Corporate espionage: Expose those who feed the mouth of corruption
The case can be a tipping point to expose the huge nefarious nexus between government and India Inc, now a powerful fifth estate.
- Total Shares
Shantanu Saikia, one of the principal accused in the unfolding, unravelling scam called "Corporate Espionage" has made two astounding revelations; one, the scale could peak Rs 10,000 crores, and second, that he has been made to sign blank papers during custodial interrogation. Evidently, this spy-drama has the makings of a murky crime thriller, with several big guns with exorbitant stakes involved. The abrupt, sudden arrest of oil ministry officials, a trade journalist, an overseas energy adviser and corporate officers of leviathan private sector energy firms such as Reliance Industries, Essar and Cairn Energy for surreptitiously obtaining sensitive leaked documents from the Petroleum ministry blows the lid off what has been otherwise publicly speculated upon; the formidable halo of big business lobbies in India's dark political corridors. Big business has emerged as a formidable power center in the Indian political and social ecosystem; ambitious, creative, cash-rich, talented but greedy, it's suspect ways concealed by sophistry. Are we seeing the cracking of the Omerta code, or is this just a public relations eye-wash for self-righteous posturing? Time will tell. A rewind before that is necessary.
In early 2004 I was attending a corporate symposium where CEOs moved about with feline alacrity and everyone seemed to have an unusually sunny disposition. People joked that their refulgent countenance was a mirror image of India Shining, that celebrated phrase of unbridled optimism and electoral doom. In several photo-ops, the high profile head honchos did a collective thumbs-up. When I almost nervously protested that this utopia looked grossly exaggerated as it was based on just one year of eight per cent GDP growth of the NDA government in 2003-04 and a convenient tweak of poverty estimates, I was dismissed with contumacious indifference, as if a gate-crashing party pooper. I beat a hasty retreat, and ever since have a guarded reverence for these five-star CII/FICCI/Assocham event managers which I have since believed are just platforms for the self-promotion and private business lobbying by a select group, the Big Boys. I would like to term them as India's "obnoxious oligopolies", the MSME (Micro-Small Medium Enterprises) that they are supposed to benefit, remain at the outskirts. A similar group was in full attendance sometime back at the Gujarat Global Investors Summit. The charade continues with even greater crescendo in FY 2015.
At the same venue over several bi-annual events, several heads of their respective conglomerates, publicly adulated the bearded, beaming Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. They looked like smitten by the first flush of love as they serenaded Modi, adding that they would like to see the poster-boy of the saffron party in a galloping hurry unfurl the Indian tricolours at the Red Fort. Of course, they pretended to be blissfully unaware or conveniently forgot that their prime ministerial designate had the dubious ignominy of not being able to shake hands with US President Barack Obama in the White House, as the US state department had refused to grant Modi a US visa for human rights violations apropos the Gujarat riots and after; for a dastardly sequence of events that he perhaps endorsed or deliberately ignored in Gujarat in 2002 as its elected head (that matter is sub-judice despite the clamorous call that Modi has received a clean chit. Of course now, Modi calls President Obama "Barack"). We could well imagine the geopolitical ramifications of that embargo, but obviously India's leading corporate chiefs did not. The perceptible bonhomie between our Big Boys and Modi is a manifestation of the blinkered vision of India Inc. It also reflects short-term memory loss as they forget that a seething Modi had asked the CII to publicly apologise for social activist and ex-Thermax chairperson Anu Agha's condemnation of the Gujarat "genocide". Tragically, CII catapulted before him instantly. Now that Modi is prime minister, the subjugation, subservience and surrender is reaching new lows. Every other day, a leading industrial magnate appears like an epitome of obsequiousness.
India' s corporate sector has unfortunately a very convenient moral fibre, which is also unusually elastic. They are creatures of extraordinary accommodation. I remember when the erstwhile PM Dr Manmohan Singh's government took over in 2004 there was a drastic collapse of the stock markets. Bust! Those black-suited merchant bankers and the 20-something bespectacled analysts predicted serious doomsday, a black hole if you will, what with a centrist national party in a fragile coalition supported by withering age-old Marxists on the wrong side of India's demographic median. Of course, their crystal-gazing were based on facile factors; no one even briefly comprehended the huge premium the think tank of the Singh-P Chidambaram-Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia combine could bring to India's economy and its financial markets.
