By Lazy Fly*
“I thought you would be at Davos, doing deals while skiing in the Alps,” I said, noticing the man was without any cocktail drink – his usual trademark.
“Why would I go to Davos, when I can make the deals from here at a very minor fraction of the price?” The query was asked in a sort of squeaky voice – something different from his regular, baritone.
The ‘fixer’ has a spitting image of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s flunkey, Makhan Lal Fotedar.
The political lobbyist is known as MG which is an acronym of Maha Guru and/or Minimum Guarantee. “The importance of the name changes its forms depending on the time, occasion, location and operation,” the man loves to tell those foolish enough to listen. Often, found citing own aphorisms terming them as the Holy Minds’ Voices, he also referred to with the sobriquet –HMV.
His predictions are of the Nostradamus variety. They are puzzling and can be indicated as prophesies of any eventuality. Thanks to his somewhat archaic language, he also is derisively called Long Playing Old Record [LPOR], cassette tape [CT] video-cassette-disc [VCD]. His actions have earned him other epithets. Some of them are political predicament predictor [PPP], fixer-of the deadly instigation [FDI] and first-class rascally abomination [FCRA].
“You have a sore throat or something? You sound different,” I said.
“I am only imitating that wonderful poison lady Sasikala, who has managed to do everything to destroy this state – well almost. But, I am not overdoing it, wiping tears every 17 seconds as she did during her inaugural speech,” FCRA said in his regular voice.
“I thought your friends can finance any venture. Besides, entry is free at Davos, I hear,” I remarked.
“Yes, it is free to members who pay the annual WEF membership fee of US$ 585,000 [approximately INR 4 crores]! Entry is free in this hotel too. But try ordering a cup of coffee and you will know the truth! But, that is nothing when compared to the costs at Davos. Besides, my friends have better uses for a tidy sum like Rs.4 crores,” LPOR observed.
“VVIP Attendees include United Kingdom’s ‘liberal conservative’ Prime Minister Theresa May, China’s political boss Xi Jinping and US hedge fund headman, Anthony Scaramucci. The last mentioned person is the chief financial advisor to Donald Trump, scheduled to be sworn in on January 20 2017. Surely, India can swing a few deals at Davos,” I said.
“The ladies and gentlemen at Davos are far cleverer than the jokers we usually send from here like that racketeer lawyer Chidambaram. Persons investing in the British Pound didn’t expect Theresa to move mountains or soften the Brexit blow. Hence they moved their investment out of that piece of hard currency causing a minor slump in its sterling value, according to implications in a BBC report,” came the retort.
I tried another tack.
“China’s Xi is expected to make conciliatory noises towards Trump taking a cue from the idea propounded by WEF founder Klaus Martin Schwab. The important advice to world leaders: from Schwab: “Overcome the present mood of divisiveness and negativism.” Xi indicated he has a smooth communication channel with Trump and team. The Chinese president has expressed willingness to meet members of the US president-elect’s team whilst in Davos,” I pointed out.
“Trump hates China, revealed a report filed by Guardian’s correspondent Ben Jacobs a year ago. But, Trump actually can do nothing much against China because he owes the dragon nation a lot of money. The credible New York Times has exposed that most of Trump’s bravado speeches are hot air as did the CNN. Trump loves the media the way a snake would love a mongoose. Now do not get long in the tooth and ask me who is the snake and who the mongoose is,” CT argued and began laughing.
I did not think of that crack as much of a joke.
“Let us get serious, MG. The primary concerns at Davos would be Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD], Brexit, collapse of Euro as a currency, further break-up of the European Union [EU] – to mention just a few. After the monumental demonetisation and the absence of any worthwhile protest against it in India, it would surely attract a lot of attention,” I intervened.
“You are wet behind your ears. Notwithstanding the brouhaha over the 2 month old demonetization drama, India is very low in the list of priorities at Davos. The official delegation, one can safely say, is a ‘low level’ category. The attendees are Union Ministers Nitin Gadkari and Nirmala Sitharaman, Niti Aayog’s Arvind Panagariya, DIPP Secretary Ramesh Abhishek and Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. Have you ever seen Gadkari making any intelligent financial statement? The only reason he is still surviving in politics is because at the instance of the RSS, auditor-journalist Gurumurthy gave him a clean chit a few years ago,” VCD spat his words.
“You are obviously referring to the NDTV report which obliquely made fun of both Gadkari and Gurumurthy. But since then, NDTV has been relentlessly assailed by Gurumurthy and those close to him,” I said.
