Gupta foot soldier Ashu Chawla demanded Parliament foot the bill for a business-class ticket to South Africa if they wanted him to return earlier than planned to appear before the inquiry into the naturalisation of the controversial Gupta family.
This emerged on Tuesday at the start of a sitting of phase two of the inquiry, which kicked off last month.
Chairperson of the portfolio committee on home affairs Hlomani Chauke announced during his opening address that the next sitting of the inquiry will only happen in the first week of December to accommodate Chawla, because Parliament would not pay for the ticket.
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Chawla has been identified as a crucial witness in Parliament’s investigation into the Guptas’ citizenship. He is said to be the mastermind in the Gupta’s dealings with home affairs.
On Tuesday Chauke said the committee received confirmation from Chawla’s lawyers that their client is available. But his immediate availability would be subject to the committee purchasing him business-class flights between India and South Africa, Chauke added.
Chawla is allegedly in New Delhi taking care of his ailing mother and had planned only to return to South Africa at the end of November. He left the country last month despite being ordered by a magistrate to surrender his passport as part of his bail conditions in relation to the Estina dairy case in the Free State.
Chauke said the committee checked Parliament’s procedures on booking airline tickets. Chawla’s return ticket would cost Parliament R177 000, he said.
“It was clear that Parliament does not have such, and generally we do not have that money,” Chauke said. “With the ailing economy and the challenges we have as a country and Parliament, we don’t have R177 000 to pay for Chawla’s business-class ticket.”
Chauke also noted that Chawla had demanded Parliament provide him a Hindi interpreter, a fact the chairperson lambasted at length.
“It is Chawla who has been in the country for more than 17 years. In his position, he is a South African citizen,” Chauke said.
Chauke also referenced a letter Chawla wrote to Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba.
In the 2015 letter Chawla made representations that Angoori Gupta (Ajay Gupta’s mother), Kamal Kant Singhala (Ajay’s son), and Surya Singhala (another son) should be granted early naturalisation because of the “significant investments” the family’s company, Oakbay, has made in South Africa “over many years”.
Chawla’s letter attested to the contributions made by the Gupta family — which has been accused of looting public coffers in their capture of the state — to assist young, impoverished schoolchildren in the North West.
“It is Chawla who can’t speak English, but he wrote the letter in English,” Chauke said, pointing to the detail contained in the letter, including a reference to buying KFC for the children.
Chawla wrote in April 2015: “Another ongoing project, which we are very proud of, is our school feeding scheme whereby [sic] we support in the suburbs where we operate by providing stationery kits, school uniforms and a takeaway lunch for every pupil at the school! Many of the kids have told us that these meals are the first time they ever had something like KFC!”
Chauke said it has become clear that Parliament will not be able to pay for Chawla’s flights.
“We don’t have money. We will then rely on him having to come back in November and we will schedule the meeting immediately when he lands here,” he said.