Corporate India, still angry that India Shining, had been grievously derailed by the rural voxpopuli was almost dismissive about the ruling combine's expertise, competence and longevity. Understandable perhaps, but what was indeed surprisingly palpable was the cosmetic assessment of India's real issues of poverty, the common man's dire straits, the onerous burden of improving education, health and removing backwardness, and the challenge of inclusive growth. Our award-winning blue-chip brigade only understands corporate tax, exchange rates, prime lending rates and stock market reforms. Unfortunately, the government has a lot more to do. And one of them is to build an equal opportunities secular foundation and a vibrant civil society, something that Modi has long forsaken. The draconian conduct of Modi government over Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai, or its recalcitrance to criticism, the hounding of Teesta Setalvad, do not augur well for India. But India Inc seems remarkably oblivious to the larger debate of democracy in India. All that matters is that quarterly earnings report and the fat dividend check pay-out.
"Instead of redressing the balance between the poor and the rich, between the disconnected and the well connected, between the powerless and the powerful, the India state, despite all of its socialist rhetoric, often ends up discriminating against the former and in favor of the latter. The government, despite the best intentions of some dedicated officials, has the bicyclist's mentality of bowing on top and kicking below", said RBI governor Raghuram Rajan in his book Faultlines. He hit the nail on the head. No wonder, rising inequality remains our most intractable challenge.
Thus, for the Ivy League corporate India, Satyam arrived with blaring horns as a deadly neutraliser. Suddenly that pious façade and casual bravado stood shattered. Satyam was not just an epic corporate fraud by itself, it also had a strong principal cast which included multinational auditors, ritzy merchant bankers, Harvard gurus on shareholder protection, and independent directors who made more money from sitting fees or should we call it "sleeping fees". The supporting crew was endless and each had their own private agenda. As the Satyam saga unfolded, several leading CEOs were fully aware of that "discretionary element" which is usually co-handled with remarkable dexterity by the prized auditors and the senior management in close cohorts. Insider trading allegations rage because they are true, so before we have more corporate chiefs expressing their political preferences, maybe they should get their boardroom act cleaned up. Rajat Gupta of McKinsey got caught, in India, no one does.
Narendra Modi's pogrom which consumed more than thousands of innocent lives is essentially a meaningless statistic for India's business czars. As long as Modi can unlock free land, provide subsidised capital, take unilateral decisions devoid of environmental implications or physical displacement caused by them, and make big commercial announcements, everything is kosher. For them a Singur or Nandigram is a social backlash only for the political class to handle. From a hardcore shareholder standpoint, India Inc are bang-on target. If Modi is attracting foreign capital and domestic investment, by all means, he can be development-driven. However to have championed his name for national leadership revealed either a shocking neglect of social sensitivities or a callous disregard for political morality. The fact that Modi has become a PM does nothing to take away the enormous historical baggage that he transports on his shoulders. The Love Jihad brand of politics which has been unleashed since May 2014, coupled with Ghar Wapsi and attacks on churches even had President Obama reminisce Mahatma Gandhi with sorrowful nostalgia. But India Inc remained mummified. These CEOs speak in national forums, but whatever their private predilections, they need to understand the larger ramifications of their public disclosures.
Instead, I would like it if our jet-setting CEOs talked of creating an RTI Act for corporate India for PPP's, or at least for large corporations using public assets, natural resources etc, wherein we can find facts, as ordinary individuals and not just as shareholders. Isn't it the ultimate paradox that while the GOI has installed transparency by steadfastly adhering to RTI guidelines, the constantly jabbering India Inc only pays it token lip-service, and worse, walks away with Golden Peacocks and other shimmering accolades, to ultimately do a Satyam? Or a Sahara?Or steal documents from the Oil and Petroleum Ministry? What are their various items under contingent liabilities, and the cross funds flow between group entities? How have they benefited by certain vested policy changes which have impacted company health? Are ethical standards followed in an unregulated business lobbying industry? Besides published accounts, how do they indirectly fund political parties? Why was CII against transparency in giving political donations? And why, after over a year of the act being passed, is Modi's government reluctant to implement the lokpal bill and make CBI independent? No answers as yet.
The corporate espionage case can be a tipping point to expose the huge nefarious nexus between government and India Inc, now a powerful fifth estate. It is only a tip of the iceberg. It is time we exposed the supply-side of corruption. And above all, brought in electoral reforms in corporate funding of political parties.