From Ambanis to Tata: The rise and fall of Niira Radia
In executing her mission, Radia gravely undermined the careers of several senior journalists, top bureaucrats and business biggies.
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Freud impatiently asked, what do women want? And was unable to provide an answer. I often wonder what Niira Radia wanted. I speak of her in the past tense although that may be premature. In 2009 when she was at the height of her powers, she had the world at her feet or, at the very least, India at her feet.
She had the ear of two of the world’s biggest industrialists. She owned three successful and profitable companies, which were becoming more successful and profitable by the day. She lived in a luxurious farmhouse in Delhi. She had men of a certain age queuing up to woo her. (Niira’s mean-spirited critics accuse her of being our very own Mata Hari.) She bought her wardrobe from Italy. She began with almost nothing and in a few years became rich and famous and awesomely well-connected. She had editors and bumptious babus trembling, only too willing to do her bidding. She had beauty, of course, but she also had brains. And then she blew it.
Niira Radia. [Photo: The Hindu]
India At Her Feet
Why and how did she blow it? I shall provide some amateur armchair psychiatry a little later. But first a little background. The Radia tapes controversy, one of the biggest political-media scandals in the last two decades, relates to telephone conversations between Niira Radia, a novice PR consultant-turned-lobbyist, and top corporates (Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani), top politicians (A Raja, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi, who was herself an MP), top journalists (Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi, among many others), Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya and a host of other movers and shakers. The conversations were taped by the income tax department between 2008 and 2009 as part of investigations into possible money laundering and tax evasion by Radia and her companies. The tapes were leaked to Outlook and, among other things, they revealed that Radia tried to broker deals on behalf of the Tatas in relation to the 2G spectrum sale.
Rise To The Top
The then chairman of Tata Sons took a bold, some would say disastrous, decision. He sacked the fourteen PR agencies servicing the 90-odd companies he controlled and gave the lot to Niira to handle. Interestingly, when this unexpected bounty came her way she did not have an outfit to take up the mammoth assignment. Almost overnight she set up Vaishnavi Corporate Communications in November 2001. From then till 2010, there was no stopping her. The irresistible rise of Niira Radia could form an instruction manual. So, by the way, could her downfall. In 2008, Mukesh Ambani, watching Vaishnavi fly, on the advice of his key aide, Manoj Modi, hired Niira for "lobbying duties" for his controversial RIL gas fields in the Krishna-Godavari basin.
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If the bagging of Ratan Tata’s and Mukesh Ambani’s PR accounts constituted a coup for Niira, she simultaneously made one dangerous enemy. The younger Ambani was then occupied in a vicious noholds-barred battle with his elder brother. Anil was competing with Tata for the telecom franchise and with Mukesh on the division of the Ambani empire. Not since Kurukshetra has a family feud over inheritance been fought with such ferocity. Niira unwittingly became target number one on Anil’s busy hit list. Within days of getting the RIL gas account, she put together a 40-member team and, in less than a month, "prepared a clear strategy" on how to show the pretender to the throne (Anil) his "rightful place".
Two other men, BJP leader Ananth Kumar and DMK’s A Raja, whom she befriended between 1998 and 2006, were less auspicious for her. Ananth Kumar, aviation minister in the 1998–99 NDA regime, fell for her head over heels. This dangerous liaison became the talking point in the capital and beyond. A weeping Mrs Kumar then approached prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, complaining Niira had pinched her husband. Atalji, himself a bit of a pincher, could not do much for the abandoned wife.
The Big Slip
In the execution of her mission — to ensure Raja kept his portfolio in the 2009 UPA-II council of ministers — she managed to gravely undermine the careers of several senior and nationally renowned journalists, top bureaucrats and business biggies. A few politicians and their progeny also joined forces with her, but their reputations, as we all know, are scandalproof. In defence of Niira Radia it must be pointed out she was under pressure from Ratan Tata to "get the job done", something at which she had declared herself to be a doyen. Her mandate, additionally, included making sure Dayanidhi Maran remained in the wilderness. Raja did indeed become the telecom minister in 2009 — despite strong reservations from prime minister Manmohan Singh. The rest is history.