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March 12, 2016

Fleeing Mallya Rakes Up The Deep Rot In Indian Democracy

[This is an AHRC Statement
Republished in Counter Currents.]
An ominous open tweet threatening to expose “media bosses” would perhaps be the last thing to expect from member of Indian Parliament and media honcho, even if this is someone who is under investigation for “defrauding” publicly owned IDBI bank of INR Rupees 900 Crore.

This is all the more surprising given that this corporate grandstander is Vijay Mallya, the ‘liquor baron’, who has apparently been allowed to flee the country despite being under major investigation and despite a lookout notice in case he tried to escape.

Earlier, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had requested a consortium of 17 banks led by the State Bank of India (SBI) to declare their loans worth around 10,000 crore from taxpayer’s money to Mallya as fraud.

However, the same CBI, it appears (as suggested in media reports like this one),changed the nature of the look out notice against Mallya within one month of issuing the same. In October 2015 the CBI had asked the Bureau of Immigration (BoI) to detain Mallya if he were to try and leave. A month later, the agency changed the notice, asking BoI to merely inform them about his departure and travel plans.

It is no surprise that the high-flying Liquor Baron has still some support from the powers that be, even when his “King of good times” Airlines has come crashing down.

Mallya reportedly left the country the day the banks moved the Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT) in Bangalore, seeking to impound Mallya's passport, getting him arrested, securing the lenders' first right on the pay out from Diageo (the British liquor major Diageo has confirmed paying Vijay Mallya $40 mn as part of a severance deal in which Mallya resigned as the chairman of its Indian subsidiary United Spirits Ltd and promised not to compete with it in spirits business for 5 years). The banks have also demanded a full disclosure of Mallya’s assets in the country and abroad.

Yet, there is still some curiosity to know who helped tip-off Mallya and who made the CBI change the nature of the lookout notice. Incidentally, the CBI works directly under the Prime Minister’s Office, through the Minister of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions. And, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has retained the latter portfolio. This fact may or may not reduce Mr. Modi’s no tolerance to corruption posturing, something for which he keeps congratulating himself.

The situation also calls for some comparisons and contrasts. Consider the way the government of India and its agencies have handled such brazen loot of taxpayers’ money by the tycoon, and consider how they have been dealing with the paltry loans taken by the farmers fighting to eke out survival, amidst an upsurge of farmer suicides.

There is no dearth of reports documenting high-handed recovery methods, including the employment of goons to beat up ‘defaulting’ farmers and insult them while recovering loans ranging from Rupees 10,000 for crops to a few lakhs for equipment like tractors. Such recoveries also figure repeatedly as immediate causes in ever increasing farmers’ suicides in the Indian countryside.

Does the Indian constitution give guarantee to life with dignity only to corporate tycoons, not farmers? There is in fact a ready example to suggest that perhaps it does. Consider the question of the wife of a Tamil Nadu farmer who got beaten up by the police for defaulting on his loan!

However, of all the real and surreal that has been exposed by Mr. Mallya’s flight, the gravest is the message in the tweet of Mr. Vijay Mallya.

He tweeted the following today:

“Let media bosses not forget help, favours, accommodation that I have provided over several years which are documented. Now lies to gain TRP?” [sic]

It is this tweet that makes the rot in the body politic of the country so obvious. The corruption plaguing the political class and corporations of the country has been notorious for long. The only doubts possible in this regard were if there was not even one single honest person/entity among them.

The onus of fighting corruption in these circumstances of sheer absence of a redress mechanism in the form of public institutions has been with the free media. Media, for its part, had largely stood true to its role of being a watchdog, by courageously taking on scams that somehow slipped out of murky files maintained by corporate bosses, politicians, and their minnows. 

And then, the rot reached there as well. The corporatisation of media, in the form of big money pumped into the sector by corporations, started the process. It soon led to the stage where big corporations started buying out media houses themselves and thus doing away with whatever little possibility there was left to reporting their shady deals.

The rot is epitomised by the infamous Niira Radia tapes, conversations of the corporate lobbyist with powerful editors, reporters, industrialists, and politicians recorded by the Income Tax department for its investigations. The tapes laid bare the connections that existed among the worlds of politics, business, and journalism. They exposed how corporations went to the extent of arm-twisting the government of India and Parliament by using journalists and put their people in the crucial ministries. The revelations shook the country and exposed the underbelly of its media. The Supreme Court had then taken note of the development and ordered the CBI to investigate "criminality" in 14 issues that were identified by the investigating agency after it went through the transcripts of the Radia tapes.

Then the trail went cold, with CBI finding "no criminality" in any matter by mid-2015. The agency went on to close the case by arguing that “no favour was extended to any company by any official as suggested in the conversations” and terming the claims made by Radia as mere boasts. Yet, it was only the case that got closed. The reputation of the India media as a whole had been served its most serious blow, quite unlike other earlier lesser improprieties by this or that media house.

Now Vijay Mallya’s threat of exposing the favours, irrespective of the truth, arrives in this wake, and is significant. Radia tapes and the paid news controversy have already compromised the credibility of the Indian media. The onslaught of corporations favouring a particular political group, damaged it even more, and continues to damage it given many of them having become the voice of the incumbent regime. Proof of them having been taking favours from such a controversial business tycoon may well become the proverbial last nail.
The demise of a free and honest media in a country marred with criminally corrupt public institutions does not augur well for its future. Lack of redress mechanism have rusted its foundations enough, a media unable to at least point this out can only bring a collapse.

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