Monday, October 16, 2017

His father's son - The ruling regime's offensive in defence of Jay Shah is telling

Is that an apple or a mole in his eye? If you are from the BJP, it is an apple (Jay Shah) and if you are from the opposition it is a mole (again Jay Shah)

It is not unusual for fathers who happen to be politicians to defend the doings - or the alleged wrongdoings - of their sons who happen to dabble in business.

Just three months ago, in July this year, the irrepressible Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo, Lalu Prasad, stoutly backed his son, Tejashwi Yadav, the former deputy chief minister of Bihar, whose alleged corruption was the ostensible reason for Nitish Kumar to break his alliance with the RJD and jump into the waiting embrace of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Tejashwi Yadav, along with his parents and siblings, is accused of having acquired prime land in Patna via a confidant's shell company in lieu of leases given out to a private company for the maintenance of two hotels owned by the Indian Railways in Ranchi and Puri. The deal dates back to 2006 when Lalu was railways minister and Tejashwi was 15 years old.

Two months before Lalu's cry of a witch-hunt, another father made a similar charge. In May, it was the turn of the former finance minister, P. Chidambaram, to describe as "baseless" the charge that his son, Karti, had influenced the working of the erstwhile foreign investment promotion board.

Karti has been accused of receiving kickbacks for having obtained a FIPB clearance for the media house INX Media in 2007 when his father was finance minister. His name has also figured in connection with the Aircel-Maxis deal with allegations that a company he secretly owns got a share in Aircel as a result of facilitating FIPB clearance for the deal.

And last Friday, we had another father stepping out to bat for his son. Amit Shah, the BJP president and, arguably, the second most powerful man in India today, spoke out on the October 8 report in the news portal The Wire outlining the sudden and steep rise in the turnover of Shah junior's company a year after his father took over the reins of the ruling party and Narendra Modi became prime minister. Speaking at a function organized by the Hindi news channel, Aaj Tak, the BJP chief broke into English to assert: "The question of corruption does not arise."

On the face of it, Lalu Prasad, P. Chidambaram and Amit Shah might seem to belong to the same doting dad club except for one crucial difference. In the case of Lalu and Chidambaram, their protestations of innocence made not a whit of difference, and instead, spurred on the government's investigative agencies to probe further into the allegations and dish out more dirt - besmirching reputations well before concluding the probe, leave alone securing a conviction.

The Central Bureau of Investigation, for instance, has been carrying out raid after raid on premises owned by or in any way connected with Lalu Prasad and members of his family, and summoning father and son for sustained interrogation.

Similarly, the CBI has registered an FIR against Karti Chidambaram, interrogated him for days on end, prevented him from travelling abroad while the Enforcement Directorate has filed a money laundering case.

In the case of Jay Shah, the opposite has happened. Forget ordering a probe, the might of the State and the ruling party has been unleashed to stifle even the most preliminary and innocent questions relating to the inexplicable ebb and flow in his fortunes.

The report in The Wire stuck to facts gleaned from filings with the registrar of companies. It pointed out that Jay Shah's company, Temple Enterprise Private Limited, did not own any fixed assets and had no inventories or stock in 2013-14; it earned revenues worth Rs 50,000 in 2014-15; and then its revenues shot up 16,000 times to Rs 80.5 crore in 2015-16.

The BJP has made much of the fact that the Rs 80.5 crore was not profits but revenues, and the company actually posted a loss of Rs 1.4 crore that year. As a result of this loss and previous losses, Temple Enterprise stopped its activities in October 2016.

The report also notes that another enterprise called Kusum Finserve in which Jay Shah owns a 60 per cent stake has now diversified into producing wind energy and "is setting up a 2.1 megawatt windmill plant worth Rs 15 crore in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh". Apart from securing finances from a cooperative bank, Kusum Finserve also managed to get a Rs 10.35 crore loan from the public sector enterprise, Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency for setting up the plant.

The report has other details of Jay Shah's companies and those who gave him some of the loans. For the vast majority of ordinary citizens who work for a living and earn a wage or a salary, the ways of business and businessmen can be as incomprehensible as, well, rocket science. But even so, a couple of things about Jay Shah's business would strike anyone as rather odd.

First, how did his revenues skyrocket in the space of just one year from Rs 50,000 to Rs 80.5 crore? And why did his losses mount as spectacularly too - forcing him to close down the business within a year of registering a phenomenal growth in turnover? And what qualifies him to start a wind energy plant when his primary business, according to his lawyer's reply to The Wire, is "trading in stocks and shares, import and export activities and distribution and marketing consultancy services"?

These are simple enough questions and could have been answered without ado - particularly since it concerns the son of India's Number Two. As The Wire rightly noted "The world over, it is normal for the business affairs of politicians' relatives in democracies to be subjected to public scrutiny, especially when there is a sudden change in fortunes that coincides with an uptick in the political cycle."

But instead of coming out with answers to clarify the doubts raised by Jay Shah's business deals, or ordering a probe in the absence of upfront answers, the government has gone on a brazen offensive. Although the report only states facts available in company records, Jay Shah has filed a Rs 100 crore defamation suit - an intimidatory tactic aimed at silencing the media at large from raising further questions. His father has extolled the tactic with the specious argument that the very act of filing a defamation suit was proof of his son's innocence. And worse, even before the report appeared on October 8, the government's top law officer - the additional solicitor general, no less - sought and received permission to defend Jay Shah in court; while a host of senior ministers and party spokesmen were made to speak out in his support after October 8.

Ironically, the BJP government's no-holds-barred defence of Jay Shah makes a mockery of its central argument that he is a private businessman and his affairs have no relevance for the larger public. In fact, the reaction to the report in The Wire has been more telling than the report itself.

It has shown, once again, that much like roadside bullies who believe that offence is the best defence and think nothing of beating up hapless pedestrians or rickshaw drivers who come in the way of their speeding SUVs, the Modi regime is willing to use the might of its machinery to stop anyone from questioning its leaders or their kin even while it brazenly uses the same machinery to target Opposition leaders and critics.

But in the zeal to defend his son, Amit Shah may have dealt a lethal blow to his boss and mentor, Narendra Modi. The prime minister's biggest boast all these years has been that he is above corruption and nepotism. By refusing to order even a preliminary inquiry and maintaining a stoic silence that has only emboldened Shah to step up the offensive, the prime minister has lost an opportunity to burnish his "incorruptible" sheen and shown utter disdain towards the principle of accountability which is a central tenet of functioning democracies.

As a result, Modi may never again be able to look the people of India in the eye and claim: Mitron, na khaunga na khane doonga. That claim now has a hollow ring.

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