The CBI today questioned four senior RBI officials in connection with relaxing of gold import rules in 2014 when Congress leader P Chidambaram was the finance minister in the UPA government allegedly to the benefit of private traders.
The central investigation agency, which is probing the alleged Rs 13,000-crore PNB fraud involving billionaire diamantaire Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksi, questioned three Chief General Managers and one General Manager of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), officials said.
The four officials were asked questions related to the UPA government's '20:80' gold import scheme, which was cleared by Chidambaram on May 13, 2014, barely three days before the counting of votes of the general election, they said.
The BJP-led NDA came to power at the Centre, defeating the UPA in the 2014 election.
The CBI investigation into the matter came four weeks after the NDA government had issued a statement saying it would act against people who relaxed gold import rules for private trading houses during the previous dispensation.
In a statement, the government had said the UPA government's '20:80 scheme' resulted in a windfall of Rs 4,500 crore to 13 trading houses in six months.
The BJP had last month accused Chidambaram of aiding jewellers Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi, the main accused in the Rs 12,600-crore fraud at Punjab National Bank (PNB), through the 20:80 gold import scheme.
Chidambarm had in last few days of the UPA government modified the gold import scheme to allow private trading houses to import gold on condition that they would export 20 per cent of it.
Previously only state-owned companies MMTC and STC were allowed to import gold.
The NDA government had said it had taken the "bold" step to scrap the scheme soon after coming to power, but it didn't name jewellers who might have benefited.
It said the scheme had increased gold shipments to the country and put pressure on current account deficit in 2012-13 resulting in placing of restrictions on imports, including by way of higher customs duty.
"However, from May 21, 2014, the Premier Trading Houses and Star Trading Houses were also allowed to import gold under 20:80 scheme," the statement said, referring to Chidambaram's decision to allow private traders to import.
"The then Finance Minister approved the modified scheme on May 13, 2014, even though the model code of conduct was in place since March 5, 2014 with the announcement of the Lok Sabha Polls, and the counting was due on May 16, 2014," the statement issued by the commerce ministry last month had said.
The statement had referred to a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report that put gold imported by 13 trading houses during June 2014 to November 2014 at 282.77 tones, "which means a windfall gain of about Rs 4,500 crore to these agencies during this period, assuming a premium of Rs 2 lakh per kg and 80 per cent of imported gold supplied to domestic market earning the premium".
It further said: "Even the export obligations were being met through export of plain jewellery, viz., bangles and chains, which were re-melted in offshore locations through front/ shell companies for the purpose of re-import."
Stating that the increase in gold import had disproportionately benefited the STH/PTHs whose imports shot up by 320 per cent, the government had said, "this benefit stemmed from a de facto discrimination in their favour because of expanded 20:30 scheme privileged these STHs/PTHs".
The government would definitely examine the circumstances "as to why private parties PTHs/STHs were benefitted by being allowed to import gold under 20:80 scheme by the previous government when the Government was in transition and will take necessary action against the persons involved", the statement had said.