The UPA era coal and 2G scams have inured us to large numbers. Therefore, the scale of Nirav Modi’s Rs 11,400 crore banking fraud took some time to sink into the public consciousness. Besides, people were not at once clear of his exact modus operandi and the potential ramifications of the fraud. But once they understood, everyone from politicians and journalists to social media warriors came out with all guns blazing, mostly trained at the Government.
In no time, pictures of Nirav Modi with the Prime Minister at the recent World Economic Forum conference at Davos went viral on WhatsApp, notwithstanding the official clarification that he was not part of the entourage but just a paid delegate. That he shares the same surname with the PM has added zesty tadka to the conspiracy theories. Soon a video clip of Nirav Modi’s uncle, Mehul Choksy, attending an event at the Prime Minister’s residence also started doing the rounds in digital space.
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Apart from a statement by Financial Services Secretary at the initial stages, when he curiously called the massive siphoning “an isolated incident”, Government officials and Ministers have remained conspicuously silent, leaving it for the PNB CEO to do the talking. Spokespersons of the BJP tried to valiantly defend the Government on television, taking the stand that the fraud commenced during the UPA era and was detected under the NDA regime which has been trying to clean up the banking sector. They also produced pictures of Rahul Gandhi attending a Nirav Modi event in Delhi as a counter to the group photo of the latter with the PM at Davos. But, that did not stop the opposition from firing relentlessly at Narendra Modi.
Damage control efforts by the Government by conducting raids on tbe premises of Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksy of Gitanjali Gems fame and reported confiscation of jewellery and cash worth Rs 5000 crores also failed to impress. Nirav’s sighting in New York and suspension of his and Choksy’s passports for four weeks was met with cynicism since they had already flown the coop. Considering recent instances of economic offenders fleeing the country and successfully dodging extradition warrants, there is another aspect too. And therein lies the rub.
Readers may recall two business luminaries, one of Indian and the other of Sri Lankan origin, were convicted for an insider trading scandal in the United States some years ago. It was quite unthinkable that someone of their stature and background could have risked such a crime in the US. One of them, it seems, had later lamented that, his confidence arose from the fact that in South Asia the rich and powerful inevitably get away after committing white collar crimes thanks to our complex legal system and political clout.
Since bank nationalisation, Indian public banks have been institutions of mass abuse. Defrauding banks became an accepted business model of many industrialists. The most common practice was, of course, defaulting on repayment of loans and then forcing banks to take 'hair-cuts'. But, these were policy violations by corrupt bank officials and deliberate bending of rules for crony capitalists.
However, the Indian banking system, inherited from British banks , is reasonably robust and has largely stood the test of time at the operations level. Over the years there have not been too many systematic use of banking instruments to siphon off funds on this scale other than Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh. But, as one banking expert pointed out, Mehta and Parekh used short-term credit for playing in the stock market. What distinguishes Nirav Mehta in the august company of these legendary scamsters is, he built a huge international business empire at the cost of India's nationalised banks.
Clearly all the facts are yet to surface. What is coming out through leaks and Chinese whispers are less than half-truths. Predictably, politicians and senior officials of the bank are scurrying for cover, distancing themselves from the scandal. Blame is being directed at a retired middle level bank manager believed to be the kingpin of the racket, which is of course difficult to believe.
At first count, the scam is said to have expanded across 17 PSU banks. Even the thought that such a colossal fraud could have been committed without the connivance of the senior brass of the banks or the political system is scary. The common depositors implicitly trust our Government owned financial institutions like banks, mutual funds and insurance companies. A realisation that their life’s savings can be at the mercy of an errant junior staff can deprive many pensioners of their sleep. UTI was the first wake up call for the middle-class. Now it is PNB. They must be wondering what lies in store ahead. Could it be the LIC or any of the public sector insurance companies?
Alas Nirav Modi may not be the last one to take banks for a ride. Instead of playing the blame game with Congress and the Opposition, BJP must ensure speedy justice not only in the Nirav Modi matter but all other cases of economic offences in which the accused are either roaming freely in the country (often taking pot shots at the Government for their inaction) or holidaying abroad, in some instances enjoying handsome maintenance allowance generously ordered by foreign courts.
The BJP came to power on the promise of tackling black money and corruption. So far they have little to show on that account other than the highly contentious claims of collateral gains from demonetisation. Justice, as the cliché goes, must be seen to be done. So far 'ease of doing business' was interpreted as the ease with which people could beat the system. This has to change dramatically and quickly without succumbing to push-backs in the name of tax terrorism and other bogeys.
Real ease of business and investor confidence will come only with the enforcement of the rule of law that applies equally and across the board for all. Nirav Modi will be a litmus test for that in the election year for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
(Author is a writer and popular blogger on current affairs. His Twitter handle is @SandipGhose)
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