It’s amazing how a tiny public event in a complex and corrupt political and business society like India can have utterly unpredictable and wide-ranging domino effects.
A tweet on Twitter early last month by Lalit Modi, founder of cricket’s notoriously successful India Premier League (IPL), has in a few weeks triggered a series of events that have laid bare how Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, and Sonia Gandhi, head of the coalition and of the Congress Party, are unable to sack or even control government ministers responsible for policies ranging from telecoms and aviation to railways, agriculture and fertilisers.
Modi’s tweet, which was directed at Shashi Tharoor, a gaffe-prone minister of state for foreign affairs, not only led to Tharoor losing his job and Modi being suspended, but quickly escalated into revelations about government phone tapping of businessmen and politicians.
That led to a report (in Delhi’s Pioneer newspaper) on Nira Radia, the head of public relations firms that handle the country’s two biggest groups, Tata and Reliance (RIL) and who works closely with their two chairmen, Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani. The report, quoting phone-taps, said she had been involved as a “wheeler dealer” on controversial telecom licence allocations in 2008 and other political decisions.
Radia started legal action against the Pioneer. Her colleagues, who include influential senior retired telecom and other bureaucrats in three pr and lobbying firms, Vaishnavi, Neucom and Noesis, point out that she is a telecoms consultant, so it is hardly surprising that she talks to a telecoms minister.
The story led to extended media coverage on several leading lobbyist-fixers, questioning their propriety (my word-check neatly turned that into ‘prosperity’!), and revealing details that Radia and many others would rather have kept well below the radar. Photostats of secret and other government documents that allegedly detail Radia’s activities on behalf of Tata and others – many stemming from the phone taps – have been posted on the internet.
The Outlook news weekly magazine devoted ten pages to the subject, with profiles and caricatures of the main players (right). Some of them prefer to operate well below the radar, and Radia was expert at that, as are one or two others in Outlook’s article. Others profiled there mask their behind-the-scenes lobbying work with a smokescreen of high profile appearances on tv, in the social media, and around the party circuits of Delhi and other cities.
The Delhi-based Mail Today, which has delved far more persistently into the Radia story than most other newspapers, even dared cheekily to start an article with a spoof intro saying: “The joke doing the rounds is that the other day Parliament was evacuated because of a suspicious package, but it was ok, it turned out to be a bag of cash dropped off by Nira Radia”.
Radia first became known in Delhi about ten years ago as an aviation consultant. She was close to a Bharatiya Janata Party politician, Ananth Kumar, who was successively aviation and tourism minister, and she advised Tata on its unsuccessful bid with Singapore Airlines to privatise Air India. Her role in Tata, especially with Ratan Tata, expanded to such an extent that she even persuaded him in 2008 to let her take on Reliance (RIL), a Tata rival in many areas, as a client. Last month, Tata’s and Radia’s roles as client and publicist were amazingly reversed when Tata issued a statement recognising their “long and fruitful association”.
This has all been good theatre, annoying for those who would rather not be written about in such a way, but good fun for the rest of us, and no doubt useful information to have out in the public arena. There is of course nothing new in all this. Fixers have existed for centuries across the world, and in some places, like Washington DC, they are institutionalised.
But more importantly, the theatre has dominated much of the analysis of the government’s year in office since it was elected last May. It has focussed attention on how Singh and Gandhi cannot control cabinet ministers belonging to coalition parties because they need to keep these parties content. In most cases the parties virtually nominate who should be appointed and sometimes even what job they should have – targeting posts that generate large scale kickbacks, which has for many years meant ministries ranging from finance and defence to telecoms and aviation.
The list of ministers who thus cannot be removed starts with A.Raja, India’s notorious telecoms minister from Tamil Nadu’s DMK party who, the tapes revealed, has links with Radia. He survives in his job, even though he was a candidate to be sacked as along ago as 2008.
There was even a story circulating a year or so ago that Raja, when questioned by the prime minister about the way he was corruptly fixing a 2G telecom auction for his friends, replied that he worked for his DMK chief minister. If the prime minister had any complaints, he should contact him. I believed the story when I heard and do so now, especially after the way that the government has failed to act recently.
The government has worked round this by closely monitoring and switching responsibilities for some issues such as an auction for 3G licences, which has this week doubled expectations by raising $14.5bn, as well as controversial licence plans proposed by India’s telecom regulator. But that is a unsatisfactorily haphazard way of running policy.
Little wonder that Vittorio Colao, ceo of Vodafone, said publicly earlier this week, when referring to the company’s problems in India, that “there is a need for political leadership in shaping the industry”.
Also outside the Singh-Gandhi control are Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel, the under-performing agricultural and aviation ministers from the Maharashtra-based Nationalist Congress Party, who were named in the IPL scandal and for a time looked vulnerable. [M.J.Akbar, a veteran Delhi-based editor, on May 23 described India's civil aviation as "the epitome of waste, glad-handing, smarmy middlemen and self-destruction"]
Aside from IPL and the tapes, non-performing figures include Mamata Banerjee, the railways minister, who is leader of the Trinamool Congress of Kolkata where she spends most of her time playing state politics, and M.K.Alagiri, the fertilisers minister from the DMK party who rarely comes to Delhi.
There is nothing unusual of course in a prime minister having to cosset his coalition partners – watch how David Cameron, Britain’s new prime minister, handles his government’s Liberal-Democrat coalition ministers in months and maybe years to come. Cameron will however get Nick Clegg, the Lib-Dem leader, to agree to them being replaced if they under-perform – and even more so if there is corruption.
But that is not the case in India, which tolerates an outrageously corrupt and inefficient polity. For many politicians, public office primarily means tapping the gravy train and its flow of illicit funds, partly for themselves and partly for their political parties. The prime minister does not dare impede the flow, fearing he will lose coalition partners.
This post is also on the FT website at
and a Hong Kong-based news website