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21 February 2015

Who Is Surprised By Corporate Espionage?

This has been happening for donkey’s decades, with many dubious incidents having unfolded before journalists of the present generation. What is reassuring, the NDA government has antecedents to inspire this confidence among the people that it will not spare anybody who is guilty.

After serving for a few months on the Science & Technology beat, I was given the Petroleum Ministry and Ministry for Telecommunications additionally by the then Statesman bureau head. Till then — and even till this day — I have had friendly relationships with my colleagues in that office. However, for about a month following the expansion of my portfolio, the correspondent who was previously working on petroleum and telecommunication beats sulked and spread canards about me in the office. In turn, colleagues close to me spread the conspiracy theory around that the journalist was upset with me because I had snatched his ‘plum’ posting away.

I have no proof of his indulgence in unscrupulous parleys with the industry. What I do know, he is profoundly knowledgeable about the petroleum sector in particular, but his published stories (reports) never reflect the knowledge that he shared with me during our informal chats. I can also seize the opportunity to complain that a damning article I had filed against Anil Ambani’s apparent nexus with then Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran — who had helped the industrialist’s Reliance Infocomm get away with pittance as penalty for passing off International Subscribers’ Dialling calls as local calls — never saw the light of the day [The Ambani brothers had not parted ways till then, and this business was with the younger brother at the time of my filing the article; now Reliance Communications Limited is under Anil Ambani while Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited is a subsidiary of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited].

For days on end, I was told that the piece would be published on a “lean” day when the newspaper had no other “scoop” to print. That day never came. After I resigned from that media house for an unrelated development — the office had moved from the posh Statesman building in central Delhi to a decrepit warehouse in Noida from where commuting in the peak traffic hours in the evening and being able to file stories in time was near impossible — I passed on the information I had gathered to journalists working in media houses not in awe of the Ambanis. Thanks to the story being published in various forms in different newspapers and magazines in 2005, the story of cronyism mentioned above is now common knowledge.

Do they fish in troubled waters or are plain unlucky to turn into usual suspects every time?
In that course of a few months, an unhealthy aspect of journalist-industry nexus unfolded before me through Press Club gossips. I was told several journalists in the petroleum beat were on the payroll of Mukesh Ambani. There were rumours that a news channel had commissioned a journalist to carry out a sting operation on the industrialist’s Jamnagar facility. The journalist went into the refinery disguised as a truck driver and came out with sensational recording of adulteration, the gossiping journalists said. The owner of the channel refused to play the tapes for some days and then suddenly sacked the journalist, they said. The poor scribe was refused a job by all media houses thereafter for about a decade, a former colleague alleged.

Given this backdrop that the whole media is aware of, the story of former journalist Shantanu Saikia’s arrest for alleged involvement in the corporate espionage scandal comes as no surprise to the journalistic fraternity. It may but be disgusting for the lay people for whom the fourth estate has long lost all credibility. The disconcerting aspect for ethical scribes is that even their reports and articles, filed with due diligence and utmost honesty, will be taken with a pinch of salt.

But this is beyond journalists, whose position is not much different from actors of the tinsel town who receive extortionist calls from the ‘D Company’ based in Karachi and Dubai and spread across the country in general and rooted in Mumbai’s film industry in particular. You can speak openly against the big indigenous companies — ranting against the Coca Cola Company or Monsanto is easy; it does not cost you your job — only if you are in a media house inimical to those businessmen, a newspaper office with a strong legal cell that can stand by your story, or a media office that is funded by rival companies. Or, you have to be a comic book hero detached from family with no fear for life, or Prashant Bhushan whose diatribes against the Ambanis was one of the prime attractions of Indian against Corruption and the Aam Aadmi Party for this journalist (me) who had, for some years, turned into an activist.

Even the chief editors are helpless. In an interaction with fresh graduates from a school of journalism about a decade ago, the editor of one of the two well-read monthlies — they are both weeklies now — boasted how his magazine never dithered from publishing anti-Coke stories (for groundwater contamination). A fresher asked why he was not as brave in exposing Indian companies. “Mujhe apni dukān band karwāni hai kyā? (You want the magazine to shut shop?)” the editor quipped.

That is not to say that no foreigner could be guilty in the espionage case. They could be much bigger than Reliance who were after the leaked information. India imports about 80 per cent of the fuel it consumes. If an international supplier comes to know that a particular state-run refinery is about to purchase a certain grade of crude oil before others in the trade, the information is worth billions of dollars.

Is one or more of the world's 10 largest petrochemical companies involved in the espionage?
Elsewhere, equipped with this leaked information on how much subsidy is to be paid to state refiners for sale of some fuels below market rates, and how much ONGC will have to contribute, stock market operators can anticipate share price movement and earn easy money.

