Through Netaland to Tiger Riders – Some (more) truths from Satyam II

The Satyam episode is over, and well too. The government and the populace couldn’t have hoped for a better ending, with the farce of needing to ‘nationalize’ Satyam if no bidder other than some carcass eating Private Equity funds turned up to take it over thankfully avoided. Barring some class action lawsuits or some past acquisitions that Satyam made blowing up on Tech Mahindra, Satyam has moved away from the front pages – except for when we hear about Raju’s sentence. And the pace of our judicial process ensures that the Ramalinga Raju episode will drag on for much longer. It also seems that the government appointed directors are on their way out after doing a sterling job.

So, as good a time for the second and final part of the post-mortem.

Ramalinga Raju and Satyam cannot be explained without examining the context in which a scam like this is allowed to happen. And even at the risk of being accused of pop-psychology, it also cannot be explained without a biographical sketch of the man behind the story.

So cut me some slack, and go get your coffee and make sure you have some time on hand to read a long piece.

Through Babudom and Netaland

TSR

The last time I saw her in a library in Trivandrum close to six years ago, Ministhy Dileep aka Mini was her exuberant self, beaming while reporting she was the ‘only mum’ selected for the civil services that year and how excited she was. As always, she was open to talking of her own experiences and finding time to give you advice.

The cynic in me was fully grown even in my early twenties and the first thing I did when I returned home was to ask my old man who has seen the ins and outs of quite a few bureaucracies and bureaucrats as to how many years it took for a middle class idealist to become a haggard, frustrated and if not corrupt, then quietly allowing corruption babu.

His maximum was around the time the second kid starts going to school and a transfer is being hinted at from above if something doesn’t go the way the big political master wants. There are exceptions but then you should be terribly lucky, he said.

Years later I would read T.S.R.Subramanian, one of the top bureaucrats in India who, in his (sometimes pompous) service memoirs – ‘Through Netaland and Babudom’ gave this subject of corruption, especially its political and bureaucratic variety, some deep thought.

“When a young person is newly appointed to a job, they are honest, but within five-six years, when they begin to understand the system, they learn to live with the already existing malaise. They come to know that they cannot swim against the tide and fight corruption, therefore they begin to swim with it.  It is a systemic failure of the system that needs to be changed.

Tell me what can a bureaucrat do if one is transferred four-five times a year? One can adjust to a couple of transfers in a year, but not that many. After all, they are human beings, they have old parents who require medical attention, then there is the children’s education, and the wife says: “Listen you are not Mahatma Gandhi, why can’t you live like others, shut your eyes and mouth.”

So I had expected Mini to become just like some other IAS people I had heard about – someone who ‘adjusts to the system’. Isn’t it great when cynics like yours truly are proved wrong?

Right in the middle of our great democratic exercise, Mini, as idealistic as ever, took on the might of the permanent establishment of Mulayam Singh Yadav in his own den of Mainpuri. While the core issue may be different, what tipped the ‘socialists’ hand was the super patronising and retarded words he used. The great progressive is supposed to have said :”She (Ministhy) is a woman and that is why I am not making any comments on her. She should get her brain checked and should be aware of the fact that Mulayam is contesting from here (Mainpuri)… let me know if things don’t change in a week.”.

‘Normal’ bureaucrats who may not have the courage of Mini would have quietly let it pass. Mulayam, one of the most powerful men in the country, has a permanent establishment in the Hindi belt whether or not he is in power. Not her. The great socialist’s speech arrived at the Election Commission promptly. So surprised was he on getting the Election Commission notice that the great socialist issued one of the lamest denials ever recorded in human history: “How can I, a disciple of Ram Manohar Lohia comment about a woman officer”. Does the great socialist mean that it is okay to threaten some poor dude? Sigh!

And whatever happens in this case Mini’s tenure in the Uttar Pradesh Cadre is going to be tumultuous – even more than now, when it seems she has had quite a few run-ins with Behenji’s party and hence has already been transferred helter-skelter. If I were her, I’d be getting mentally to move to some godforsaken place, or worse, to a post with no job (or even an office as happened to another young bureaucrat down south) especially if and when the great socialist comes to power. As for that Chief Secretary at fifty dream, I think, she can kiss it good bye – though the chance of a Magsaysay is there then if she develops some friends in the mediaahh.

And no, I am not on a ‘politicians are so bad’, typically middle classedly pompous superficial screeching. What I am trying to do is to try to paint a context.

Buried under the superficial media cacophony was a report as to what could have made the Socialite Socialist so pissed. And I suddenly felt sorry for him – she treaded on a big element of his power base – the money and muscle power in his own constuency, none of which is errr, strictly supposed to be legal.

