It is difficult now to recapture those initial impressions when we first began listening to the recordings sourced by Open more than a month before we finally went to press with the story in our 20 November issue in 2010, but at the very least the few of us who did hear them were astonished. Most of us were only dimly aware of Niira Radia, none of us had ever met her, and while every political journalist in Delhi is aware of the networks that mediate power in the city (there is also no shortage of journalists who aspire to be part of such networks), to actually see one laid out in clinical detail is another matter altogether. Perhaps the feeling a physiologist may have had on glancing through the first microscope is a close approximation.
To speak of the recordings today requires an aside. Only recently, in the Outlook issue dated 7 November, Vir Sanghvi has claimed that a recording of a particular conversation had been manipulated. This is easily set aside. He has cited three lab reports; none of them bestows certainty, each disagrees with the other. But quite apart from the technical details, his claims defy common sense. The tape in question does not stand alone, the details of his conversations are borne out by other conversations that do not involve Sanghvi, which in turn are corroborated by other tapes. In effect, his tape could have been doctored only if tens of hours of recording involving dozens of people was doctored. In contrast, the parallels Sanghvi draws with the Prashant Bhushan tape involving Amar Singh do not stand. That tape is clearly a forgery because the initial segment, word for word, pause for pause, already exists among the Amar Singh tapes only recently made public. Two people cannot repeat an entire exchange, pauses and all, at the beginning of two different conversations with entirely differing contexts.
But to come back to Radia, initially for us much of the focus was on people caught on tape talking to her. Some were clients, including India’s most important industrialists such as Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata, others, journalists such as Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi and Prabhu Chawla, who have since pleaded professional necessity. But at the end of a month of living with her voice, listening to many of the conversations several times over before settling on what we should transcribe and excerpt, it was no surprise that it was Radia who came across most emphatically.
We now know far more about Radia, but even then the Radia of the tapes seemed to have come a long way from the woman who first landed in India after a divorce in the UK and charmed politicians and bureaucrats to do her bidding. The tapes say little about how she got there, but clearly they indicate why she had got there. From A Raja to Barkha Dutt, she was the one telling people what to do, they were the ones asking her what their next step should be. The only time she deferred to anyone was when she was talking to Ratan Tata or Mukesh Ambani.
Her now well-known exchange with Ratan Tata where she discusses, among other things, her Roberto Cavalli gown, is more than evidence of the fact that she had a personal and direct equation with him. Her closeness to the Mukesh Ambani family seemed to be no less. In the context of Nita Ambani’s interview by Shobhaa De, which was apparently published in a magazine not initially approved by Nita Ambani, she passed on the advice that “we don’t need to deal with people like Shobhaa De in the future’’. She also seemed to be among the few who had a personal equation with Mukesh and Anil’s mother. In a conversation about a court judgment, she told a journalist:
RADIA: Mother does not even get involved
JOURNALIST: The court says she must
RADIA: No (laughs)… that must be on learned judge’s view that the mother... as in even the mother even understands, you know, how to spell gas
She only knows cooking gas. And she doesn’t, I mean with due respect to her, I have seen her, I have met her a number of times. I don’t think she looks like the sort of person who has interfered in either of the sons other than at the time of settlement, which was when she was dragged in.
RADIA: But I think her view is, you know, why don’t you just stop fighting.
JOURNALIST: Absolutely, that is what a mother will do.
RADIA: Ya, and I think her interest is that and... she has got to a point even now she was saying the other day and I must tell you this in confidence and her view was that, you know, since Amar Singh has come into to our lives he has destroyed our family.
JOURNALIST: Ya, ya, he has destroyed many more.
RADIA: Ya, and she said, you know as a mother and... he is suffering this whole kidney ailment and all that, and she said I shouldn’t say this to you but she was saying in Gujarati she and I talk, and she said you know as a mother I can tell you, that he has really and this is my curse on him because he destroyed my family and I am sure it is the curse of many.
It was this proximity to the two industrialists, a proximity blurring the professional and the personal that allowed her to speak on their behalf in ways perhaps even they would find unsettling. In one conversation with an Economic Times journalist, when she could not dissuade the journalist from pursuing a story, she threatened:
RADIA: [then] Tell him [the editor] front page de doh, double, I want full spread.
JOURNALIST: You want?
RADIA: Please give me five columns.
JOURNALIST: For what?
RADIA: After that I will let Ratan Tata decide what he wants to do with Bennett Coleman.
In speaking so to a journalist, and through the journalist to India’s most powerful media company, she was only reflecting the equation that actually defines how networks of power work in Delhi—politicians are temporary, journalists are subservient, or if they are not their bosses are, it is only corporates who retain a permanent access to power. Politicians need their money to conduct politics, the media needs their advertisements to conduct its business.
