London/New Delhi: Embattled liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya said on Wednesday that he met the finance minister before leaving India and told him he's going to London, a sensational claim denied by Arun Jaitley as “factually false”.
Immediately after Jaitley's sharp rebuttal, Mallya appeared to tone down the seriousness of his comments, saying it was "not fair" to create a controversy over this issue as it was not a "formal meeting" and he only "happened to meet" the finance minister.
The 62-year-old former Kingfisher Airline boss, who appeared before the Westminster magistrates' court in the case regarding his extradition to India to face the trial on fraud and money laundering charges, was asked by reporters if he was “tipped off” to leave the country.
“I left because I had a scheduled meeting in Geneva. I met the finance minister before I left, repeated my offer to settle the issue with the banks. That is the truth,” he responded.
Jaitley, who was the finance minister in 2016 when Mallya left India, denied the liquor baron's claim.
“Since 2014, I have never given him any appointment to meet me and the question of his having met me does not arise,” the finance minister said in a Facebook post.
“The statement is factually false in as much as it does not reflect truth,” he asserted.
Jaitley said Mallya “misused” the privilege of being a Rajya Sabha MP to catch him in the corridors of Parliament on one occasion while he was walking out of the House to go to his room.
He said Mallya, while walking alongside, “uttered a sentence that 'I am making an offer of settlement'. Having being fully briefed about his 'bluff offers', without allowing him to proceed with the conversation, I curtly told him 'there was no point talking to me and he must make offers to his bankers'."
“I did not even receive the papers he was holding in his hand,” Jaitley said.
Mallya was elected as Rajya Sabha MP in 2002 and 2010 both times as an independent candidate.
In London, responding to further questions by reporters following Jaitley's statement dismissing his claims, Mallya said, “I am afraid this is a controversy created by my friends in media.”
“I was standing during the lunch break and I happen to answer a question on the circumstances under which I flew out. I said I happened to meet Mr Jaitley in Parliament and told him that I am leaving for London. I did not have any formal meeting scheduled with him,” he said.
Mallya said he met Jaitley “often enough in the Parliament, in the House, in the Central Hall."
On being asked if he was "tipped off" to flee the country, he added: "Absolutely not. I can confirm nobody tipped me off. There was no need to run. The allegations are media created allegations, unfortunately."
"It was a totally innocent statement made by me that I told Jaitley that I was going to London," Mallya said at the end of his extradition case hearing at the court, when the judge fixed December 10 as the date for verdict in the case.
Congress and other opposition parties latched onto Mallya's statement to question the government about the circumstances in which the defaulter businessman fled the country.
Earlier, talking to reporters Mallya said the media should question the banks why they are not supporting him in his efforts to repay.
"I have said before that I am a political football. There is nothing that I can do about it. My conscience is clear and (I) put almost Rs 15,000 crore worth of assets on the table of the Karnataka High Court," he said.
"I am certainly a scapegoat, I feel like a scapegoat. Both political parties don't like me," he said, while having a cigarette during the lunch break in the hearing for his ongoing extradition case.
He sarcastically described the video of Barrack 12 at Mumbai's Arthur Road Jail, which has been prepared for him, as "very impressive".
"I have no comment, you are hearing everything in court," he added on further questions by the reporters.
Mallya has been on bail on an extradition warrant since his arrest in April last year and is fighting extradition to India on charges of fraud and money laundering amounting to around Rs 9,000 crores.
During the hearing, Mallya's defence team branded the evidence presented by the Indian government in the case as "utterly unfounded".
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), arguing on behalf of the Indian government, countered this with arguments that Mallya had intended "from the outset" never to repay the loans he sought for his struggling airline and misrepresented its profitability.
At the previous hearing in July, Judge Arbuthnot had asked the Indian authorities to submit a "step by step video" of Barrack 12 of Arthur Road Jail for "the avoidance of doubt" over the availability of natural light in the cell where the businessman is expected to be detained pre-trial, during trial and in the event he is convicted by the Indian courts.
The extradition trial, which opened at the London court on December 4 last year, is aimed at laying out a prima facie case of fraud against Mallya.