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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 14, March 29, 2014

Polluted Politics

Wednesday 2 April 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

The sensational criminal case that has come up in Bombay focussing on an alleged plot to kill Nusli Wadia and implicating in it an Ambani close to Dhirubhai and some of the underworld mafia, has serious political implications which are being lost sight of in the excitement that the case itself has evoked.

There is the danger of complacency in treating it as just the facet of a long-standing civil war between two corporate giants, Reliance under the Ambanis, and Bombay Dyeing under Wadia. Such a complacent approach is not surprising because it is not uncommon in the history of the corporate world that one comes across blackmail and violence right up to the bumping off of people concerned in such a bitter fight. But it will be taking a simplistic view of developments if one were to look at this particular case as just a fight between two business houses.

This is because both these figures have been prominent in the political arena of today—at least their names are not unfamiliar to those who have been watching present-day Indian politics.

During Indira Gandhi’s time Dhirubhai Ambani was known to be close to her establishment, and this was a long-standing affair. Even during her days of exile from power after her defeat in the 1977 general elections, Dhirubhai remained close to her in India as was Swaraj Paul abroad. It is no secret that Ambani went out of his way to help Indira in her 1979-80 election campaign thereby earning the displeasure of the Janata bosses. So when she returned to power in 1980, Dhirubhai Ambani was known to be conspicuous in Indira’s circle, and Pranab Mukherjee and Dhawan were known to be his friends in the establishment at that time. Not only these two, but many other prominent figures in the Indira Congress were beholden to Dhirubhai as he was beholden to them.

During Rajiv’s first phase (1985-86), the Ambanis were put in the shade; and both Pranab and Dhawan were out in the cold. It was a chilling winter for Dhirubhai, stretching over two years. He could find no entry point in Rajiv’s inner circle. This was the period when one could find Rajiv being nice to Nusli Wadia. How affectionate that rapport was could be gathered from Jack Anderson’s television programme, Rajiv’s India, in which both Nusli Wadia and Ramnath Goenka, among others, hailed the new Prime Minister’s regime. And it needs to be noted that this was the very period when Vishwanath Pratap Singh, as a loyal Finance Minister to Rajiv, launched the probe against Reliance, which brought Hershman’s Fairfax agency right into the picture.

Then came a sudden volte-face—away from the public gaze—in this fascinating drama of the government leadership of the country getting enmeshed in corporate politics. A rapprochement between Dhirubhai Ambani and Rajiv Gandhi was brought about. If reports current in those days are to be believed, the Bachchans played the good Samaritan for both sides. And by this arrangement, the Fairfax probe was not only unwanted but became highly embarrassing. Innocent of this new arrangement, V.P. Singh found himself out of court, and that was how the re-entry of Dhirubhai Ambani into the inner circle was the departure point from Rajiv’s Cabinet for Vishwanath Pratap Singh.

Since then everything was going on fine for the Ambanis. The larger-than-life image of his that emerged on the media and in the establish-ment was understandable. Somehow, however, by the very logic of corporate rivalry Bombay Dyeing continued to be an eyesore for the Reliance bosses. This is the background of the case now before the court, and nothing more could be written about it so long it is sub judice. Whether bitter corporate rivalry could at all be the reason for the alleged plot, or, if such a plot to kill was at all there; or, that the whole thing is a fabri-cation—it is for the judges in court to decide.

The political fall-out of the case so far is extremely important. As soon as the Centre intervened and demanded that the investigation be conducted by the CBI and not by the Maharashtra Government intelligence, public reaction has been revealing. Particularly the presence of CBI chief Katre has sharpened this reaction—as Katre has earned, most deservingly, the reputation of being a pliant helpful official at the beck and call of the Prime Minister and his circle, witness his performance in the Bofors probe, among other assignments.

Briefly, there is resentment in many circles in Maharashtra—as much inside the Pradesh Congress as in the Opposition—that the CBI should at all be sent to take over the case.

Because, the senior officers in the Maharashtra Government who had conducted the investi-gation are known to enjoy a high reputation for probity. Hence, the CBI’s presence is taken as a Central intervention through an agency of dubious integrity.

On the other hand, there is genuine resentment in the Ambani camp. One cannot dismiss lightly the claim that the Dhirubhai lobby includes as many as seven Secretaries at the Centre—and that too when both the State Government and the Central Government belong to the same ruling party. Here too is an eloquent commentary on Rajiv Gandhi’s claim that his Congress alone can keep the unity of the country. Here indeed is a case of political leadership faced with a dilemma of having to pay the price for having got directly involved in the welfare of one house or the other in the corporate sector. The political price for entering into entente with Reliance two years ago, is now being demanded of Rajiv Gandhi. In the bargain he faces the prospect of getting the image of a faithful Ambani backer. Not a very flattering image in an election year.

The wages of rubbing shoulders with the gamblers of Big Money. The Day of the Jackal, indeed.

(Mainstream, August 12, 1989)