This equation has only been reinforced in the decade that she operated her PR firm, which started work in November 2001. It is illustrative to compare her with other people who wielded power in the same fashion. The Amar Singh tapes are an obvious comparison, but he was the man who embodied the 90s in Indian politics—shifting loyalties and alliances, personal patronage and a network of old boys, not from Doon, but from the fields of the OBC and JP movement. And he brought no pretence to his brazenness.
The successive NDA and UPA governments have for the time being set aside such men. The last decade has been about the liberalised and educated elite, operating in an atmosphere where money was there to be made and enjoyed, where networks of patronage and power, extending beyond party affiliations, were filled with the same kind of people. They understood how power operated, and in that they were no different from Amar Singh, but they also brought with them a pretence of professionalism, a veneer of decency. Sometimes the veil would lift, as was the case in the Shashi Tharoor episode (who had to resign as Minister of State for External Affairs over the purchase of shares in the Kochi IPL franchise), a minor prelude to the Radia tapes.
Radia in some ways embodied the decade. Her own network was made up of people who were icons of this class—Barkha and Vir as journalists (men like Prabhu Chawla had already stopped mattering, which is why his conversation with Radia has attracted far less attention); Tata and Ambani as industrialists; Kanimozhi as a politician (Radia’s closeness to Raja was through Kanimozhi). She had risen to great wealth in a decade, and now her aspirations were straightforward.
TARUN DAS (former head of the CII): Have you got your Jaguar?
RADIA: I take delivery when I am coming back, I am coming back next weekend, I am taking delivery on Saturday
DAS: And is it coming to Delhi, or will it stay in Bombay?
RADIA: You know Tarun, if I bring it to Delhi, you know, you come into too much that thing, everybody, you know how people in Delhi are
RADIA: But when you come to Bombay, I will take you for a spin.
DAS: Ya, I’d love to, I’d never be able to afford it. What is it, ninety lakhs?
RADIA: Sixty-two. I’ve gone for the XS because the XKR two-seater would be no point because, you know, you can’t drive it in Bombay. I’ve gone for the sedan.
DAS: Have you got Ratan to review his views on Sunil Mittal?
RADIA: You know I want to talk to Sunil, I want him to make a statement, he is doing a Vir interview.
This affluence was tempered with the same overt religiosity that sits easily with the new wealth.
RADIA: I am going to Vaishno Devi tomorrow, to Jammu.
DAS: I used to be on the board of trustees at one time.
RADIA: Oh really?
DAS: Without having any religion in me, I don’t know how I was nominated.
RADIA: It is, as we call it, the mother’s will.
DAS: Have you been there?
RADIA: Many times before, ya, ya. I am going after three years, three-four years.
DAS: Is it a good place?
RADIA: Ya ya, lovely.
DAS: And you feel good going there?
RADIA: Oh ya, it is really a great feeling.
DAS: I presume you don’t go in Western clothes.
RADIA: No, no, sari or salwar kameez.
DAS: I don’t think I have ever seen you, oh no, I have seen you at that wedding in a sari. It can’t be that kind of sari.
RADIA: No, of course not.
DAS: How was your London visit?
RADIA: Good, good, I met Ratan also.
Aside from the Jaguars and Vaishno Devi trip, Tarun Das and Radia were discussing ways in which a rapprochement could be brought about between Sunil Mittal and Ratan Tata to strengthen a front against Anil Ambani. But even as she was working for her clients she was also making sure her interests were served. She had twice attempted to float her own airline without success. The Government had approached Ratan Tata to set things right at Indian Airlines and this gave her reason to speak to journalists and others about the sector. (Her bitterness against then Aviation Minister Praful Patel was evident, and there is enough on the tapes to suggest that the story of all that transpired in the years of the airline’s decline has yet to be told, despite a subsequent CAG report that lends credence to some of her charges of the airline being stripped of its assets.) Through Tarun Das she was also lobbying for the return of Sunil Arora, a Rajasthan cadre IAS officer close to her, who had been the CMD of the airline.
This blurring of the personal and the professional was the key to her way of functioning and the way her network of power operated. This professionalism was again only a pretence; underneath the pretence, the way in which business was conducted was not very different from how the Amar Singhs worked. But this was a way of working that could not afford the publicity the tapes attracted.
This hypocrisy that shields the actual requirements of work from public posturing has come back to haunt her. Much of what she did, she did because that is what the world around her required. She did precisely what corporations required her to do, ethics did not enter it, though they cannot afford to publicly admit this. In the end, it is Radia who links Amar Singh’s decade to the one Anna Hazare is ushering in. However much we may decry it, she represents the ruling class that behaves like her but pretends to aspire to a nation that will behave as Anna Hazare would want it to.