Saturday 13 October 2018

Insider Vulture Cabal unharmed, mobilises for Jan 2019 knockout (Sunday Guardian)

By M D Nalapat 

The former Union Minister is anticipating a ‘blowout’ for the BJP in the polls, and is entertaining hopes of being called upon to follow in Manmohan Singh’s footsteps by being nominated as PM by Sonia Gandhi.

The “insider vulture cabal” led by a former senior minister from the UPA, is readying for the delivery of a “knockout blow” to short-term economic prospects by 20 January 2019. Their expectation is for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to call for Lok Sabha elections that would be held in the third week of April 2019, and that a major economic shock would reduce, if not eliminate altogether, the BJP’s chances in the urban constituencies the party must win in order to return to power, even as the leader of a coalition. Ironically, this very politician-cum-cabal leader had been frantically seeking to join the BJP in 2002, but was blocked from doing so by party functionaries in his home state, who were unanimous that he would be totally unwelcome in the saffron party. The former Union Minister is now anticipating a “blowout” for the BJP in the 2019 polls, and is known to be entertaining hopes of being called upon to “follow in Manmohan Singh’s footsteps” by being nominated as Prime Minister by the Supreme Margdarshak of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, who, the former minister’s acolytes claim, wanted to see him in the Prime Minister’s chair from 2012 onwards, but refrained out of regard for a “visibly faltering” Manmohan Singh. Such talk is being spread these days, in order to scare and to de-motivate officials looking into the former minister and his family’s financial transactions, as he is known to be “exceptionally generous to those who obey him and cruelly vindictive to those who ignore his commands and needs”. Although The Sunday Guardian had more than once warned of the activities of this cabal, those within the ruling establishment who are linked to the cabal, through fiduciary and personal bonds, dismissed such warnings as “conspiracy theories” deserving of no attention, an explanation that seems to have been accepted by the government, as substantive action against the insider vulture cabal appears to be non-existent for the eight months since such warnings were first aired in this newspaper. Indeed, to both North Block as well as Mint Road, India is a country where under-invoicing of exports and over-invoicing of imports is negligible; where insider trading and manipulation of share prices hardly takes place; where the currency remains outside the zone of fire of international predators out to “short” an increasingly pathetic rupee; and that economic difficulties are related to “global cues” rather than government policies. If this “purely global” talk were true, the question would come up as to why the economic team within government should not all be removed, so as to lower government expenditure, given that whatever happens does so (according to them) because of global factors outside their control. The reality is that domestic policy makes all the difference in India’s nearly $3 trillion economy, for better or for worse, depending on what basket of measures gets worked out and implemented. Recently, RBI Governor Urjit Patel seemed wholly unconcerned about the consistently declining value of the rupee, while other policymakers dealing with economic policy waxed complacent about job growth. Whether voters agree with such stands will become clear in forthcoming state and national polls. Looking at such an attitude of “not my business” and of course, “not my fault”, it is unsurprising that so little attention seems to have been paid by official agencies to the systematic manner in which the Cabal is enriching itself and promoting the job trajectories and financial fortunes of its members at the expense of the 1.27 billion population of India.
The identity of the senior minister who heads the Cabal will remain undisclosed. Looking, however, to the case of former Union Minister for Home and Finance, Palaniappan Chidambaram as an illustration of how (out of ignorance of the facts or complicity with the former minister) inquiries against him have been “systematically diluted and sidetracked” (to quote a senior official who worked closely with the former minister) by his well-wishers in the administration. Enforcement Directorate senior official Rajeshwar Singh is reported as falling foul of Chidambaram during the UPA period when he stumbled on some facts relating to the minister’s son Karti, whose record in business success would put the young Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg to shame. Aware that the officer was not among the many within the agencies who were admirers of “PC” (which in this case refers not to Priyanka Chopra but to P. Chidambaram), Rajeshwar was known to have been advised by a senior North Block official that he should not himself interrogate PC, but leave that disagreeable task to another official chosen for the purpose by the senior official who rendered him such instructions. When Rajeshwar declined to oblige, allegations against him that had been investigated six years ago by the CBI and the CVC (and found to be without merit) were referred for fresh inquiry by a senior official in North Block. How the unanimous findings of absence of guilt of the multi-member CVC and the multi-member CBI investigation team could be re-examined six years later by a solitary official (reporting to the same official who was responsible for the anti-Rajeshwar enquiry getting re-started) is among the several anomalies within the Lutyens Zone, which rewards its own and punishes its detractors with unfailing ease, no matter which politician occupies the Prime Minister’s chamber in South Block. It was expected that the ED’s Rajeshwar would take the hint and forget about building up a case against Chidambaram, busy as he would be in saving himself from prosecution by obliging those seeking to torpedo his probe. He has not; but has found the going very tough subsequent to his refusal to oblige those eager to get him off the Chidambaram probe. Small wonder that only rudimentary progress has so far been made into the investigations relating to Chidambaram and his family members, that too mostly on issues that are peripheral to the broader interests of this enterprising family, or that the ED has not even been able to get permission to file a charge-sheet in key matters against Chidambaram, much less arrest the UPA VVIP.
