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Protesting too much?

The more overtly virtuous the company, the greater the reason for investors to be wary of it

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Kanika Datta

After Independence, our country has not yet been able to recover from the problem of unemployment. Even today, 60% of the people are leading their lives below the line of poverty.…Unfortunately, even today, not more than 30% of the nation's population has access to potable water, millions remain homeless and electricity has not reached the remote corners of the country, particularly in the rural areas that, after sunset, continue to remain in darkness day after day. This has become a menace to the country's economic growth. Only our bonding to save the community can help the country to recover from this situation.

If the somewhat nauseating prose from the abstract above suggests a bleeding heart NGO, think again. This is part of a message from Sudipta Sen, chairman and managing director of the Saradha Group of Companies and now in the dock for basically cheating thousands of mostly small savers via a Ponzi scheme (which is probably why the message is accompanied by a picture of an empty chair).

Obviously, an aggrieved Sen, the quintessential post-liberalisation arriviste businessman, wants to make the point that his intentions were really all to the good. How could they not be, since he claims some sort of special connection with Sarada Devi, the disciple of Ramakrishna, renowned for her unrelenting virtue.

So we can assume that a statement like "bonding to save the community" - which we now know is wildly inaccurate, especially in the light of serial Saradha-related suicides - was crafted without any latent sense of irony. Incredibly, Sen even claims to "give priority to moral values" later in the message, though he has not cared to explain how he or his group defines the term nor why so many people, among them the poor Saradha professes to help, have lost their life's savings after investing in their dodgy schemes.

This muscular declaration of virtue by a company is starkly reminiscent of another company in the thick of a collective-fund controversy - though this one appears to be curiously victimless - with the Securities and Exchange Board of India: Sahara. Ever since the controversy erupted, Sahara, no stranger to controversy in the past, has not hesitated to flood the ad-starved newspaper industry with full-page claims to innocence.

In between the thickets of ungrammatical eloquence, invocations of vande mataram and exhortations to everyone to sing Jana, Gana, Mana is some sort of explanation of what the group has done with the Rs 24,000 crore that Sebi accuses it of raising without permission. Sahara, too, has resorted to celebrating a link to a mystic woman - in this case the amorphous goddess Bharat Mata, pictured in the ad as a cross between Durga and Rani of Jhansi.

There is a curious tendency among a certain kind of company to lay claim to the moral high ground, either through high-pitched exhortations of patriotism or virtue or religiosity or all of the above. Variations of this can be had in the form of mottos like "Serving the Nation" or "Building India", both current favourites among the new generation of realtors that has mushroomed in an industry that is revelling in the absence of a smidgeon of regulation.

That's one kind of credentialing. The other is in the names promoters might choose for their companies. Sahara, for instance, means "support". The flamboyant promoter Subroto Roy likes to refer to a "pariwar" (family) that, one of the group websites claims, set a Guiness Book of World Records of "Most people singing a National Anthem simultaneously in one location" (121,653 people in this case). We can assume that this impressive display of patriotism is intended to send a message.

Then there was Global Trust Bank, an ironic name if there ever was one, a new-generation private sector bank that went bust in the early noughties on the back of heavy lending to stock market operator Ketan Parekh. And who can forget Satyam, a poster boy of India's IT revolution, whose promoter turned out to be so consistently untruthful that he eventually had to confess to a $1.47-billion accounting fraud.

If there's a message in all of this it's that the more overtly virtuous the company, the greater the reason for investors in particular and stake-holders in general to be wary of them. Shorn of all the impressively worded mission and value statements, the business of business is to make profit first and foremost, and it is only a naïve or cynical businessman who claims to believe otherwise.

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First Published: Wed, May 08 2013. 21:48 IST