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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 48, Dated December 04, 2010
CURRENT AFFAIRS  
NIIRA RADIA

Her Sinister Ring Tone

Tapped phone conversations have blown the lid off the liaisons that Niira Radia forged, the deals she fixed and the people she influenced. SHANTANU GUHA RAY reconstructs a life in the shadows

Crossed wires Niira Radia speaks to the media after her grilling by the Enforcement Directorate

Crossed wires Niira Radia speaks to the media after her grilling by the Enforcement Directorate

PHOTO: SHAILENDRA PANDEY

SHANTANU GUHA RAY

NIIRA RADIA, the lobbyist at the heart of India’s audacious multi-billion telecom swindle, inaugurated a Krishna temple she funded in south Delhi on her birthday — that, interestingly, coincides with Indira Gandhi’s.

Those present on the occasion said Radia prayed for long, presumably seeking divine intervention to wriggle out of the country’s biggest scandal. Before the temple visit, notices from the country’s Enforcement Directorate (ED), Income Tax (IT) Department and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had reached her farmhouse on the fringes of south Delhi. The farmhouse is known to host both religious feasts and late night parties, to which Delhi’s swish set flock in equal numbers.

Time will tell whether the prayers will help Radia, the only female lobbyist among Delhi’s top-of-the-line power brokers. A picture of grace in both saris and business suits, her grasp of both human psychology and technical jargon gives her a comfort level with the rich and powerful as well as wannabes.

She grew with the BJP, made inroads into the Congress inner circle, and vibed well with the CPM. But she alienated her own staff with her workaholism, constantly egging them on with the Nike tagline, “Just do it”. Her personal wealth is whispered to be around Rs. 500 crore but that is difficult to establish.

Interestingly, in what started out as a telephone tap by the IT Department’s Directorate General of Investigations to probe violations related to TDS (tax deducted at source) has turned into a full-scale, multi-agency inquiry by the government about whether Radia is so embedded in Delhi’s politics that she can make/unmake ministers or manipulate government policy to suit powerful corporate clients.

What the ED is trying to establish is the money trails that seem to wind through her corporate communications venture. Knowing this, she avoided, on medical grounds, the first set of notices sent to her, using the time to get politicians in Uttar Pradesh to silence the bureaucrats from that state’s cadre who are investigating the scam. But no one wants to get embroiled in the Rs. 1.76 lakh crore telecom scam.

Encouraged by her political isolation, the investigating agencies sent her another set of notices demanding — this time in strong language — her presence for a detailed probe. Perhaps to avoid the media, she landed at the ED office at 9.15 am on 24 November, even before her interrogators reported for work. “We are investigating what could be one of India’s biggest scandals,” is all Rajeshwar Singh, a top investigator with the ED, was willing to tell TEHELKA. By the time she emerged from the office, the media had arrived in full force, and she addressed the barrage of questions with the polish and panache expected of a public relations professional. Which means, of course, that she smoothly gave the impression of being willing to cooperate without actually giving any real information away.

CBI OFFICIALS claim they have evidence that she once worked with data servers hosted out of Ukraine and had latest Israeli anti-surveillance gizmos running on the telephones used by her and her close aides. The agency has in its possession 180 hours of candid conversations that Radia, as chairperson of Vaishnavi Corporate Communications — and its sister organisations like Vitcom, Neucomp, and Neosys — had with politicians, bureaucrats and a handful of high-profile journalists. These could put her at the heart of the telecom scam that claimed the cabinet berth of Andimuthu Raja, who is accused of selling lucrative licences at dirt-cheap prices.

The CBI is also probing what it calls her nexus with a slew of former bureaucrats whose brains she picked to bend rules to the benefit of her clients. These included conglomerates like the Tatas, Reliance, ITC and Mahindras, and big-bucks entities like Lavasa, Star TV, Unitech, Elder Health Care, Haldia Petrochemicals, Emami and the HIV/AIDS initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This week, one of her confidants, Pradip Baijal, the former telecom and disinvestment secretary who started the country’s much-hyped disinvestment process, was questioned by the CBI for over four hours for his alleged investments in African nations like Guinea and Senegal.

“The charges are serious,” admits ED’s Rajeshwar Singh, refusing to reveal details. CBI and ED officials told TEHELKA that there is enough evidence to prove Radia’s links with retired bureaucrats like Ajay Dua, former secretary, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP), CM Vasudev, former finance secretary, SK Narula, former Airports Authority of India chairman, and Akbar Jung, the former civil aviation secretary.

