File picture: ANA

Johannesburg - Did the Guptas play a role in South African Airways (SAA) halting its flights to India, allowing Indian airline Jet Airways and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways to take over the bilateral arrangement between the two countries?
The SAA decision to suddenly shut down its Mumbai-Johannesburg route, which had a seat-load factor of 82% to 88%, in March 2015 intrigued the travel and tourism sector. SAA did not even give enough notice to tour operators who had booked flights until November 2015, tour operators say.

So 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? SAA claimed that the route was loss making, but industry sources say the seat-load factor tells another story.

According to an Indian foreign ministry source, the Guptas wanted to benefit Jet Airways.

It was Jet Airways from whom the Guptas chartered an aircraft to ferry guests from India to Johannesburg to attend a family wedding in 2013. That controversial event laid bare the Guptas' abuse of South African state facilities and infuriated South Africans.

After SAA withdrew from India, Jet Airways filled the slot. Now it carries passengers from India to Abu Dhabi and from there they are lifted by Etihad for their onward journey to South Africa.

Etihad bought a 24% stake in Jet Airways in late 2013 and has a code-sharing arrangement with SAA to fly the route.

By realigning these routes, alliance partners Etihad and Jet Airways have monopolised the India-South Africa route, which can only be challenged if SAA reclaims its bilateral arrangement with India, which seems unlikely.

A government source refused to comment on whether the South African police or the 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 Guptas’ web of corruption and criminality could be exposed with Indian law enforcement agencies having raided the family's properties in their native town of Saharanpur and Dehradun last week.

What is not clear is who ordered the probe into their affairs so quickly after one of the brothers, Atul Gupta, who was earlier seen at his Dehradun mansion, was allegedly tipped off to leave the country.

The Guptas until recently were also given security by the Indian government.

The raids by the income tax department on the Guptas properties in India could have been prompted by the South African law enforcement agencies that have declared the Guptas fugitives from justice.

However, an Indian High Commission source denied that there had been any request to the revenue authorities to look into the Guptas’ financial network.

The revenue authorities told Indian media that they were trying to ascertain whether the temple that the Guptas were constructing in Saharanpur on a disputed Muslim burial ground was used for laundering money.

An aspect of the enquiry that seems to have a South African origin was to find out whether the temple construction became a route for the Guptas to bring back to India their trapped funds from South Africa.

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, such as videos on YouTube, that show the kind of support the Guptas enjoyed in India. The most formidable among them is yoga guru and spiritual leader Baba Ramdev, who has millions of disciples and enjoys close ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many others in the Indian government.

The Sunday Independent