Will Mr Naresh Goyal get lucky once again?

A couple of days ago, a colleague forwarded a photograph of Naresh Goyal coming out of the Enforcement Directorate headquarters after seven hours of what was obviously an intense grilling. He looked frightened and was seen clinging to an ED official, as if desperately seeking protection from the world outside. The picture said it all: The man, who not so long ago watched the world from 30,000 feet above the ground, had truly been grounded. 

At the end of it all, he has nobody but himself to blame for this spectacular downfall that led to his exit from Jet Airways in March this year. And this time around, the situation has turned so much against him that even important friends on his speed dial — politicians, policymakers, chief executives, etc — may find it difficult to do anything to bail him out.

Or can they? Going by Mr Goyal’s chequered track record, it’s a difficult question.

Before searching his residential premises and offices over the past few days, the ED made a series of charges against him: That it has detected foreign bank accounts linked to him with substantial money in them. According to the probe agency, prima facie, these transactions involve various violations under the Foreign Exchange Management Act.

The business empire of Mr Goyal includes 19 privately held companies of which 14 are registered in India and five abroad. The ED says preliminary investigations so far indicate that Mr Goyal has “siphoned off huge amounts in foreign jurisdictions through dubious and fictitious transactions” through inflated commission to group entities in Dubai which acted as Jet’s exclusive overseas general sales agents.

That’s not all. A few months earlier, look out notices were issued against him after the ministry of corporate affairs directed the Serious Fraud Investigation Office to launch an enquiry into the charges that the Jet founder had siphoned out over Rs 5,000 crore from the airline through a skein of transactions involving its subsidiaries. The SFIO probe against Jet Airways was initiated just a day after the ED had launched a separate investigation into partner Etihad’s investment in the airline’s frequent flyer programme, Jet Privilege.

But Mr Goyal faced more serious charges earlier — without any closure. In fact, the financial dealings of Jet Airways have been under scanner from way back in 1997 when he bought back the stakes of Gulf Air and Kuwait Airlines, both of whom owned 20 per cent stake in the airline. The suspicion was that the source was his Gulf money, hidden behind the Isle of Man curtain of secrecy. One of the most telling examples of the government’s suspicion about Jet’s ownership was the statement made by former disinvestment minister Arun Shourie. Speaking in Parliament, Mr Shourie referred to Mr Goyal as the “so-called” owner of Jet Airways as nobody had been able to tell him who owned Jet Airways.

Then in 2016, media reported about journalist Josy Joseph’s book, A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy, which had raised questions about his links with mafia in Dubai. The book had triggered a debate on the rise of Jet and the influence of overseas mafia on the business since the nineties. “There is strong suspicion that parts of Goyal’s investments may have accrued through the help of underworld groups…” the book had quoted a single-page note to Sangita Gairola, then joint secretary at the Union ministry of home affairs.

On his part, Mr Goyal was able to defend himself against these government inquiries into the source of his finances. Each investigation hit a dead-end, possibly because no information about source of funds could be extracted from the Isle of Man. 

But one thing is for sure: Mr Goyal knew how to use his considerable clout in successive governments of the past. Rules were indeed tweaked to ensure that he always had his way. And there are examples galore: The 5/20 rule that required an airline to operate for five years and have a fleet of 20 aircraft before it can fly international routes was entirely designed to keep Jet’s competitors at bay. Also, just days before his initial public offer in 2005, he got the government’s approval to fly overseas. That’s too much of a coincidence.

Mr Goyal’s acquaintances remember him as a boy who was always yearning for more in life — a trait that perhaps never left him. He rebuilt his life after his father, a prosperous jeweller, fell into bad days. But while his hard work and canny business sense earned him the sobriquet “King of the Air”, his obsessive greed for more caused him to ruin everything he built. By the time he was unceremoniously booted out of his own airline, he had run up a huge debt, unpaid salaries and a reputation in tatters. 

It’s anybody’s guess whether investigating agencies would be able to pin him down this time. But it’s certain that it may be quite a while before Mr Goyal can return to his sprawling townhouse in a secluded road with sweeping views of Regent’s Park in north-west London.

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