Judgement day Justice B Padmaraj will probe the land scams

Tricky tie-ups Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata helped Radia succeed while Dayanidhi Maran was on the wrong side and Praful Patel an enemy

PHOTO : DEEPAK SALVI, SHAILENDRA PANDEY, AP

The IT investigations revealed that apart from managing the telecom licences for builder Unitech, among others, Radia also handled and facilitated cross-border transfer of funds. Intercepted conversations between Radia and the allottees of the new telecom licences suggest that she was a key adviser in staggering the inflow of funds from outside India so that no impression could be created that there was a windfall gain to the companies.

ED officials have told TEHELKA they have evidence that Radia was instrumental in sourcing funds — as much as Rs. 1,600 crore — for Unitech, one of the controversial beneficiaries of the telecom licences. The company eventually sold a majority stake in the telecom venture to Norway’s Telenor for seven times the licence fee it paid.

Worse, some of the conversations link Radia to Anil Agarwal of the London-based Vedanta group that has drawn flak for violating environmental norms at its billion-dollar mining projects in Orissa’s Kalahandi district.

It is reliably learnt that the Vendanta group used Radia to erase what it claimed was a negative mindset about the group and its operations in India. As a result, expensive advertisements extolling the virtues of Vedanta were published in newspapers and newsmagazines. But these did not cut much ice since the project was scrapped by environment minister Jairam Ramesh.

Tellingly, the tapes also establish her links with Sunil Arora, an IAS officer based in Rajasthan and used by Radia to gain access to his batchmates in various ministries. The conversations are a part of the CBI notes to the Supreme Court.

Arora, who sacrificed his second tenure as chairman and managing director (CMD) of Indian Airlines by attempting to blow the whistle on Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, seems to have opened many doors for Radia across India. During his tenure as the CMD of Indian Airlines (2003-05), seven aircraft leases were found to have been channelled to companies that had Radia’s front companies acting as agents. “We have evidence that substantial payments were made to Arora’s Meerut-based brother by Radia’s company,” said Akshat Jain, a senior IT official.

For the record, Niira was born to Sudesh and Iqbal Memon, a trader who was born a Hindu, on 19 November 1960. Niira — the extra ‘i’ was added on the advice of numerologists — and her family had to flee Africa around the time of the fall of Idi Amin. Once touted as an emerging competitor to infamous gun dealer Adnan Khashoggi, Memon changed track in London and opened an aviation lease broking business.

The natural heir to the family business, Radia also worked with Scotland Yard on a job-to-job basis providing escort cover to its young recruits. In London, she married Janak Radia of a wealthy trading family. At some point, she was also marestried to the grandson of Rao Birendra Singh, Haryana’s chief minister in the 1960s, and went by the name of Niira Yadav.

In 1996, Radia fled to India from UK after a host of shell companies with paid-up capital as low as £100 went bust and came under scrutiny for money laundering.

First she worked with Sahara supremo Subrata Roy’s blue-eyed boy Uttam Kumar Bose, who was managing Air Sahara. “She worked with us for some time,” admits Abhijit Sarkar, one of the directors of Sahara India. But Bose fell out of favour with Roy when aircraft lease rentals were found to be as much as 50 percent higher than market rates. Thereafter, Radia ventured out on her own. She harboured an ambition to take over the defunct ModiLuft and rename it Magic Air, but failed to get the necessary clearances.

There are many who claim Niira still nurses a grudge against Naresh Goyal and Praful Patel for bringing her flights of fancy to naught

Undaunted, she tied up with aircraft leasing companies to get planes at the lowest prices and secured in-principle approvals for parking slots and peak time schedules between metros from the state-owned Airports Authority of India (AAI). However, at every step she was outwitted by the powerful private airlines lobby that ensured that her Gulf-based financiers pulled out. The crack team of pilots and aviation professionals she had picked up from leading airlines, including Malaysian Airlines, disintegrated after a long frustrating standby.

There are many who claim Radia still nurses a grudge against Jet Airways head Naresh Goyal and Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel for bringing her flights of fancy to naught. While Radia never got security clearance as the promoter for Crown Air, she came in close contact with the then aviation minister Ananth Kumar of the BJP.

Sources in the BJP leadership point out that Radia decided that Crown Air had reached a dead end when she got clear signals from the PMO that Kumar was under a cloud. Nevertheless, Radia managed to get a large tract of land at unbelievably low prices during the NDA regime in the name of Sudesh Foundation, a charity in her late mother’s memory.

An old IB report points that some of the objections against giving security clearance to Radia came from her dealings with a Mumbai-based person of doubtful background, Chandu Panjabi, who was also close to the first family of the Shiv Sena.

Radia played a role in funding Agnisaakshi, a movie produced by Binda Thackeray, son of Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray. Panjabi was close to the Thackeray family and is tipped to have been a former part-owner of Sea Rock Hotel in Bandra. (Sea Rock was one of the sites bombed in the 1992 serial blasts in the city. The property, which changed hands multiple times, is now run by the Tata Group’s Indian Hotels Company.)

