|Spectrum of opportunity|
|Wednesday, 19 January 2011 00:00|
If you didn’t know Rajeev Chandrasekhar was neck-deep in the A Raja scam, the CAG report prominently displayed on his desk, next to the fat Mont Blanc in an ink-stand, makes sure you get to know it. On the wall are pictures of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), of various war heroes, of General Aurora and General Niazi, Shaheed Bhagat Singh… a white board on wheels is at hand, for the one occasion we need it during our hour-long tea session. There are biscuits that don’t look particularly distinguished and gajjak that looks as familiar as it is tempting—and so it should, it’s what Chandrasekhar’s one-time friend Sunil Mittal sends out each Lohri. Perhaps they’re still friends after all?
I want to discuss his letters, the letters to Ratan Tata, that suddenly brought Chandrasekhar back into the public eye for several days on end. Were the letters to Tata (you benefited as much as anyone else from telecom flip-flops during the BJP tenure), to the CBI and the CVC (please investigate the then Trai chief Pradip Baijal’s role in 2003), the letter to the Prime Minister (please get Kapil Sibal to retract his unfounded criticism of the CAG), and a planned press conference later this week (to expose the holes in Sibal and Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s critique of the CAG), all part of a plan to just get more publicity, a politician looking for an opportunity to canvass a larger audience, the urban voter?
Not true dude, he says, with the air of a well-settled man about town, and well-settled he is, given how his VC operations have helped him quadruple his net worth since he sold out of his telecom firm five years ago; he flies his own plane to de-stress, rides his Harley in the early hours of the morning in Bangalore since that’s the only time he can get an empty road—oh yes, from what I recall of an earlier meeting, Chandrasekhar’s bought the helmet Ayrton Senna wore in the race before the one in which he died and also has Michael Schumacher’s overalls in a glass airtight case so, “if you come up really close, you can even smell the sweat”. Ugh!
As I trade in the cup of strong Assam tea for a green tea, I see Chandrasekhar’s put back many of the 20-odd kilos he’d lost after he sold out and started a rigorous exercise schedule, though he’s got a lot more hair now. He’s wearing just a shirt to my pullover and jacket, his way of saying boo to Delhi’s winter.
The urban voter, he says, isn’t a homogeneous voter. The rich chaps don’t come out to vote, and the poor… well, they’ve got the same concerns that a rural voter has… they want more schools, more hospitals… but it still hasn’t dawned on them that the corruption they’re seeing is actually their money, their money to be spent on schools.
“Corruption is the ultimate victimless crime… not like Jessica Lall since in that case, there was a body, in this case there’s no body.”
So has he been able to convince voters he means business, that he’ll fight corruption? He talks of how he’s having some impact (his Website gets 40,000 hits a day), but says it’s a far cry from what’s really needed. By way of a direct answer: “When I first joined the Rajya Sabha, I thought I’d get into the electoral politics one day… today I know it is the most difficult thing to do for a person like me”.
So what’s the solution? The media, he says with a conviction only a non-media person can have. “Until the media is able to convince people they’re being had, there will be no change.” That’s why, of all the investments he’s made in firms in the tech space, in restaurants, in aerospace, the only one that’s not through Jupiter Capital (his VC firm) is television firm Asianet News which is in Kerala and Karnataka and he also plans to set up a newspaper. He makes fun of a sound byte-obsessed media for whom Sibal ripping into the CAG is as much of a sound byte as a CAG ripping into Raja—I hate to, but I concur.
But wasn’t he, I return to the topic of his letters, being selective with the news when he told Tata he had himself benefited from all the flip flops Tata accused the BJP of? After all, Chandrasekhar got the Mumbai cellular licence for free in 1994; and wasn’t it true the BJP helped him get a loan from ICICI when he was in trouble—all those birthdays celebrated with the PM’s foster-daughter had helped, hadn’t they?
Chandrasekhar doesn’t lose his cool and chooses to explain his stand carefully. No, he did not get the Mumbai licence free, just as Sunil Mittal didn’t get Delhi for free—wow, Chandrasekhar’s actually defending the man he fell out with on whether to pursue the case against the government in the Supreme Court in 2003 after the UASL licences were issued! The government had specified all the conditions—the airtime rates for different times of the day, the amount to be paid per year to the government for every subscriber they got, even the technology to be used (GSM, not CDMA)—but firms had to bid on the minimum rental they’d charge customers. He moves on to talk of how he’d won five circles in the 1995 bids but got to keep just three since the then minister Sukh Ram changed the rules to help Himachal Futuristic.
On the ICICI story, he insists there was a contract between the two and a fee paid to help him raise money. When ICICI refused to help him fund his business, he asked finance minister Jaswant Singh whether only lenders had rights or whether borrowers had rights as well. The matter went to RBI and, he says, ICICI was told to fulfil its contract—he’s the victim here, he insists you believe him, not the beneficiary.
Even so, the BJP did flip flop, I remind him. And while NTP 1999 may have been essential if the industry had to survive—the firms who were too broke to pay the fixed licence fee they had contracted to had sued the government for not giving them spectrum and various clearances, so it was pretty much headed for decades in the courts—the same couldn’t have been said for other policies. So why doesn’t he attack the BJP? Is it just because he was BJP like Ratan Tata said?
He was, he says, nominated by the Janata Dal Secular. But there were 20-odd BJP MLAs who supported him, he admits on being questioned closely. So he’s BJP! Not really, he replies.
BS Yeddyurappa says he’s anti-BJP since Chandrasekhar has filed a PIL asking for more transparency in the way land is allotted in Karnataka. “My letter to the CBI on Baijal, by your logic, will suggest that I’m pro-Congress!”
Does he miss telecom, considering he spends so much of his time thinking telecom, considering that his five minutes of fame today is about telecom. Why’d he quit, I ask? Because, he says with the arrogance only a journalist can have, “the only challenge was in lobbying for getting free spectrum and I was clear I didn’t want to do that”. So he’s like Ratan Tata, I rib him, unable to sleep at night if he bribes anyone!
Not unwilling, just not very good at it, comes the reply.
So what’s the lesson and what does the future hold once the current Rajya Sabha stint is over? There’s Jupiter Capital and the overall rule about not investing in areas which have a large government role. As for the future, he’ll always have an active public life—the better-Bangalore NGO called Abide, Flags of Honour to help resettle armed force widows and families… For now, the agenda for the techie whose initials are etched on the back of the 486 chip (all Intel’s designers had their initials on the chip’s litho) is a lot clearer: to prepare slides for a presentation to knock holes in Sibal and Ahluwalia’s campaign to rip into the CAG.
Will it help? You’re the media dude, it’s up to you to create the atmosphere… oh oh, we’re back to where we began.