It is actually disappointing and a matter of shame for Indian journalists, including those from The Times of India Group, that it has taken this long to expose the mockery with which BJP President Nitin Gadkari conducted the affairs of his Nagpur-based firm, Purti Power and Sugar Ltd.
The nation has been startled to note that the BJP politician’s firm has his driver and astrologer as directors, that some of his investors have slum addresses, that he received a questionable loan of Rs 165 crore from a party that was earlier rewarded with contracts, among other things.
After more than a decade of Page 3 journalism followed by paid news and “private treaties”- trends introduced by The Times Group and now emulated by many others - journalists in many news organisations have lost the will to go after investigative stories. They have been rendered impotent because investigative stories against business establishments are generally not encouraged and those asked for by the publisher or the editor often have an ulterior motive (Journalists, can, however, hammer public bodies and government policies as much as they want).
In May, while reporting on Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s shareholding in IRB Infrastructure Developers Ltd and the company’s decision to call off its controversial township project in the Lonavla-Talegaon belt (See Firstpost- IRB scraps township project off Mumbai-Pune E-way), the company’s spokesman Manoj Chaudhari had bemoaned to this journalist that they had had enough in Maharashtra. The spokesman said that although founded by a Maharashtrian, the company had decided to pursue projects outside the state because some news establishments in the state were indulging in blackmail.
The company was already in a bind as its promoters had been facing bad times and battling on multiple fronts — be it the CBI’s probe into IRB Chairman Virendra Mhaiskar’s alleged complicity in the murder of RTI activist Satish Shetty, the Kolhapur toll roads controversy and other such.
Early this month, a Jindal Group company filed a police complaint against Zee News alleging that some senior Zee people were demanding advertising commitments of Rs 100 crore to suppress a damaging report about Jindal’s involvement in the coal block allocations scam. On Thursday, Jindal Steel & Power Ltd also provided 20-minutes of video footage as evidence and Zee News in its response issued a statement that it had been unfairly targeted by JPCL for pursuing truth in the case. It claimed that it wanted to see how far Jindal would go to suppress the coal blocks news and had put up a fake advertising deal to find out the truth.
It was only after activist-politician Arvind Kejriwal drew attention to alleged favours shown by former Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar towards Gadkari’s NGO and firms controlled by him that newspapers and channels decided to look into the affairs of Purti Power and Sugar. Securing documents from the Registrar of Companies (RoC) was the next logical step. Once the RoC-certified papers were in hand, the identity and addresses of the directors was checked and tough questions asked. Good follow-up journalism but not great investigative work.
In the case of the Robert Vadra-DLF deals, too, it was documents obtained from the RoC that helped throw greater light soon after Kejriwal exposed the sudden rise in the financial assets of the Congress President’s son-in-law. The RoC route was also followed with striking results in the Lavasa-Sharad Pawar case revealing the genesis of the company, the shareholding of his relatives and other key details brought out in the public domain.
The fact of the matter is that most politicians in India have their clutch of favourite companies, real estate firms and educational and charitable trusts which prosper at a galloping speed with backdoor favours done by the politician. This, in essence, is the story of a large number of firms waiting to be exposed; Purti being the latest.
As a matter of standard practice, firms seeing extraordinary growth in a suspicious manner need to be put under scrutiny by journalists and activists. Inevitably, in most cases, a strong political connection is likely to emerge. Examining the RoC documents and the IPO red herring prospectus is an important part of the scrutiny and a lot stands revealed between the lines. On innumerable occasions, these documents have helped join the dots in the case of firms with political links.
Firms with direct shareholdings by politicians or indirect holdings through their relatives and associates are all around, waiting to be exposed. The fact that they are not touched by the media emboldens the likes of Gadkari to appoint drivers and astrologers on their board of directors.
Investing in front companies which are showered with government contracts and concessions is important for ambitious Indian politicians because that’s one of the easy ways of creating personal wealth and building a war chest to fight elections and topple governments.
In the interest of transparency and accountability, every top politician should be subjected to intense scrutiny and the details presented in the public domain: Who are his associates? What are his family members’ business interests? How have his declared assets grown over the years? Is there something extraordinary or unusual about the firms and trusts associated with the politician?
Such an exercise is commonly done in the case of American politicians, especially presidential nominees and candidates, and ought to be done in India too with greater rigour and perseverance.
From taking bribes in hard cash to engineering kickbacks and establishing front companies, politicians have devised a variety of ways to amass ill-gotten wealth. As much variety is required in strategies to detect such wealth and bring it before the public, one being through the RoC records.
(Disclosure: This journalist has worked previously for The Times of India and the Zee Group. Firstpost is published by Network18, which runs TV channels that compete with the Times and Zee group channels. The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not those of Network 18 or its promoters)