With a never-say-die attitude and assiduous networking, Radia developed a close rapport with Singapore Airlines, helping it set up a maintenance, repair and overhaul facility in India. The change in government policy that disallowed foreign airlines to enter India was also rumoured to have been at the behest of her foes Goyal and Patel.

RADIA’S CHARISMA, connect with bureaucrats and politicians and alliance with Kumar opened many doors for her in Delhi’s bhawans. A former AAI chairman and a powerful bureaucrat during the NDA government, SK Narula, remains a close ally post-retirement, handling some crucial government liaisons on her behalf.

It is believed that the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan played a crucial role in helping the Tata-led management invest Rs. 1,200 crore of VSNL’s reserves in the ailing Tata Teleservices. Radia, after three-four long meetings with Mahajan, not only managed to build bridges between him (then telecom minister) and the Tata group, but also ensured that the VSNL board proposal — earlier termed as asset stripping by Mahajan — got cleared with minor modifications.

Radia’s biggest break came when she got acquainted with Ratan Tata’s close aide RK Krishna Kumar, the man trusted by Tata to translate his airline dreams into reality.

The Tata-Singapore Airlines alliance failed but soon Radia made her bigger debut in the world of public relations — she had earlier owned an agency called The Big League — and formed Vaishnavi, which got the mandate to handle all Tata companies. With the name of India’s most respected business house behind her, Radia started a new journey and shaped her company into an eight-city operation.

When the Tata Group wanted criminal proceedings to be initiated against Dilip Pendse of Tata Finance and these attempts were foiled by his playing the ‘Marathi Manoos’ card, he was picked up by the Economic Offences Wing of Delhi Police in a much smaller case. He alleged the show was directed by none other than Radia, for one of the key aspects of her strategy was to establish inroads in the police department, an instrument she uses subtly yet frequently to settle scores. So much so, a staffer has been deployed for the past eight years only to maintain rapport with ground-level policemen while Radia chats up senior officials. Having a hotline with top IPS officers in important cities is, in fact, a USP Radia offers her clients.

FORMER DELHI Commissioner of Police KK Paul was a close friend of Radia’s, and got his post under the NDA four months before the Congress-led UPA came to power. When a former Maharashtra DGP was made to quit the post of Mumbai Police Commissioner overnight in February 2007, there was a strong buzz that Radia was lobbying hard to get him a plush posting at the CBI or an intelligence agency in Delhi. Intelligence sources do not rule out Radia’s hand in the controversy surrounding former Mumbai police commissioner Hassan Gafoor, who was the top choice to become Maharashtra DGP before a damaging interview appeared in a leading weekly magazine. The beneficiary of the Gafoor controversy was none other than Anami Narayan Roy, a close relative of Tata Motors chief Ravi Kant.

Forced bonhomie Manmohan Singh and A Raja play the role of coalition partners

Forced bonhomie Manmohan Singh and A Raja play the role of coalition partners

PHOTO: AFP

While the reason given for Roy’s exit as Mumbai police commissioner was the change of Mumbai Police logo without approvals, there is a strong buzz that he came under scrutiny for helping Tata Communications in a case where there was prima facie evidence of the company providing back-end infrastructure and being in full knowledge of an illegal international calling operation being run out of Larsen & Toubro’s information technology arm’s premises in Mumbai. The investigating team, including Mumbai Police’s brightest sleuth Kishore Gayake — who had spearheaded the investigation — was transferred from Unit 8 of the Crime Branch overnight and later resigned under protest. Incidentally, Roy stays in a plush South Mumbai residential complex, with three-four bigwigs of the Tata group, including Kant, as neighbours.

Interestingly, Radia revived her dream of a commercial airline in late 2004 and brought in a team of aviation professionals, yet again from Malaysian Airlines, headed by Ng Fook Meng, who was a part of the erstwhile Crown Air and was denied security approval by the Indian government. In spite of her bête noire Praful Patel being the aviation minister and Ajay Prasad the secretary, the optimistic Radia took the plunge in a battle she finally had to give up after 14 months of efforts.

It was around this time that Radia fought a bitter, hostile battle with Dayanidhi Maran, who was upset with Ratan Tata’s reported patronage of maverick businessman C Sivasankaran. The enterprising Radia located a confidant of DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s wife Rajathi Ammal, and developed a rapport with her in the course of a number of visits to Chennai. Her biggest break came when a rift developed between the Marans and the Karunanidhi family, which resulted in the suave and progressive Dayanidhi Maran’s unceremonious exit from the telecom ministry. It is believed that Radia once flew to Chennai and organised a closed-door meeting between the DMK supremo, his son MK Stalin and Tata.

Radia is believed to have engineered a privilege motion against Praful Patel in Parliament’s monsoon session of 2005. An unheard of periodical, UT Independent, saw a sudden increase in circulation after dubbing the suave Patel India’s bidi king.

