The south-westerlies hit the Kerala coast in June, but it’s only about a fortnight later that Delhiites begin to spot dark clouds furtively signing autographs over India Gate. Monsoon 2016 is still en route, but Lutyens’ Delhi—the central part of the capital that is scorned by those who can’t fathom or stand its intrigues—is already in the throes of a storm whipped up by the ‘Essar tapes’. So far, there has been plenty of thunder and lightning, but very little rain; but nearly everyone’s ducking and there’s plenty of perspiration.
A week after the website ‘India Samvad’—followed by Outlook and The Indian Express—showed how assorted artistes in the executive, legislature, judiciary and bureaucracy were dancing to the ringtones of the corporate world, the Narendra Modi government has moved below mandatory speed limits to get to the bottom of it. This despite India Today TV channel calling it “Bigger than Radia Tapes”. This despite Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan tweeting: “Essar tapes is the biggest expose of corporate/political corruption.”
On social media, though, a medium his government trusts, commentators let fly:
- @Petterfitter: “First impression: Radia Tapes are barely a drop in the ocean compared to this stuff”
- @manishtewari: “Selective deafness of sections of #corporate media underscores TRAI recommendations on media cross holdings”
- @canarytrap: “If Radia Tapes made you think Republic was put on sale, Essar Tapes will tell you the sale was on even before that”
- @thesuniljain: “...best not to speak on the phone any more, if you have to, choose telco carefully!”
For a while, it looked like the NDA government would not drag its feet on an expose that actually showed the previous one of Atal Behari Vajpayee in less than glowing light, what with the names of Brajesh Mishra, Pramod Mahajan and Ranjan Bhattacharya dotting it. The day after the tapes leaked, some TV channels reported that the prime minister’s office (PMO) had directed the home ministry to submit a report. Twelve hours later, TV channels opposed to them were denying it, only to be contradicted a day later.
Current state of play: the MHA is seeking “legal opinion” before it acts. Constitutional expert P.P. Rao told Outlook: “The executive is seeking legal opinion from the attorney-general. The court may therefore wait for the government’s response before taking a decision. Therefore, at this stage it may be premature for the courts to intervene.”
Given Modi’s “na khaoonga na khane doonga” claim, it appeared he would pounce on the tapes, if only to further burnish his anti-corruption credentials. After all, Suren Uppal, the lawyer who claimed he was representing former Essar security and intelligence head Albasit Khan, had sent details of the tapes to the PM first. But the wheels of government, this or any other, move in mysterious ways. So, while a journalist can instantly find himself detained, interrogated and arrested for a report not to the regime’s liking, the Essar tapes unspooled achingly slowly.
One reason is that the voices on the tapes have not been heard yet, unlike in the Niira Radia tapes, which were available the day Outlook broke the story in 2010. Transcripts of various conversations have been published, but Uppal has played it safe in parting with the audios, after whistleblower Khan claimed the tapes he gave the lawyer had been handed over by slain Mumbai crime branch encounter specialist Vijay Salaskar, a claim denied by Mumbai police.
The second reason is, no one knows what the tapes, if they exist, contain. Modi received transcripts of 20-odd conversations, but there are said to be over 200 of them, some of them involving serving ministers and bureaucrats. So few want to venture a stand without ascertaining if they are safely out of its ambit.
Third, beyond appearing on TV debates, lawyer Uppal did little to move the legal needle for a week before filing a PIL in Delhi High Court asking for a CBI probe or a court-monitored SIT. He now says a PIL had been filed in 2014 in the SC against Essar as well as Albasit Khan by the International Civil Enforcement Group for Anti-Terror Ethics, a Delhi-based NGO. It was dismissed on technical grounds, but those petitioners, too, had claimed to have had tapes. Surprisingly, they didn’t rectify the PIL and file a case afresh.
Fourth, in the Niira Radia tapes, action was quick to come as the Tatas approached the court immediately with a breach of privacy case. In this case, although both have issued denials, neither Essar nor Reliance have approached the police or the courts. Essar has categorically stated it has nothing to do with the recordings; RIL, however, has said it was a ‘victim’ of illegal tapping but even before hearing the tapes, it has declared they have been ‘doctored’.
