailash Nath Aggarwal alias Mamaji are the main accused—has reopened the Chandraswami chapter in his life. Pathak's statement before Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (CMM) Prem Kumar has put a question mark over Rao's claim that he does "not recall having done anything under his (Chandraswami's) influence in my official capacity ever."

 Rao's claim was severely tested because the pickle-king stated in no uncertain terms before CMM Prem Kumar that Chandraswami had introduced him to the then external affairs minister in 1983, who had assured him of getting his 'work' done. Pathak alleged that Chandraswami ultimately managed to dupe him to the tune of $100,000. The statement, if taken cognisance of by the court, is likely to put Rao in a tight spot.

However, Rao's name does not figure anywhere in the original complaint filed by Pathak in 1987 against Chandraswami and Mamaji. Nor did he mention anything about Rao when the CBI recorded his statement a year later. But, according to legal opinion, any statement made before a magistrate carries more legal weight than a statement recorded by the police. In such cases, the court usually has three options: it can ask the law enforcing agency to start investigations afresh in the light of the new facts or, after taking the cognisance of the prosecution witness, it can ask the agency to register a case against the person concerned. A third option is to simply ignore the statement.

The CBI has already chargesheeted Chandraswami and Mamaji for fraud and conspiracy, and both are currently lodged in Delhi's Tihar Jail. The agency was forced to act after a public interest litigation was filed before the Supreme Court seeking action against Chandraswami. Pathak, the man behind the arrest of the highly connected godman, said in his complaint that in December 1983 Chandraswami and Mamaji had induced him to cough up $100,000 so as to secure a contract for supplying paper pulp and newsprint to India. Chandraswami assured him that a minister had been approached to clinch the contract. But he placed a condition before the contract could come into Pathak's hands: deposit $100,000 in an earmarked bank account.

According to Pathak's statement, he was originally not interested in the deal as it sounded fishy to him. But Chandraswami coaxed him to deposit the money in the bank account of one Miller—a 'disciple' of the godman. (According to sources, the CBI has been able to establish the link between Miller and Chandraswami.) Also, by that time, Pathak says he had been introduced to Narasimha Rao. Chandraswami argued that since the minister had already been approached for getting the deal cleared, it would be difficult for Pathak to back out. This, according to Pathak, is how he was trapped into giving the money.

To keep his word, Pathak took a short-term loan from Ethnic Foods, a friend's New York-based company, and arranged a part of the amount from his son. On January 4, 1984, he handed over two cheques totalling $100,000 to Chandraswami outside a hotel in New York, where Chandraswami had called him to finalise the deal. He was assured that the contract papers would be given to him by the end of January 1984 and that the supply had to be completed by April 15, 1984.Of course, Pathak never got the contract. What is more, all his requests for a refund of the money went unheeded.

Pathak says he later learnt he was not the only victim. He has named New York-based businessman Kendra Sharma and other NRIs like Bhagchandani, Ashwini Patel, Vinay Kapoor and R.P. Patel as the godman's victims. All the while, Pathak kept trying to get his money back. In August 1984, he spoke to Chandraswami in Washington over the telephone and recorded the entire conversation in which Chandraswami admits to having received the money. Pathak repeatedly asks the god-man, "Will I get my money back?" Chandraswami replies: "Try to understand our problem also. I am saying...you send anybody." The cassette containing this recording was produced in court as an article of evidence. The CBI also has in its possession the audio tapes of Sharma's statement in which he asserts that Chandraswami had cheated him.

Realising he had been duped, Pathak issued a pamphlet in London in August 1984 that exposed the alleged misdeeds of the godman. Chandraswami immediately filed a defamation case, but it only boomeranged on him. He not only lost the case but also his deposit of £6,000. He is now facing a case under the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act for hiding the source of foreign exchange.

When Chandraswami and Mamaji were finally arrested in Madras on May 2 this year, it was a victory of sorts for Pathak. This fortnight, there was an element of drama as he encountered his bete noire after more than a decade. When the judge asked Pathak to recognise the accused, the two glanced at each other. Chandraswami—together with Mamaji—greeted his accuser with folded hands. Pathak didn't respond.

 According to informed sources, before proceeding to the witness box, Pathak had been briefed by the CBI officials because they did not want him to mention Rao's name before the court as "it would dilute the investigation". But Pathak, with an elephantine memory, went on record to give a blow-by-blow account of his meeting with Chandraswami and Rao. He also confirmed that he has recorded his conversation with Chandraswami.

That the CBI was trying to shield Rao became obvious when the CBI's prosecutor objected to his own witness' statement. The moment Pathak narrated the sequence and circumstances in which the former prime minister was introduced to him by Chandraswami in a New York hotel way back in December '83, public prosecutor A.K. Dutt requested the court to record his objection to the mention of Rao's name. Strangely, the public prosecutor's objection was resisted by Chandraswami's lawyer Ashok Arora, who said: "Let the world know what is happening. So what if the former prime minister's name comes up."

Only independent investigations can prove whether or not Rao did anything under Chandraswami's influence. As it is, these are testing times for Rao. He faces criminal charges in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha bribery case. His son and other relatives are under CBI scrutiny in the Rs 133 crore urea scam case. Lakhubhai Pathak's statement may now open another Pandora's box. 

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