Thursday, June 15, 2017


Having worked in a public sector bank for over three decades, half of which was in the area of corporate credit in a fairly senior position, I have come across companies and companies. Based on this experience, I can say with conviction that no businessman is in business for public weal or philanthropy.

If a pharmaceutical company procures a molecule and manufactures and markets a drug for a dreaded disease, it is not the intense desire to bring relief to the ailing millions that is the only (or the principal) force that drives them. Equally, they are inspired by Mammon.

In their relentless pursuit of profits and pelf, most, if not all, businesses go overboard. It is only a question of degree: some break break the rules, some bend the rules, some exploit the loopholes in the rules. They evade taxes, they bribe those who grant permissions and funds and gratify those who allow concessions and compromises. They propitiate those who are in a position to influence decisions and those who look the other way.

Over the time-span from the licence-raj of the 1950's to the LPG regime of the 1990's, the scourge spread to all spheres - ministries, customs, excise, ESI, PF, taxes, banks, politicos, judiciary, watchdogs and regulators, anything and anyone you can think of. Not that exceptions were not there in small pockets in these domains.

The new millennium brought in its wake the all-pervasive spread of the malaise: petty businessmen committed petty crimes and the not-so-small ones committed not-so-small crimes. The biggies were into real big rackets - over-invoicing of imports, under-invoicing of exports, setting up trading outfits abroad, establishing shell companies in tax havens and stashing away their ill-gotten wealth in numbered accounts in Switzerland. And corruption among businessmen and bureaucrats thrived.

In the rare instances when the long arm of law was long enough to catch the offenders, regulatory authorities did step in, but the influence the accused wielded saw to it that the process was delayed and action thwarted. I recall that when banks sought the help of CBI to recover the loans involving frauds on the part of borrowers, they would decline: 'Our brief is investigation of the misfeasance on the part of public servants.'

Media is also business. When Samir Jain brought down the cover price of the Times of India daily to Rs 1.50 (or was it just Re 1?), he triggered a price-war all right, but he also signalled that the Times House is as much a business house as the Bombay House of the Tatas. What is true of Times of India is true of Times Now and Zee and Jaya and Asianet and NDTV.

Which is why I would not consider NDTV to be pure as driven snow. I would not put it past NDTV to have committed the offences that Madhu Kishwar, Subramaniam Swamy and S Gurumurthy allege they have. These are all tricks in the bag of any businessman.

The charges against them include creating twenty 'letter-pad' companies - seven of them in Mauritius - and raising $ 417 million from undisclosed investors, making fictitious exports to Star TV, Hong Kong and claiming benefits under section 80HHF of Income Tax Act, thus defrauding the government of Rs 300 crore, employing Abhisar Sharma, husband of Sumana Sharma IRS who was the Assessing Officer for the income tax returns of NDTV and its promoters, paying for the expensive foreign junket and shopping of the Sharmas and accounting it as a perquisite of Abhisar Sharma (NDTV had paid for such trips of no other employee) and a host others. Only detailed investigations by an independent body can bring out the truth.

These are times when there is no grey. In a world that swears by the famous 2001 statement of US President George Bush 'If you are not with us, you are against us,' anything that is not black is white and vice versa. Which is why the reaction to the CBI raid on NDTV was predictable, with those who see NDTV as partisan (Read anti-establishment) perceiving the CBI action as 'Just desserts' while those think of NDTV as a fierce defender of freedom of speech consider it a witch hunt.

What is, however, inescapable, is the timing of the action and the alacrity with which CBI has pounced on the channel. This is even more pronounced when viewed in the backdrop of the fact that CBI had always complained of being overburdened and declined to help even public sector banks in recovering the loans obtained by clients through fraudulent means, pleading that their role was confined to investigating misfeasance of public servants. Note that here both the lender and the borrower are private entities.

Is not there no correlation between the over-zealousness of the CBI and the editorial stance of NDTV? The jury is still out on this, but, as a layman, my take is that NDTV may have committed serious financial improprieties which call for investigation but the timing - that it comes close on the heels of the vociferous Dr Sambit Patra who speaks for the ruling party being shown the door by the NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan - makes it look sinister. It does not quite look like 'law taking its own course'.

An afterthought: My post 'What's Your Beef?' proved to be the proverbial the curate's egg: good in parts to a group of readers who believe in the freedom to eat what one likes and to their protagonists who do not favour protests in the form of beef festivals and public slaughter of animals. This post too might meet with the same fate and I might fall between two stools!

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