The good news is that the ED contains officials who believe in working for nearly 20 hours on some days in the service of the nation. Among such luminaries is Seemanchal Dash, who was Private Secretary to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who is acknowledged within his party as the closest colleague of Prime Minister Modi in the Council of Ministers. Although Dash is now Special Director in the ED (and may become Director of that venerable institution in the fullness of time), he spends several hours each day (usually 5p.m.-7.30p.m.) at North Block giving his former colleagues the benefit of his expertise in finance. Although uncharitable detractors say that such visits are intended to give information about pending ED inquiries (including about Chidambaram) to North Block grandees anxious about the fate of Chidambaram, this allegation seems absurd. Dash is apparently motivated only by love of country and not (as falsely alleged) love of PC and his family. Hopefully, his long hours of work in both the ED as well as the Ministry of Finance will not affect the health of an official who is on track to head the ED in future, once the Modi government returns to office in 2019, as expected by tens of millions who are admirers of the Prime Minister. In the meantime, progress within the ED in cases such as Aircel Maxis seem to be going the way of the 2G probe, where a CBI Special Court came to the finding that the accused were free of blame. The Enforcement Directorate, as a consequence, is earning the nickname of “Escape Department”, given its almost non-existent record in bringing to book VVIP perpetrators of frauds.
Whether by accident or by design, during the UPA tenure, Chidambaram consistently saw officers trusted by him take up positions such as SEBI Chairman, LIC Chairman, DG Investigation, Member Investigation, Joint Secretaries in TRU and TPL and public sector bank chairmen. When he was sworn in as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi took a very consequential decision to give those officers who had worked closely with UPA-era ministers (obviously also in the facilitation of deals that the BJP had alleged were corrupt) a second chance. In the case of an officer (who has since his retirement been given a job in a constitutional body of enormous import) who was reported to have been involved in several land transactions of a South Indian politician, it was said by a senior supervisory official that “just because X was corrupt in a particular state does not mean he will be corrupt at the Centre”. In his support and respect for officials, the Prime Minister is going the way of Vallabhbhai Patel, who as Home Minister ensured together with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that the British-era colonial system of administration continued into the post-1947 period, as indeed it does to the present. It is another matter that such an attitude is leading to a situation where the “insider vulture cabal” remains relatively immune to action by the agencies, and is therefore in a condition to deliver a knockout blow to economic prospects before the close of January 2019. Unless officials linked to the cabal get identified and removed, the group will continue to have the capacity to influence policies in ways favourable to its colourable (mainly external) interests. Interestingly, senior officials seem in the past to have gotten away even while making juniors do their bidding in suspicious cases. For example, the chairman of a public sector insurance company gave insurance in the UPA period to a defunct airline based in Madurai on the basis of repeated telephone calls from a senior official in Delhi. That insurance executive is now in hot water, while the senior official (once in the Department of Financial Services) who was actually responsible for the decision is enjoying promotion upon promotion, including in the private sector. Among other posts held by those close to the talented former Union Home & Finance Minister, at least two major stock exchanges in India are headed by individuals known to have been “exceptionally close” to P. Chidambaram. Of course, such proximity should not be taken as any evidence of wrongdoing.
Returning to the senior UPA-era minister who heads the “insider vulture cabal”, it is known within North Block that he ensured the collection of photocopies and electronic data on a considerable list of politicians (including in particular a Cabinet colleague) and officials. Dossiers were prepared in key investigative departments under his watch, which somehow found their way back to his personal cache (now almost entirely kept abroad), with more than a few such dossiers getting permanently removed from the files left behind in North Block. Each of the officials and politicians figuring in such dossiers must be nervous that their own misdemeanours would get outed in revenge by the former minister, were he to be sent to prison. In the process, such activities as the co-location imbroglio at NSE involving several brokers have been, in effect, swept under the rug out of fear of the consequences of action against the perpetrators, most of whom remain in high positions. Hence the passion with which some senior officials are working to avoid such accountability in several UPA-era misdeeds, including the selling of public sector bank NPA at depressed prices to favourites, who later resold the same at a huge profit. Interestingly, almost all such favourites remain so in the present dispensation, which is not surprising, given the Prime Minister’s statesmanlike 2014 decision to trust hardcore UPA-era officers as key components of his own core group. However, such bureaucrats may now be affecting the prospects for a second term of Prime Minister Modi, who is facing flak from his base over the lack of success of his government in bringing to book UPA-era VVIP perpetrators of fraud, including in the matter of IL&FS. Of course, in future the performance of those put in charge of this and other damaged enterprises by North Block will come under scrutiny, given the impossibility of keeping matters under wraps in this era of smartphones and computer codes. In this context, LIC officials claim that they had a workable plan to rescue IL&FS from poor decisions by the management of that troubled entity. However, the “vulture cabal” had its eye on several of the assets of the stricken company, and also wanted control to go to a prominent businessman dabbling in NBFCs. They therefore used their contacts to get the IL&FS board dismissed and a fresh board appointed. The LIC officers believe that asset stripping and transfer of control will soon follow. The “vulture cabal”, according to them, had no hesitation in creating panic in the market through a man-made crisis that could have been avoided if the LIC had its way.
Those insiders beholden to the insider vulture cabal are warning the Prime Minister’s Office of a “market meltdown” and “economic mayhem” that would take effect should leadership elements of this toxic band of profiteers get sent to prison or even chargesheeted. The reverse is actually true. Unless VVIP and VIP wrongdoers get proceeded against with the full rigour of the law, there will be a denouement within three months that could seriously affect the BJP’s chances for retaining power in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Lack of action on the activities of the cabal has resulted in the “October Meltdown” predicted by this paper. Inaction against the cabal during the next 40 days will result in a much more deadly “January Shock” getting delivered to the NDA government.

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