Lalit Modi is a law-abiding man. The company law required him to vacate office if he had not attended any of the board meetings in the previous 12 months. Vacate he did, duly late last month. He did not bend the law or try to take advantage of his father’s grip over the company to enable his overstay on the board. Thus, in this limited context, he comes across as law-abiding. Some Indian television channels, going overboard in their bid to take credit for the story they did not break, have been calling Modi names and potraying him as some kind of a criminal, comparing him with underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. This is clearly fit to be called irresponsible journalism. Modi has not killed anybody. He was not smuggling narcotics on the high seas nor was he involved in some kind of organised criminal activity or terrorism. Ironically, according to Modi, he is in London because India can’t catch Ibrahim, who is accused of all these and more. Modi is a third generation businessman with a reputed business group that runs legitimate businesses across various sectors. His grandfather, father, uncles and cousins have built, bought and sold businesses and created legitimate value for themselves and their shareholders. Cricket was only one of Modi’s various interests. However, he came to be known for it because he created and drove the bandwagon called the Indian Premier League (IPL), which changed the face of cricket and much more. Of course, Modi could have been a bit more humble. He could have avoided arriving at cricket grounds on private jets. He could have done it without arms around supermodels and sitting next to politicians. He could have stayed away from Twitter. He could have done it all a bit less stylishly. But he was building a glamorous, money spinning, multi-billion dollar brand of tomorrow. He made use of his own articulate, brash and flamboyant personality. At worst, he did not exercise discretion in exposing a minister whose future wife had acquired some interest in an IPL Team. In the process, he embarrassed the government. Tehelka As a Metaphor, a book by Madhu Trehan, has documented in great detail what happens when somebody embarrasses the government. Shankar Sharma, an investor in Tehelka, had to pay a heavy price as various arms of the government came swooping down to turn him from a celebrated broker investor into a market manipulator, tax evader and money launderer overnight. Sharma had to spend time in jail before things got better. What are the charges against Modi, who was responsible for the resignation of a minister in the last government and may be set to repeat his feat in this one? Some 16 cases are under investigation and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) has issued show-cause notices for 15 of those. What is the ED’s track record? In the past several years that I have been reading about this body, I have not read of any big conviction achieved by it. It has been reduced to a harassment tool, as documented in Trehan’s book, often to settle political scores.
There are always news reports of ED investigating this and ED issuing show-cause notices. But what happens after that? A show-cause is not an indictment. Has any of the big boys gone to jail for their alleged FEMA offences? Let us see the list of people who have faced show-causes or charge-sheets or investigations of ED. The list reads like a who’s who of the business world. Here is a case of ED issuing a show-cause notice to the Adani group. Last July, the High Commission of Singapore, in an RTI response, told Business Standard that cases against some Reliance group entities are still under investigation. Look at this story where the ED issued show-cause notice for a hotel purchase by Sahara at a time when it was about to be sold, four years after the purchase took place: Have politicians and people in power stopped meeting these businessmen, traveling with them or even rendering their professional services for these businessmen? In the Sahara case, which I have followed closely, senior lawyers-turned-ministers across party lines have appeared for, and rendered advice to, the group. Its chief Subrata Roy is in jail but not for an ED-related offence. Where was the outrage then? Another major case during the UPA regime was the ED notice to Emaar MGF. What happened to that? Even some new age e-commerce firms are sitting on ED notices for alleged violations: It is no secret that the ED is now spending sleepless nights to find FEMA violations and money laundering in companies and affairs of people close to the previous regime. Some business groups have already begun facing the heat. The sums involved in each of these cases are much larger than the figures coming out in the saturation-coverage of l’affaire Lalit Modi. There will be naming and shaming. But will anything concrete come of these? I think not. Sometimes, these notices themselves play Cupid between the businessman and the politician, bringing them together in a tango they can’t get out of for life. There are even worse instances of people charged of heinous crimes such as murder being accommodated on the grounds that the proceedings were ‘political vendetta’. And such a big show for some vague ‘white collar offence’? Where is the proportion? The way some miscalculated percentages are blown up on TV screens in outsized fonts, private equity investors in the country, especially those into e-commerce, must be getting a chill down their spine. Because, that is what they do every day – put crores into loss-making companies at XXXXXXXXX% premium. Are they all money launderers? Are they helping some politician? Should we stop dealing with them? To conclude, it is a reality that politicians are in bed with businessmen. They can’t do without each other. It is so the world over. And the Narendra Modi government is doing precious little to change that. And since everyone credits the PM for ‘achche din’, it is only fair that he take the blame for ‘burey’ things happening during these ‘achche din’. The buck stops with him. Picking only on Lalit Modi seems more than unfair. It looks motivated, triggered by some internal score-settling within the ruling party, rather than investigative journalism or an intent to clean up. Lalit Modi was close to some politicians -- like most of our businessmen are. So, he got hounded by some other politicians, who were annoyed by various things including his arrogance. They thought they would teach him a lesson. But, Modi surprised them – again. Don't blame him for that.
(N Sundaresha Subramanian is Senior Assistant Editor and writes on corporates, politics and markets for Business Standard)