The biggest and the worst kept secret of the Indian Political system is that it runs fully on something curiously called ‘black’ money. Money the government (run by the same politicians which uses them) supposedly doesn’t know exists (but hey who printed it then?) for which taxes are not paid and whose origins are unknown.

Parties need funds to run and the socialistic hypocrisy that they indulge in more than anyone else, winks out the public to that basic truth. So, they do have more than enough money, but no one knows where from. Even the communist parties, which almost every impartial observer, agrees has got a leadership which is by and large non-corrupt (except ideologically that is :-)), has to get ‘institutionally corrupt’ – it takes money to run campaigns, print posters, pay workers etc. etc.

Anyone who becomes part of the system at its top has to accept this part and decide from there how much he is ready to ‘compromise’. Mulayam came into politics during the great worldwide move to the left during the middle of the last century. He would, considering his stands, most probably count among the more progressive politicians in his part of the country, but hey one needs serious money to run a major political party.

Maytas, not Satyam

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From the economic backwater of the Hindi heartland, one now has to go to a state which is one of the prime engines of the new India – Andhra Pradesh. Andhra has a unique distinction of having one of the fastest growing economies while also having the reputations of being one of the most corrupt places in the country. As a journalist friend remarked, the case may be just that there is a lot to steal compared to other places – and the dealing and the stealing is centered on, even in the era of high-tech billionaires, one of the oldest and the hardest assets -land.

Maytas-Infra-logo

The most interesting, and perhaps overlooked fact about the whole Satyam scandal is that it is not a scandal about Satyam at all. The role of Satyam is primarily as a cash cow, the place where the money was stolen by a very smart method of creating fake invoices and illegally tweaking the Financial Accounting software. This meant that the results of Satyam were fictitious, its receivables were being stolen and also, by offloading the shares at the inflated prices, the Raju family was making their nice pile of money.

The major story is about Maytas and how it grew into a real estate consortium owning thousands of acres of land and how, with no history of experience of executing projects of the type, it won projects like the Hyderabad Metro – a deal which the great E.Sreedharan had lambasted as ” selling the family silver.” He warned of a big political scandal to come later and went on record that ‘It is apparent the BOT operator has a hidden agenda which appears to be to extend the metro network to a large tract of his private land holdings so as to reap a windfall profit of four to five times the land price.’

We know what will happen of what is left of Satyam – most probably the brand itself will be dissolved, from a quarter to half the people may lose their jobs, especially from the non-billing support divisions as the firms get merged. But we still don’t know what will happen with Maytas or with the projects they are supposed to execute, now that the same government whose patronage they enjoyed is back with an emphatic mandate.

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The Tiger Rider

Ramalinga raju

Some time ago, I played the role of a young chaperon giving me an unexpected privilege of seeing the world in the perspective of one of the alpha males who end up ruling a good part of the world around us. He was a top dog in his sphere, with a budget to spend which could decide the fates of major technology companies. Picture him for a second – a portly, balding, middle aged dude. Unremarkable, so indeed easy to picture. But this dude actually thought he was funny. He would say something completely inconsequential and all the people around would laugh hysterically as if he were a stand-up comic. I was amused at how easily it was to get a favorable decision from him provided one knows the art of gently stroke his ego without seeming to be doing it.

His habit of letting go of patently lewd jokes at the most inappropriate moments was though the last straw which made it abundantly clear to me – this man had a reality check antenna missing. Perhaps he had lost it somewhere along the way when he stopped getting honest feedbacks from his colleagues, perhaps he did not have any friends who never took him seriously. His unadmitted belief that his specialness made it possible for him to get away with almost anything also made him a clown and a victim at times.

When one goes through the history, the actions and the statements of Ramalinga Raju, it is very clear that he intended to get away with it all. Perhaps he saw his crimes as small adjustments which had to be done to fuel the bigger dreams. Perhaps his real interest was for the traditional family business of real estate, or it was to help his sons build their own.

But what emerges is that the man who owned more villas, suits and gold than what the Nizam of Hyderabad ever had was not the victim of any kind as he would like us to believe as per the letter in which he talked of tigers and eating. (“It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”). He was very far from being the man being pushed by the never ending quarter to quarter demands of capitalism.

Ramalinga Raju has been breaking the law for more than half a decade at least. He actually thought he could get away with what he did.

The fact is, he always had and he almost did it this time too.

What he teaches us perhaps is how horribly wrong someone can be while being seemingly brilliantly right.

More Reading –  SatyaDennis,   FrancineAsit.

1 Comment

  1. Very well written, indeed! The common thread I see in all these people you’ve talked about is the power of choice and how they’ve acknowledged it. Mini’s challenging stand and Raju’s ‘poor me’ deception are a study in stark contrast. Amusing read!

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