It is easy to see why the two corporate bodies have rushed in to cover their flanks. Because the illegality of the tapping apart, which basically boils down to the source of the tapping, the contents of the tapes are damning and indicate criminal conspiracies, regardless of who did it:
- Manipulation of a murder trial to shield an influential central minister
- Talk of a Rs 2 crore bribe to a judge
- Managing a joint parliamentary committee to evade adverse remarks
- Corporate-sponsored lobbying to help a union minister retain his portfolio
- Ensuring the disappearance of a file from a ministry to reap in a windfall
- Funding of political parties by corporates to prop up dummy candidates
- Ensuring that a plea before the SC is dismissed at the admission stage
- Conversation with bankers on restructuring loans on favourable terms
Opinion on what the government and other agencies can do at this point is divided. While both Congress and AAP have demanded that the tapes be released in the public domain, it is unlikely, given the involvement of several bureaucrats and politicians in key positions. Rajiv Mehrishi, the current Union home secretary, was then a joint secretary in the department of corporate affairs. And while his talk with RIL executives, and Anil Ambani in particular, are not yet outed, he was not available to discuss the government’s response.
Similarly, Mumbai municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta, who was then personal secretary to telecom minister Pramod Mahajan, is frequently mentioned in the tapped conversations. In his letter to Modi, Uppal, who with his two assistants and Khan claims to have transcribed the conversations, alleges that in a conversation between Mukesh Ambani and Shankar Adwal, a reference is made to how Reliance Infocomm could save Rs 1,300 crore in cellular operator licence fees by removing the concerned file from the TEC, and that this was done in connivance with telecom officials Ajoy Mehta and Ajay Singh.
Legal experts say the police can file an FIR on its own, without waiting for a complaint or instruction, and check the authenticity of the tapes. The police, in fact, need to pick up at random four or five of the tapes and send them to forensic labs. Only if the authenticity of the tapes are established will the question arise whether the conversations hint at criminal conspiracies and criminal offences. This is to be followed by booking the culprits and then their trial.
Top home ministry officials told Outlook: “We see the Essar tapes as a simple violation of the law. Phone-tapping without authorisation is a crime and the matter should be referred to the state police.” As things stand, only about 20-odd agencies, including the CBI, IB, RAW, ED, NTRO, DRI, NCB, IT and police can listen in, with the permission of the home secretary. However, corporate investigators in Mumbai say prosecution and conviction may be a distant possibility. “It is not uncommon; it happens all over the world and has been happening for decades. There are many stakeholders. Who is going to sue whom?” asks a fraud investigator.
|“I find it quite unusual that industrial houses could tap the phones of rival groups/companies for so long and that it could go unnoticed. Surely there are hidden accomplices on both sides.” Shrihari Aney, Ex-advocate general, Maharashtra||“I feel a sense of outrage as privacy is very important in a democracy. Tapping and the wrongdoing that emerges from it should be dealt with. Capitalism is not always crony, as leftists believe.” Gurcharan Das, Ex-head, Procter & Gamble|
|“The Essar tapes clearly show how a business house has taken the republic for ransom. An investigation by the police or CBI won’t lead anywhere. A Supreme Court-monitored committee should probe.” Ashutosh, Leader, Aam Aadmi Party||“The cascading series of exposes on corporate corruption in connivance with institutions of governance has huge implications for the people of India. It’s a violation of democratic rights.” Aruna Roy, Social activist|
|“The authenticity of tapes needs to be established. If tapes are not authentic, it’s irrelevant. If they are, it is a very serious issue. But here, what is the motive of the media and this lawyer?” Jagdeep Chokkar, Association for Democratic Reforms||“The tapes show the strong conspiratorial nexus between corporates and politicians, which started after the neo-liberal policies came into existence. There should be a CBI inquiry into the issue.” K.C. Tyagi, Leader, JD(U)|
by Meetu Jain with Anoo Bhuyan, Bula Devi in Delhi, and Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai