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A Feast Of Vultures

A Feast Of Vultures

My father was in the motor business. We had at one time two buses and a truck. Every month a certain gentleman would visit us. He was the one who deposited tax on our behalf in the state treasury at Kollam. It was his job to liaise with all the government functionaries and see to it that our vehicles had the requisite permits and the licences of our conductors and drivers were renewed on time.

I was too young to know that he was a middleman. We were just one of his clients. Over the years, he himself became a bus owner. He had a son who was my classmate at Sunday School. When he grew up, he fell in love with the daughter of a famous person in the town but her father refused to give her in marriage to him. It disheartened him so much that he jumped before a running train. His father was devastated by the suicide and he did not live long afterwards. By then his motor business was in a shambles. He was the first middleman that I knew. As my father would vouchsafe, he was a honest middleman. I knew another gentleman at Kayamkulam. He managed to live as an errand boy. Today he has shifted base to Kochi, the emerald of Kerala.

He lives in style. He has a big car to move about and a big house to live in. He enjoys entertaining his old acquaintances from Kayamkulam in the best restaurants in the city. Nobody knows how he earned his crores but everybody knows that he was close to a minister in the Oommen Chandy government who is now under the Vigilance radar. People say he is a "benami" of the former minister. Whatever be the truth, it was his political connections that enabled him to become a rich man with no recognised sources of income. In Josy Joseph's book A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India (HarperCollins) we come across several such characters who became billionaires because they saw business in politics.

Small wonder that while there was only one person who declared his profession as politics in the first Lok Sabha, almost a quarter of today's MPs have politics as their only profession. They find it far more lucrative than any other profession. In the 1969 novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo, which was about the rise and fall of a Mafia family, the epigraph chosen by the author was a quotation attributed to Balzac, "Behind every great fortune there is a crime".

Joseph is an award-winning journalist who has a ringside view of the drama called democracy. He has unearthed many scams like the Adarsh Apartment scam, the Naval War Room Leak Case and the 2G Spectrum allocation scam. Not all journalists are above temptation. I know some who started their career a little later than I did and today they have farm houses in Delhi and vacation homes in London while I keep checking whether remunerations for the articles I write have been credited to my account.

The author describes an occasion when a corporate head tried to influence him: "He scanned the surrounding tables, and sweat trickling down his forehead, whispered: 'The boss wanted me to tell you that he can take care of whatever your needs are -- car, house, whatever'. I let the silence build, then point to a sprawling colonial bungalow across the road. 'Do you mean one of those houses?' Back on familiar ground, he responded: 'Don't underestimate my boss. He can take care of anything".

Unlike many journalists who take political sides, Joseph does not see corruption only when it is committed by persons belonging to a particular party. In other words, he does not discriminate between corruption by the Congress and corruption by the BJP. When Joseph begins his book by providing a pen-portrait of Abhay Narain Rai, a busybody whom he calls 'Mr Fix-it down the Street', it reminds us of many such characters we come across in our daily life. I was once the Secretary of a society that ran a school. It did not have recognition. We complied with all the statutory obligations to get recognition. We met all the officials concerned but nothing worked. Then we engaged a Mr Fix-it as a consultant and he brought the certificate of recognition. In India money works better than anything else.

One may wonder where else in the world would a person with just typing skills reach positions of authority as in India? MO Mathai in his autobiography that did not contain a chapter entitled "She" that was supposedly written in the style of Lady Chatterly's Lover gives the impression that he ruled the nation and Jawaharlal Nehru just signed the letters he wrote and typed. At one time Cabinet ministers queued up before Mathai to seek an appointment with the PM but when he died in Chennai, his cortège consisted of a large group of less than a dozen people. "He was the scum of the earth". That is how one of his nephews who is my friend described the "man who ruled India".

R.K. Dhawan who witnessed his boss Indira Gandhi being gunned down by her security guards began his career as a typist but eventually became a member of the Congress Working Committee where Gandhi, Nehru, Bose and Patel sat and discussed India's present and future. Vincent George came to Delhi looking for a job. His proximity to Rajiv Gandhi and his widow made him one of the most powerful persons in the Capital. Joseph lists the properties worth crores and crores of rupees that he owns today.

Ajay Singh was the personal assistant of a BJP minister in Delhi. When the party lost power, he hitched his wagon to BJP's rising star Pramod Mahajan who was eventually killed by his own brother for alleged illicit relations. Today he owns SpiceJet, an airline. Not all private secretaries are so lucky. Shashi Nath Jha, private secretary to JMM chief Shibu Soren, disappeared mysteriously. After much effort the remains of his body were exhumed from a village near Ranchi.

Arms and the Man is a 20th century play by George Bernard Shaw that mocks at war. It is also a frivolous bedroom farce, about a Swiss mercenary barging into the Bulgarian boudoir of a dizzy young debutante. In the chapter headlined Arms and the Middleman, Joseph explains in vivid detail the roles shadowy figures like the Nanda family and the Chaudhries have played in some of the defence scams. India is expected to buy defence goods worth Rs 6,70,000 crore this decade. The commission that can be earned on this @15 per cent is a whopping Rs 1,00,500 crore! Who would want to forsake it? Not the BJP, not the Congress. See how quickly Reliance has entered into a tie-up with the Israeli company Rafael and the French manufacturer of Rafale fighter aircraft to grab a share of this budget.