“You journos are jokers. Former Union Minister Arun Shourie had termed business tycoon Dhirubhai Ambani a thief and a smuggler in the 80’s. Let me quote facts here. Rediff.com put out a story exposing Shourie. The operative sentences read thus: Shourie claimed he first learnt about Dhirubhai through the articles of his former colleague S Gurumurthy, Chennai-based chartered accountant and convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. The SJM, an organisation espousing the cause of economic nationalism, is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Shourie claimed the point of most of the articles written by Gurumurthy during 1986 and 1987 — many of which he had co-authored – “was that Reliance had done something in excess of what it had been permitted to do: that it had set up capacities in excess of what had been licensed, that it was producing in excess of those capacities.  Today, Arun Shourie, the senior journalist, who once enjoyed trappings of power as a junior minister in the earlier incarnation of the NDA under Vajpayee, slams Modi as a dictator. The same Shourie went out of his way to support Modi and his reported ‘Presidential form of government’ during the 2014 parliamentary elections. The politicians are shameless, all of us know. But, are journalists really justified in blaming politicians when they themselves are eating their own words? Having worked for World Bank in the past, Shourie is an economist. Gurumurthy is yet to attack the likes of Ambani, but, praises the BJP, which does business with Ambanis in an unhindered fashion.” The fixer’s speech was punctuated by guffaws.
This was a clear digression. I dragged it back to Davos.
“Here were talking of Davos and you shoved Dhirubhai into it,” I snapped.
“OK. From India’s immediate neighbourhood, apart from China, other attendees are Pakistan President Nawaz Sharif, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Former Pakistani Army Chief Raheel Sharif is another attendee. His costs are being met by Saudi Arabia. Raheel heads an international force to tackle ‘Islamic terrorism’ funded by the House of Saud and 36 other Islamic nations most of which clandestinely support ISIS! Double standards are a global phenomenon, boyo!” The Guru’s tone was highly derisive.
“But Davos is important, isn’t it?”
“Depends on which side you are on. There is the financial buccaneer billionaire George Soros. Following Donald Trump’s election, billionaire investors George Soros lost close to a billion dollars. Soros had supported then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during the campaign. At that time, he had said the methods of ISIS and Trump were different, but the effect – one to threaten the world into submission – was the same. Trump-friendly hedge fund owners earned a windfall on their stock portfolios. Billionaire Carl Icahn made upwards of $700 million on November 9, while John Paulson reaped over $463 million on the same day, said the Fortune. But, the so-called smart man who had caused a run on the British Pound in the early 90’s, clocked a massive loss. The billionaire investor wrote an opinion piece, saying that “open societies are in crisis” Allow me to quote him verbatim: “Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of closed societies,” he wrote for Project-Syndicate, “from fascist dictatorships to ‘mafia’ states—are on the rise.” “Because elected leaders failed to meet voters’ legitimate expectations and aspirations, electorates have become disenchanted with the prevailing versions of democracy and capitalism. I find the current moment in history very painful” because is a “would-be dictator” and a “con artist”. It is a clear case griping due to the legendary sour-grapes-trait. Shourie didn’t get to be FM, so he is angry. Soros is in sorrow because his protégé Hillary didn’t get to be President. In his interview, Shourie cited the late journalist Cho Ramaswamy’s views on VP Singh, one of Shourie’s heroes of the 80’s. The exact quotes from Shourie: I supported V.P. Singh despite the warnings of Chandrasekhar, who told Cho Ramaswamy that ‘you tell your friend that he is supporting Singh but he’s a very dangerous man, he believes in nothing’. But at that time, we had so many cases against us in the Express so I told Cho there is a proverb that when your house is on fire you cannot wait for Ganges water. Cho said to me, are you sure it’s not petrol? I would rather like to believe that he is somewhat jealous of the attention Cho got while being alive and also posthumously. Talking of petrol, one remembers that the Islamic brand of terrorism is all about petrodollars,” the deal-maker spoke in a bitter voice.
“Are you saying Davos is mere a talking rendezvous in salubrious Swiss surroundings, in a town that has a little more than 11,000 registered residents and nothing more?”
At that precise moment the waiter arrived with a strange looking cup with a liquid that seemed to have floating white pebbles.
“Stop looking like someone who just saw the abominable snowman called Yeti, Lazy. This is Yulmu, a kind of Korean tea, which is good for health in every way. Yulmu has high protein content, is healthier alternative to a cup of coffee in the morning and what you see floating like pea-sized wooden beads are exactly that – made of a plant called Job’s tears, whose output accords intoxication – more than the stimulant value of tea or coffee. Its genetic names are Coix lacryma-jobi and lacryma-jobi. Coix lacryma-jobi and its variant ma-yuen are harvested as a cereal crops. The output has a soft shell, and is used medicinally in parts of Asia. The material has shells that were used to make rosary beads for use in monasteries in southern Europe. In Korea, the grain comes along with powdered walnuts and almonds. When I heard that this hotel had added it to its menu I specially came here. I have to learn a thing or two about Korea – especially in the light of one of the top industrial houses of South Korea is in the dock in Seoul. That company has a major manufacturing plant in the outskirts of here.”
