Excise policy: Digi proof from Delhi hotel exposed influence of ‘South Lobby’

The Central Bureau of Investigation has found digital evidence from the systems of a hotel’s business centre used by a Hyderabad-based coterie of politicians and liquor businessmen called “South Lobby” showing their alleged influence on Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia in deciding the contours of the now-scrapped excise policy, officials said.

The officials said the members of the South Lobby, which wanted to swing the policy in its favour with exorbitant profits for liquor wholesalers, had stayed in the hotel in the national capital from March 14 to 17 in 2021 and used its business centre to make photocopies of some documents.

During their stay, they had allegedly met Vijay Nair, the suspected middleman who was striking the deal with liquor traders to formulate the policy in their favour, they said.

The CBI also recovered two suggestions about the policy that were discussed in chats among the South Lobby members, they said.

Through forensic evaluation, the CBI found a draft note of the group of ministers from Sisodia’s computer dated March 15, 2021, which capped the profit margins for liquor wholesalers at five per cent.

However, the final draft of GoM given by Sisodia to his secretary three days later increased the profit margin to 12 per cent.

On March 18, Sisodia, who also held the excise portfolio, allegedly called his secretary C Arvind to the residence of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal where he was given a document, which was a draft of the group of ministers’ report on the excise policy, to be put before the council of ministers, the officials said.

The CBI found that the number of pages allegedly photocopied or printed by the South Lobby members in the hotel’s business centre was the same as the GoM draft report handed over by Sisodia to his secretary.

The draft contained 12 per cent profit for wholesalers, besides higher turnover eligibility for them which was included in the final report of the GoM, the officials said.

The two suggestions found in chat history of the South Group members nearly two days before the final GoM report were also included in it, they said.

The CBI has alleged in its first charge sheet filed on November 25 last year that the Delhi government’s excise policy for 2021-22 was framed in a manner to promote cartelisation and monopoly at the wholesale level and set up a 12 per cent profit margin for wholesalers on an upfront payment of Rs 100 crore to Nair through Dinesh Arora, an alleged close associate of Sisodia.

In its further probe, the CBI had found that an expert committee under the then excise commissioner Ravi Dhawan was constituted to suggest changes in the policy.

The committee submitted its report on the proposed changes on October 13, 2020.

The report neither recommended a zonal licence system at the retail level nor privatisation at the wholesale level which was not to the liking of Sisodia, the CBI has alleged.

The agency alleged that the three-member group of ministers was constituted on February 5, 2021, to suggest changes in the excise policy.

The GoM route was allegedly adopted to change the recommendations of the expert committee, officials said.

The recommendations of the expert committee were put in the public domain on December 31, 2020, inviting comments from the public.

When the report, along with comments from the public and legal opinion, was put before the council of ministers it was allegedly not taken up for discussion and the file remained untraceable since then, the officials said.

Soon after, a revised note was prepared without legal opinion based on which the group of ministers was constituted under Sisodia. Satyendar Jain and Kailash Gehlot were members of the GoM, they said.

The GoM met in February 2021 but there was no discussion on the wholesale model for the liquor trade. In the first week of March, Nair met liquor traders and middlemen allegedly demanding commission for a favourable excise policy.

During his attempts to get money from liquor traders, Nair, who was also handling communications for the Aam Aadmi Party, allegedly met South Lobby members. The chats recovered showed that the South Lobby was allegedly involved in the tweaking of the excise policy in their favour, the officials claimed.

The CBI also found that the first application of the Indospirit group, dominated by South Lobby, seeking licences raised some objections after which the group submitted a second application, they said.

The CBI alleged that immediately after Sisodia directed excise department officials to grant the licence to the group on the basis of a second application, whereas there was no reason for him to know that another application was filed by it.

The central agency had arrested Sisodia on Sunday for allegedly not cooperating in the investigation and being evasive on questions from investigators. He has been sent to five-day CBI remand by a special court on Monday.

Reacting to the development, Kejriwal said his deputy was innocent and termed the arrest “dirty politics”.

“Manish is innocent. His arrest is dirty politics. It has angered people quite a lot. People are watching everything. People now understand everything and will give reply to this. It will boost our spirit and our struggle will only get stronger,” Kejriwal said in a tweet in Hindi.

“It is a black day for democracy,” the AAP said while claiming that Sisodia was innocent and has been arrested due to vendetta politics, a charge rejected by the BJP which said the law was taking its course.

The BJP alleged that AAP leaders had failed to explain several questionable actions in the Delhi excise policy matter, and said that agencies do not work on emotion but look into technicalities.

While the Delhi Congress demanded that Kejriwal should also be arrested and called him the “mastermind”, the Trinamool Congress took a swipe at the Bharatiya Janata Party, saying only agencies like the CBI and the ED remain its “true allies”.

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