The Sebi chairman talks about his love for Ghalib and Sahir Ludhianvi and why serious market offenders should not be allowed to get away easily - all in the same breath
It’s not often that you have the privilege of the capital markets regulator reciting the works of Sahir Ludhianvi and Ghalib. But that’s what we witness for a major part of our lunch with Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) Chairman U K Sinha, write Shyamal Majumdar and Rajesh Bhayani.
We are at Masala Bay at the Taj Lands End in Mumbai and the corner table space is soon converted into a cabin with the help of makeshift partition. This wasn’t a surprise; the steward had informed us that this particular table is usually reserved for VVIPs and ordinary mortals can reserve it, provided the bill is a minimum Rs 20,000 (thankfully, there’s a waiver on the minimum for us on account of our guest).
Unlike us, our VVIP guest seems used to such attention since he hardly notices the indulgence. But the privacy is welcome if only to offer us a glimpse of the market regulator’s life beyond what he calls his “9 to 9” daily schedule. For example, he recites almost flawlessly Ludhianvi’s famous piece of work Taj Mahal, which had prompted many of the poet’s admirers to look at the monument of love in a not-so-flattering light.
Market players may or may not agree with this, but we found Sinha to be hugely considerate. Sensing that our knowledge of Urdu isn’t adequate, the Sebi chairman pauses regularly to give us an English translation. What we could figure out is this: the Taj Mahal is nothing but an emperor’s show of wealth and a cruel joke on the artisans who lived and died unknown, with no one burning even a taper on their lowly graves. Ludhianvi is, thus, repeatedly asking his beloved to meet him anywhere else but at the Taj.
Sinha says the poems, which are a part of the progressive literature on which he grew up, help transport him to a “different world”. He has equipped himself well to occupy this different world: over 500 CDs of Hindustani classical music and folk songs, featuring artistes like Shobha Gurtu, Begum Akhtar, Kishori Amonkar and so on; and a Bose 5.1 system that keeps him company for over an hour after he goes home late at night.
The entire Sinha family seems to share the same enthusiasm. Whenever there is a family get-together (his wife, an educationist with the World Bank, is posted in Delhi, while his older son, an engineer, is based in New York, and the younger son, a lawyer, is in London), conversation invariably veers towards the world of thumri, purvi and kajri.
Sinha orders lassi and a “vegetable sampler”, which turns out to be an assortment of fried vegetables. For the main course, it’s the mundane vegetable thali of the day, with phulka rotis. He is otherwise a “pucca Bihari non-vegetarian”, but turns vegetarian for a few months every year just to “clean up the system”. We decide to go along with him to clean up our systems for one day.
The ordering process proves a minor distraction, as Sinha resumes his journey to his “different world”. Ghalib’s poems have been an abiding inspiration. The lassi lies untouched as Sinha recites another nazm, which, he says, sums up his approach to life. The opening para goes like this: “Na tha kuchch to khuda tha, kuchch na hota to khuda hota; duboya mujhko hone ne, na hota main to kya hota” (When there was nothing, God was there, if there was nothing, God would have been there; my existence has brought me where I am. If I would not have been there, it would not have mattered).
Sinha says he recited the verse while addressing Sebi’s employees for the first time and wanted to convey the importance of learning humility. “While all of us have an important role to play, it’s critical not to take ourselves so seriously,” Sinha says. We notice he hasn’t done full justice to the excellent samplers.
That’s understandable since by then he has quickly shifted to another of his favourites — the rendition of Ram kewat katha by Pandit Chhannulal Mishra. It turns out to be a riveting account of Ram’s conversation with a boatman when he is crossing the Ganges during his exile.
The main course arrives, giving us an excuse to move away from the “different world”. All his decisions as Sebi chairman, Sinha says, have been prompted by his inclination to put himself in the shoes of the common man who has almost stopped believing that he would get his due from the country’s public institutions. “I want the common man to willingly suspend his disbelief when it comes to Sebi. It’s a difficult job, but doable,” Sinha says.
The iron hand in kid’s glove is, however, visible when he cites the example of the recent changes in the consent order process. The new norms say serious offences such as insider trading or front-running can’t be part of any consent process. “Imagine a murderer getting away just by paying money without even acknowledging that he has committed a crime,” he says. To our suggestion that the decision will pit him against some of the country’s most powerful corporate groups (including Reliance Industries against whom an insider trading case is pending), Sinha declined to discuss specific cases.
He is also immensely proud of two more decisions — the long-pending Takeover Code that was cleared within four months of his taking charge, and the acceptance of the Bimal Jalan Committee Report on a framework governing market infrastructure institutions. The report had become hugely controversial and opinion on its merits was polarised. He met Jalan several times to understand the logic of some of his recommendations. For example, the proposal of a cap on the profits of stock exchanges was difficult to accept. “In fact, it would have been better to nationalise the stock exchanges than to accept this proposal,” he says.
For a former civil servant who acquired the reputation of the government’s troubleshooter on many occasions, working with politicians must have been a frustrating experience at times, we ask. The 60-year-old Sinha, a 1976-batch IAS officer, pauses for a while and says his experience has been simple: “Politicians will extract as much as you are willing to submit. If somebody is competent and wants to do his job with integrity, nobody messes around with him beyond a point, provided you don’t humiliate or offend anybody.” Example: at the beginning of his career, he worked as the District Magistrate of Patna for three years, which saw four chief ministers — all of whom liked him. More recently, he has worked with four finance ministers — Yashwant Sinha, Jaswant Singh, P Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee.
“The finance ministry has a role to play as far as the capital market is concerned. After all, they are answerable to Parliament if something major happens in the markets. So that’s fine. The problem would be if there is interference in the day-to-day functioning,” Sinha says, without offering details.
We ask why he didn’t get the Sebi chairman’s job five years earlier. Sinha says he was on top of the list of two names that the Cabinet secretary had sent to the higher-ups. “Neither of us got the job, but I never questioned the decision since I believe it is not my birthright to get any government position,” Sinha says, with a smile.
He skips dessert because he has a meeting to attend shortly, and says his main task now is to create a conducive infrastructure for more participation of small investors. The fate of mutual funds remains a concern and he remembers his meeting (he was then the head of UTI Mutual Fund and the Association of Mutual Funds) with his predecessor to convince him against the move to ban entry loads within four weeks. The UK, he said, came out with a draft report around the same time, but it has still not implemented it. His predecessor didn’t listen to him, but Sinha dismisses all speculation about lifting the entry load ban three years after the decision has been taken. The alternatives include tax breaks, including mutual funds under the Rajiv Gandhi Equity Scheme, but he is clear about one thing: there is hardly any place for as many as 44 mutual funds.
Before getting into his white Honda car, Sinha says after his 9 to 9 routine is over, he is looking forward to being trained to understand the nuances of instrumental music. For the moment, though, the Sebi chairman will possibly get 10 minutes of listening to Ghalib before he gets into his next meeting.