The Mallya tangle
The liquor baron must be swiftly brought to justice. Rahul Gandhi can save his homilies for the Quattrocchis.
New Delhi: The honesty and good intentions of the Narendra Modi government are not suspect. This writer would stake his reputation and say that the Narendra Modi government at the top is the cleanest in decades. In this respect, the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government marks its place at the opposite end of the spectrum. Its reputation as the most corrupt and venal regime since independence is well deserved.
Nevertheless, there is a perception problem with the Modi government which gives the corrupt and dynastic Congress party an occasional advantage. Occasional, to be sure, because the advantage lasts for two or three days at the peak of the news cycle. The National Democratic Alliance usually recovers lost ground putting considerable effort. Why wasn’t a fraction of that effort deployed in time to prevent a distorted narrative from gaining strength? No one knows -- with the possible exception of the Prime Minister.
Take the Vijay Mallya case. Mallya is one of the biggest loan defaulters and should have been jailed months ago. He is not in the class of Ottavio Quattrocchi who left the country and saved embarrassment to the Nehru-Gandhis. There is a malign connection between Quattrocchi and 10 Janpath that is completely absent between Mallya and this government. Rahul Gandhi may have a convenient memory loss on the subject but the rest of the country remembers.
The country has also not forgotten that the biggest loan defaulters were pampered by the previous government. The bulk of loan defaults pertained to the period when a Congress-led government was in power at the Centre. As the Prime Minister of two UPA governments, Manmohan Singh is morally responsible for the defaults. He is an honourable man. He didn’t take a rupee that was not his. But his good name was sullied by the UPA.
All this is known to a degree. The question that remains is this: Why didn’t the Modi government expose the UPA scams as soon as it was sworn in? Why didn’t it, for example, issue a whitepaper on NPAs of banks and lay the blame squarely where it belonged? Why didn’t it go after Mallya at the first opportunity?
This is the rub. Prime Minister Modi is a stickler for protocol and procedure. He will not bend rules. He does not believe in short cuts. The reason he didn’t want to expose bank NPAs to immediate public scrutiny was because of its potential to upset business and investor sentiments. No sooner than Modi was in power, he tracked the UPA scams from the Prime Minister’s Office. Their numbers and scale were unprecedented and shocked him.
Sizing their capacity for damaging his economy recovery programme, he put a lid on their exposure. He would deal with them one at a time. This was reported by this writer weeks after Modi took oath. The rot in public sector banks became known likewise almost as soon as Modi became Prime Minister. The fear of its impact on the market stopped the issuance of a whitepaper.
With Mallya’s arrest, probably procedures and protocol came in the way. He is, like it or not, a member of the Rajya Sabha, the very House that is obstructing critical reforms legislations brought by this government. The Modi government perhaps wanted to cover all the bases before proceeding against him. There is an active precedent. P. Chidambaram’s son is being investigated for dodgy businesses. This is being done in the proper way. It is time consuming. There is no short-circuiting of procedures and protocol. Suppose tomorrow he decides to flee India. Can accusing fingers be pointed at the Modi government? Would it be complicit in his flight? (The parallels to Shashi Tharoor and the Sunanda Pushkar murder investigations are also striking.)
Almost certainly, the government was cautious in the Mallya business, and likely sacrificed promptitude for the purpose. Amends must be made. Caution does not foretoken criminal intent. Mallya must be brought back and punished. He must be made an example for other defaulters. Narendra Modi is a rapid decision-maker. This must be borne out by public actions as well. Finally, India can take all the bad news about the UPA. Nothing is gained by hiding evil.
The Prime Minister spoke of the Congress party as death. He was being polite. This writer would particularize the description to the Nehru-Gandhis. The Congress without the Nehru-Gandhis is still redeemable.
Editor’s Note: Indians appear to have stopped reading quality books. It is reflected in part in the most washed-up pieces that appear in the Op-Ed pages. They are written badly, titled worse, and banal in the greater portion of them. Sociologists masquerading as writers are the ultimate turnoff. Gems that you might still encounter in foreign publications like The Spectator are not to be found here assuming that they were ever there. What accounts for this merciless march of mediocrity? Has television replaced books? Are we doomed by too much news, too many faux celebrities, too little substance, and shabby politics?