The Guptas and the dumping of the SAA India route

SAA will be surrendering some of their flights to Mango. File picture: ANA

Did the Gupta brothers play a role in South African Airways (SAA) stopping its flights to India, allowing Indian flier Jet Airways and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways to take over the bilateral arrangement between the two countries?

The decision to suddenly shut down the Mumbai-Johannesburg sector which had a seat load factor of 82-88 percent in March 2015 intrigued the travel and tourism sector. SAA, which had been flying to India for the last 19 years, did not give enough notice to tour operators who had booked flights right until November 2015.

“It is unfair to pull out suddenly without giving sufficient notice. Booking is open till November, and we have booked thousands of seats. What will happen to our clients? We may have to suffer severe financial losses,” a tour was quoted by an Indian newspaper, The Hindu. 

Why did SAA, in the name of streamlining its operation, abandon one of its routes that serviced the historical ties between India and South Africa? The airline then had claimed that Mumbai was on the fifth spot in the list of 10 sectors that were incurring losses. Seat load factor, according to industry sources, tells another story.

According to a foreign ministry source, the Guptas wanted to benefit the airline, Jet Airways, whose aircraft the family had chartered to ferry guests from India to Johannesburg to attend the controversial wedding in the family in 2013. It was this wedding and the manner in which the state facilities were made to serve the interests of the Indian brothers due to their proximity to ex-President Jacob Zuma that caused outrage in the South African society. What happened thereafter is history.

After SAA withdrew from India, Jet Airways filled that slot. Now it brings passengers from India to Abu Dhabi and from there, they are lifted by Etihad for their onward journey to South Africa. Etihad had picked up a 24 percent stake in Jet Airways in late 2013 and has a code-sharing arrangement with SAA, which means that it plies in this sector. By realigning these routes, alliance partners Etihad and Jet Airways have monopolised the India-South Africa sector, which can only be challenged if SAA reclaims its bilateral with India, which seems unlikely now.

A government source refused to comment on whether the South African police or HAWKS were checking on the manner in which the SAA flights to India were cancelled, but there is a possibility that more details of the Gupta’s web of corruption and criminality could get exposed with the Indian law enforcement agencies raiding their properties in their native town of Saharanpur and Dehradun.

What is not clear is who ordered the probe into their affairs so quickly after one of the brothers, Atul Gupta, who was seen relaxing in his Dehradun mansion, was allegedly tipped off to leave the country — quite like some of the Indian businessmen who had swindled banks. The Guptas, till recently, were also given Z security by the government, which is normally reserved for the very powerful.

The raids by the Income Tax Department on many properties of the Guptas could have been prompted by the South African law enforcement agencies that have declared the Guptas “fugitives from justice.” However, a High Commission source denied that there had been any request from them to the Indian revenue authorities to look into the Guptas’ financial network. The revenue authorities told the local media that they were trying to ascertain whether the temple that they were constructing in Saharanpur on a disputed Muslim burial ground was used for laundering money or not. Another enquiry that was conducted, which clearly seems to have a South African origin, was to find out whether the temple construction became a route for the Guptas to bring back their trapped funds from the country of their choice, South Africa, to the country of their birth.

What needs to be seen in the coming days is the seriousness of intent of the investigating agencies to find out the extent of Guptas’ web of corruption in India. There is plenty of evidence- videos on YouTube – that show the kind of support the Guptas enjoyed in India. The most formidable among them in the present times is a yoga guru-cum-spiritual entrepreneur, Baba Ramdev. This yoga guru has millions of disciples and enjoys close proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many others in the government.

Ramdev played a big role in building support for Modi and his party to help them come to power. The Yoga guru had travelled through South Africa in the company of the Guptas. There are also videos where Ramdev is seen telling an audience that Guptas will be investing in his ventures. There are other enterprises that the Guptas were exploring for investment, including some media companies.

Sanjay Kapoor is Independent Media’s stringer based in Delhi. He is also the Editor of the publication in India “Hard News.”