Mauritius often figures in the book as the place through which ill-gotten money is ploughed back into India. Once while accompanying Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on a visit to this small nation in Africa, we were taken to an upmarket restaurant. An Indian Embassy official showed me small cubicles that serve as addresses of companies which invest hundreds of crores of rupees in India. The next day when the Prime Minister announced some financial grants at a Press conference, I asked him why India should give money to Mauritius when Mauritius was one of the largest foreign direct investors in India. I am sure the economist Prime Minister would have understood my question but he preferred circumlocution and waxed eloquent on India's cultural links with Mauritius.

"Ironically, the biggest black money case that has come up before the SIT is that of the Adani group, promoted by Gautam Adani, one of Modi's closest associates. It is in his chartered aircraft that the soon-to-be prime minister zipped around India, accusing the incumbent government of not fighting corruption. The Adani group allegedly took out over Rs 5000 crore to tax havens".

Who benefited the most from Modi's rule so far? The moment he was sworn in, Adani's stock market value tripled. He has not looked back since then. Modi may not take Sushma Swaraj or any journalist with him on his foreign jaunts but Adani has a reserved seat in his plane. One such high-flier was Thakiyuddin Abdul Wahid, who started East West Airlines. I still remember a midnight flight I took in Air-India, when it had a hyphen in its name, to reach Mumbai and take an East West flight to Kochi the next morning to attend the funeral of a relative.

Wahid ruled the skies till he was gunned down by mysterious hands. Joseph has done considerable research to conclude that there is more than meets the eye in the rise and fall of the Malayali entrepreneur whose biggest failure was that he did not cultivate any party other than the Congress and any leader other than Rajiv Gandhi. He has come up with enough evidence to suggest that the dark hands of a fly-by-night operator who has been ruling the Indian skies from London are behind his murder. Alas, the Indian state does not have the necessary will to bring him to book.

Naresh Goyal of JetAirways had a meteoric rise in life like Wahid. He had the ruthlessness of planting a Damodaran in the upper echelons of East West to guide Wahid from one blunder to another. Despite all the evidences of his alleged links with the underworld, he had little problem in getting clearances for his pet projects. Not even the "man of steel" LK Advani as Home Minister could do a thing against him despite the intelligence agencies under him reporting about his dalliances with the underworld. Today he stays in London insulated from the Indian laws.

On the land where Wahid wanted to build a house stands the 6,000-square feet, three-storied house of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. Joseph narrates how successive civil aviation ministers did everything possible to scuttle the growth of Air India and help operators like Goyal. Joseph highlights a new phenomenon in Indian politics -- businessmen becoming MPs and using the status to promote their business. VIjay Mallya who owes billions of rupees to a consortium of Indian banks left the country on the strength of his diplomatic passport he obtained by virtue of being a Rajya Sabha member. Nobody bothers about the conflict of interest of such members.

In his private capacity, Arun Jaitley gave his legal opinion to the Tata group. "In that opinion, he harshly criticised the UPA government's move to levy a higher royalty from the Tatas for extracting coal". When coal allocations became a scandal, he was the loudest in attacking the government. Of course, his private opinion did not find its way into the media. His colleague Ravi Shankar Prasad is another who sells his opinion as a lawyer and takes a contrarian stand as a minister. Abhishek Singhvi of the Congress also does the same.

Once the company Vedanta approached Pratichi (India) Trust of which I was Director with a proposal. It would provide free cooked meal to the students of the Pratichi School in Odisha. We refused the offer and continued to provide mid-day meals at our own cost. When I read about Vedanta owner Anil Agarwal's visit to his alma mater at Patna and his broken promises, I realised how our children would have ended up getting nothing from Vedanta.

I remember Raigarh in Chhattisgarh as the place where I once paid Rs 10 to its erstwhile ruler who was in a penurious condition when he stretched his hands to me soon after I took a picture of his palace. It is here that Navin Jindal's family made their billions by extracting mineral resource in wanton disregard of all ecological considerations. Yet, he wears his patriotism on his sleeves by erecting large national flags as at Rajiv Chowk in Delhi.

A House for Mr Biswas is the title of VS Naipaul's book. In the chapter A House for Mr Ambani, Joseph narrates the story of the 300,000-sq feet house where Mukesh Ambani, his wife and three children live. Called Antilla, it has "only 27 floors because of the extra-high ceilings; in a standard construction, it would have had 60 floors". What many do not know is that the building is situated on a waqaf land where an orphanage once functioned. It was obtained through deceit.

Recently, Ambani had the guts to use Modi's picture in a company advertisement. That was when many had the doubt whether the Indian state had become India Incorporated led by the likes of Ambani and Adani. Joseph's book may make the reader desolate but what else can be expected when the author seeks to give a mirror image of the nation? The book reminds me of three things that cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at

(Published on 10th October 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 41)#