I somehow felt that the Guru was being evasive about something.
At that moment two men accosted the fixer. The persons were in complete contrast of each other. One wore a single cotton dhoti, a cotton shirt that seemed as though it needed ironing. He also did not wear slippers. The other gentleman was nattily dressed in an outlandish 3-piece suit.
“Friends of yours?” I asked.
“Let me introduce them. The man in the suit is a representative of the family of Goyals who once part-owned this hotel alongside ITC before conflicts of interests resulted in a change in management. The other poorly dressed man is Vaikundarajan, who owns a huge mining empire and a television channel. In the past, the Goyals had a problem or two with the Enforcement Directorate and the Union Finance Ministry about their mineral exports. Vaikundarajan is being accused of stealing India’s rare earths from Tuticorin district worth over Rs.1 lakh crores. This deal is worth several billions of dollars. And that is happening right here and not in an expensive place like Davos. The after effects of this deal can affect the global economy in more ways than one. I am helping them exchange notes. When I say notes, I do not mean the Rs.2000 type, mind you. You will not be part of this meeting, so better run away,” the Guru said.
As I began walking away I saw a flat nosed lady with mongoloid features join the motley crowd of three and wondered whether she was from a South Korean industrial house as hinted by the Guru.
1986 was a crucial year for Dhirubhai. He suffered a stroke in February that year. A few months later, the Express began publishing a series of articles by Shourie and Gurumurthy, which meticulously detailed a host of ways in which the Indira Gandhi government had gone out of its way to assist the Ambanis.
One article was on the subject of how the Reliance group imported “spare parts”, “components” and “balancing equipment” of textile manufacturing machinery to nearly double its production capacities. The article provocatively claimed the Ambanis had “smuggled” in a plant.
Another story detailed how companies registered in the tax haven, Isle of Man, with ridiculous names like Crocodile Investments, Iota Investments and Fiasco Investments had purchased Reliance shares at one-fifth their market prices.
Curiously, most of these firms were controlled by a clutch of Non-Resident Indians who had the same surname, Shah.
Though the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had to change a reply he gave in Parliament on the investments made by these firms, an inquiry conducted by the Reserve Bank of India could not find any evidence of wrongdoing.
Yet another article detailed how the group had been the beneficiary of a “loan mela” — a number of banks had loaned funds to more than 50 firms that had all purchased debentures issued by Reliance Industries.
Vishwanath Pratap Singh was one of the few politicians who took on the Ambanis. In May 1985, as finance minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government, he suddenly shifted imports of PTA from the OGL (Open General Licence) category. At that juncture, Reliance needed to import this product to manufacture polyester filament yarn.
It was found that the group had “persuaded” a number of banks to open letters of credit that would allow it import almost one full year’s requirement of purified terephthalic acid (PTA) on the eve of the issuance of the government notification changing the category under which PTA could be imported.
It was hardly a coincidence that soon after V P Singh fell out with Rajiv Gandhi, various tax agencies of the Indian government raided the premises of the Express group.
Things got even more difficult for the Ambanis after Singh became Prime Minister in December 1989.
In 1990, government-owned financial institutions like the Life Insurance Corporation and the General Insurance Corporation stonewalled attempts by the Reliance group to acquire managerial control over Larsen & Toubro, one of India’s largest construction and engineering companies.
Sensing defeat, the Ambanis resigned from the board of the company after incurring large losses. Dhirubhai, who had become L&T chairman in April 1989, had to quit his post to make way for D N Ghosh, former chairman of the State Bank of India.
The mid-eighties were also a period during which the Reliance group got locked in a bitter turf battle with Bombay Dyeing headed by Nusli Wadia.
The two corporate groups were producing competing products — Reliance was manufacturing PTA and Bombay Dyeing, di-methyl terephthalate (DMT).
Wadia lost the battle and reportedly became the source of information for many of the Express articles against the Ambanis written by Shourie and Gurumurthy.
In 1985, the Mumbai police had accused a general manager in a Reliance group company of conspiring to kill Wadia, a charge that was never established in a court of law.
Eight years later, a newspaper owned by the Ambanis would accuse Wadia of illegally holding two passports and played up the fact that he was Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s grandson.
By this time, Shourie had built his bridges with the Ambanis and the newspaper concerned, the Observer of Business and Politics, would carry a regular column written by Shourie for which he was suitably remunerated.
In May 2002, as Union minister for divestment in the Vajpayee government, Shourie presided over the sale of 26 per cent of the equity capital of the former public sector company, Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited (IPCL), to the Reliance group in May, the same year.
- The non de plume Lazy Fly is an unabashed copy of the by-line of the humour columns once penned by the inimitable Behram Contractor, who called himself Busybee. Being no patch on the master in humour or contents’ crispness, I refer to myself as a Lazy Fly.