I said this was beyond journalists because Saikia, who runs an energy portal named indianpetro.com, and his accomplice Prayas Jain, who runs an oil and gas firm based in Delhi and Melbourne, are mere go-betweens. If they were selling insider information to petro bigwigs, the latter must first have approached them with both monetary allurements and threat to life. For, in an industry that employs thousands of executives, the officials who strike unscrupulous deals on behalf of their bosses are difficult to detect while business journalists mostly talk to CEOs and corporate communication heads, neither of whom is likely to take chances with the media.

If Lalta Prasad, Rakesh Kumar (both temporary government employees assisted by Asharam and Ishwar Singh) and Raj Kumar Chaubey were involved in procuring, obtaining and stealing official documents by trespassing into the offices of Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas at Shastri Bhawan, New Delhi, Shailesh Saxena from Reliance Industries Limited, Vinay Kumar from Essar, KK Naik from Cairns, Subhash Chandra from Jubilant Energy and Rishi Anand from ADAG Reliance must have approached them. And why would these low ranking private sector executives, holding designations no higher than managers, take the risk of violating law unless they had been prompted by the owners of these companies?

Saxena is manager, corporate affairs, RIL; Chandra is senior executive, Jubilant Energy; Anand is deputy general manager, Reliance ADAG; Vinay is that of Essar and Naik is general manager, Cairns India. In the rat race for money and better lifestyle, a middle class executive may make false promises to the companies’ clients at the most; he does not barge into the private corridors of the state unless paid extra for the unlawful job. The obvious question is: When will the law catch up with the big fish?

The current dispensation can. First, the infamy of Pramod Mahajan notwithstanding, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government did not oblige the filthy rich businessmen to the extent promised to them after the Bharatiya Janata Party accepted money from them for its campaign before 1998, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s top-ranking volunteers who are now in the party inform me. A famous former pracharak, who had fallen out of favour of Vajpayee and who the media now looks up to for regular anti-BJP sound-bytes, had revealed in the course of a roundtable I had attended on 9 October 2011 that this was the way to manage money for activism: Promise the businessmen favours when in opposition; break the promise when in government! No matter how dangerous a private company is, it cannot be more powerful than the government of the day, the party strategists reckon. That is how the BJP had dealt with the Ambanis in the period 1998-2004, the former pracharak told us.

After losing power in the 2004 election, a much weaker BJP in the opposition could ward off some allegedly sponsored attacks on its leadership. Any sensible person can tell that LK Advani’s relationship with his estranged daughter-in-law is not a matter of national interest. Then why was the issue raised in Parliament? Will then Railways Minister Lalu Prasad and his Rashtriya Janata Dal come clean on the affair? Importantly, Lalu Prasad was not speaking about Gauri’s deposition before the Liberhan Commission of Inquiry, which, involving the Babri Masjid demolition, was a matter of public interest. Bihar’s former Chief Minister thought the Lower House would be interested in what was happening inside the Advani household!

Cut to the present: Narendra Modi’s Gujarat government was not found guilty by the courts for favouring some of the industries named above, as was alleged by the then Comproller and Auditor General. A PIL was filed in the High Court of Gujarat in 2013 based on the CAG report that questioned the allotment. The court rejected the PIL and refused to interfere in the matter. The petitioner appealed to the Supreme Court, which rejected the PIL, too [original orders of the High Court of Gujarat, PIL No. 97 of 2013 order 8 October 23013, and The Supreme Court of India in SLP (C) No. 32507 of 2013, order 22 November 2013]. The apex court held that the decision taken by the state government was “transparent” and that “non-floating of tenders or absence of public auction or invitation alone is not sufficient reason to characterise the auction of a public authority as either arbitrary or unreasonable or amounted to mala fide (sic) or improper exercise of power.”

Further, the AAP’s assertion that the Gujarat government supplied coal to Gautam Adani’s company was found false. Adani Power as well as Tata Power fought against the state government for not providing coal blocks, yet supplying power at cheap rates.

As for the latest developments, the Intelligence Bureau that reports to the Union Home Ministry had been monitoring the whereabouts of some government employees for some time. If the NDA government were to be complicit in the crime, this tip off to the agency by the very government would be unthinkable. And the allegation of government-industry connivance made by the opposition is even less impressive because it is this government that told us such fishy activities had been happening in its premises since the time of the reign of the United Progressive Alliance.

Finally, with a barrage of raids on premises of the companies found prima facie guilty in the corporate espionage case, this government is rubbing in the fact that its rivals’ allegation of Modi’s “crony capitalism” is politically motivated. Delegates at the meeting of Dr Jayaprakash Narayan’s Foundation for Democratic Reforms — all of them liberal economists and some of them now working with the government — that I attended on 1 November 2014 shared with others that Modi is, in fact, desperate to shed his pro-business image and refuses to differentiate between the pro-business and pro-market concepts.

Whereas that is a matter of concern for liberals like us, the Prime Minister only has to sound the final death knell for socialist rumour mongers: Catch the players, not the pawns.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.