The biggest missing link in Radia’s operation was a full-fledged “think tank” that would take her to the big league of reasoned lobbying. Former AAI CMD Narula, who was parked in Radia’s Magic Air hangar, came handy in building inroads to top-level bureaucrats, who in their mid- 50s start looking for post-retirement opportunities with corporate India.

Despite Radia’s magic not working on former AAI executive director Gurcharan Bhatura, Narula is believed to have been the key man in getting two high-profile bureaucrats in Radia’s corner.

Poles apart, the controversial Baijal and the low-profile Vasudev, the former DIPP (Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion) secretary, were good cornerstones of Radia’s dreams of managing the bureaucracy. Rewarding Narula for having stuck around — he was also the non-executive chairmanship of Magic Air — Radia floated Neosys with Baijal, Vasudev and Narula as partners. In no time, a couple of Chinese companies including telecom major Huawei were being advised by Radia’s company.

THE SUDDEN rise of Radia, her frequent visits to Singapore and the prospective investors from West Asia and the Asia-Pacific raised many an eyebrow. Reportedly, some of the large cash transactions were found to be routed through a code name resembling hers.

With India’s two largest industrialists as her clients, earning her a rumoured Rs. 100 crore per annum, Niira left every established player behind

At the same time, her unhindered growth surprised many. Windfall gains came from managing a massive Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) public relations mandate from Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. Radia formed Neucom to manage the RIL account. With India’s two largest industrialists in her fold, earning her a rumoured Rs 100 crore per annum, Radia left every established player far behind within six years of setting up shop.

Like some other public relations firms based in Delhi, Radia too branched out from working with corporates to doing PR for state governments. She worked closely with Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief Chandrababu Naidu and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Naidu hired Radia for “strategic PR counsel” for Andhra Pradesh during his last stint while it is rumoured that she was instrumental in getting Tata’s Nano project out of a volatile Bengal and into Gujarat.

If the spectrum scam weren’t so big, with its potential to swallow many careers, one would say that this savvy survivor has enough fire in her belly to keep going. But the business she is in requires the confidence of both politicians and corporates and they’re in it for money, not love. Besides, it doesn’t pay to work with someone whose image is sullied.


[email protected]


SWAN BOUGHT SPECTRUM FOR A SONG. AND LAUGHED ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK

BY SAIKAT CHATTERJEE AND SAMIRAN SAHA

PHOTO: INDIA TODAY IMAGES

LESS THAN three years after it was incorporated, Swan Telecom Pvt Ltd made a windfall gain, selling a 45 percent stake to Dubai-based Emirates Telecommunications Corporation PJSC, which operates under the Etisalat brand, for over Rs. 4,000 crore.

In the intervening three years, former telecommunications minister A Raja and corporate lobbyist Niira Radia joined hands to bend rules, defy recommendations of the regulator and the Ministry of Finance to allot licences in 15 telecom circles to Swan Telecom, Unitech Wireless, Datacom and Aircel, according to a top-secret document in TEHELKA’s possession prepared by the Income Tax Department, based on telephone intercepts.

“The conversation seems to suggest that the Minister Shri Raja and Mrs Radia too have equity interests in Swan and her associates as to be put on the board,” the documents said without elaborating.

The licences were sold to Swan and five other companies, including Unitech Wireless, on a “first come, first served” basis in 2008 at a valuation decided in 2001, disregarding the urging of the telecom regulator to auction the licences to the highest bidder.

On scrutiny, the government auditor found Swan and some of the other companies that were allotted licences had suppressed facts or given misleading information.

“None of the companies had the minimum paid-up capital required to apply for a Universal Access Service (UAS) licence,” the nation’s auditor said in a report submitted to Parliament on 16 November. “The fact that the Department of Telecommunications could not confirm the correctness of the documents supplied by the applicant companies suggested that process of verification of applications before grant of bulk UAS licences in January 2008 was weak.”

Investigators are also probing the ownership of Genex Exim Ventures, which acquired shares worth Rs. 380 crore in Swan Telecom two months after the obscure company was incorporated with a paid-up capital of only Rs. 1 lakh. Genex holds a 5.27 percent stake in Etisalat DB, the new name of Swan Telecom. The remaining stake is held by Mumbai-based Dynamix Balwas Group that has interests in telecom, hospitality and real estate.

An inspection of the shareholding of Swan Telecom also revealed that at the time of applying for licences, Reliance Communications Ltd owned a 10.7 per cent stake in Swan, according to the government auditor.

“Since Reliance Communications was operating in all the service areas for which Swan had applied for licences, their application was not in conformity with clause 8 of the licence guidelines, and hence was not eligible to be considered,” it said.


[email protected]
[email protected]

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 48, Dated Dec 04, 2010
 

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