On 15 June 2009, the Bombay High Court directed Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) to honour an agreement signed with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Natural Resources Ltd (RNRL) as part of a family asset division that assured the latter supply of gas from the KG basin at a discount price of $2.34 per unit, a private deal that the Supreme Court later ruled was invalid since the gas was State-owned even though RIL was the gas field’s operator. Here, Niira Radia discusses the implications of the High Court judgment with prominent journalist Vir Sanghvi
“What kind of story do you want? Because this will go as Counterpoint, so it will be like most-most read...” —VIR SANGHVI
DATE 20 June 2009 TIME 12:09:59
VIR: Okay, now I can talk.
RADIA: I just got out of this treadmill. On this battle. I need to, I’m trying to get Mukesh to come out and talk.
RADIA: But the thing is this, we have to, if he talks, we have to carry it as is, in the sense that you know he, I think, they’re very conscious of every line and everything that goes out.
RADIA: Because it’s a battle. It’s a battle at the end of the day for him, you know. And also, whether we bring it into print.
RADIA: That’s the other issue. I think the…
VIR: But see Anil can’t afford to give interviews because he will be asked about Amar Singh, so many things, so that the advantage Mukesh has is that he can talk and there is nothing for him to be embarrassed about. So many skeletons in Anil’s closet that he doesn’t want to clarify. If he comes on, he says, ‘Amar Singh is my close friend,’ he is fucked. If he comes on, he says, ‘I have no relations with Amar Singh,’ Amar Singh will kill him. I mean there are so many awkward things, so Anil has decided to avoid the media. Mukesh doesn’t have that problem. Mukesh can talk straight, can say things. You can rehearse. You can work out a script in advance. You can go exactly according to the script. Anil can’t do any of those things, no?
RADIA: Right. But we can do that, no?
VIR: But Mukesh has to be on board. He has to sort of realise. It has to be fully scripted.
RADIA: No, that’s what I mean. I think that’s what he’s asking me.
VIR: Yes, it has to be fully scripted.
RADIA: He is saying is that, ‘Look Niira’, that ‘I don’t want anything extempore.’
VIR: No, it has to be fully scripted. I have to come in and do a run through with him before.
RADIA: Yeah, yeah.
VIR: We have to rehearse it before the cameras come in.
RADIA: Yeah, yeah.
VIR: Then it is worth doing.
RADIA: Correct, correct.
VIR: Otherwise, there is a lot at stake.
RADIA: Yeah. That’s right, that’s the one point. The other thing was that when Rohit on this particular article of [inaudible] because Anil is going all out and we are going to start talking. It is not as if we are not going to start talking. But I think the challenge that I’m facing is that I think we need to set the tone.
RADIA: How what has happened as far as the order is concerned is completely against national interest.
RADIA: You know and even if we were to assume that they get gas or they get coal, or they get iron ore or whatever one gets. If you look at how Tatas has always gone into those areas and done something for the people even before they have been able to extract anything out of it.
RADIA: Here, the culture of, you know, if it’s set at a power plant in Shahpur, which Rohit will brief you, or is setting up a power plant in Dadri… One would ask a question, have you actually done anything for those people even though you are taking their land from them? I can say today you know with my hand on my heart whether it is Kalinga Nagar that we are fighting the Maoists or Singur where we fought Mamta, we continue doing work whether our plant came up or not. You know sometimes…
VIR: What kind of story do you want? Because this will go as Counterpoint, so it will be like most-most read, but it can’t seem too slanted, yet it is an ideal opportunity to get all the points across.
RADIA: But basically, the point is what has happened as far as the High Court is concerned is a very painful thing for the country because what is done is against national interest.
RADIA: I think that’s the underlying message.
VIR: Okay. That message we will do. That allocation of resources which are scarce national resources of a poor country cannot be done in this arbitrary fashion to benefit a few rich people.
RADIA: That’s right.
VIR: Yeah. That message we will get across, but what other points do we need to make?
RADIA: I think we need to say that you know it’s a lesson for the corporate world that, you know, they need to think through whenever they want to look at this, whether they really seriously do give back to society.
VIR: So I will link it to the election verdict. The fact that there has been so much Narega, that Sonia has commit•ted to including everybody, that it should be inclusive growth. It shouldn’t just benefit the few fat cats. It shouldn’t be cronyism. It shouldn’t be arbitrary. That’s how the message for this five years of Manmohan Singh should be—that you have to put an end to this kind of allocations of scarce resources on the basis of corruption and arbitrariness at the cost of the country, otherwise the country will not forgive you.
RADIA: Yeah, but Vir, you have to keep in mind that he has been given the gas field by the Government to operate. He spent ten billion dollars on it.
RADIA: Anil Ambani is getting the benefit without spending a cent on it…
VIR: I’ll make those points, no?
VIR: So I’ll make those points. The people, because the system is so corrupt and open to manipulation, by manipulating the system, by not paying anybody you can get hands on resources. Therefore the only way Manmohan Singh hopes to survive is to get a handle on the resources and have some kind of way of allocating them that is transparent, fair and perhaps done by him.
RADIA: But there you will be attacking Mukesh only, no.
VIR: Why, why, why, explain that.
RADIA: You see, because a resource has been allocated to Mukesh in this case.
VIR: So, what point do you want me to make?
RADIA: The point I’m making is that here, the point is limited to the fact that you cannot have a High Court deciding on this. You cannot have a tribunal deciding on this.
VIR: What about ministers?
RADIA: Even ministers.
VIR: Spectrum and co is ministers, no?
RADIA: Yeah, even ministers. You want to really look at, maybe there’s an EGoM [Empowered Group of Ministers] that got set and is looking at the pricing issue, and natural resources should be decided not by any of this arbitrary mechanism. It has to be one for the country. And there should be some sort of a formula that Manmohan Singh has to...
VIR: Yeah, that is the message, you know. There should be a formula by which resources will be allocated in a transparent, non-arbitrary sort of way. That has to be a message, no?
RADIA: Yeah. And also, you know, going to court.
VIR: That the people want resources, they have to be back to society. They have to pay the Government. They have corporate social responsibility. They have to care about the people who are going to be displaced, the people who are going to lose things. You can’t just go ahead and rape the system.
RADIA: Yeah. But you want to say that you know, more importantly that here a family MoU has taken precedence over national interest, and what the judge has done… I mean you’ll have to attack the judge here because the judge has, what he’s done, he’s given preference to an MoU. He has held on to the MoU and said, ‘Okay, this had to be implemented.’ But he has forgotten what’s good, that’s why it raises a bigger constitutional issue.
VIR: Which is?
RADIA: Which is natural resources is really a constitutional issue. It has to do with the country and the nation.
VIR: It’s not between two brothers and their fight.
RADIA: It’s not and therefore the judge’s interpretation of an MoU…
RADIA: It cannot be the basis of the way how we can proceed on these sorts of issues. I mean, you have to attack the fact that the judge has only gone into the MoU. His entire judgment is on the basis of the MoU.
RADIA: And therefore a judgment between two family members cannot be how you decide the future.
VIR: Okay. Let this Rohit come, let me explain to him, and I’ll talk to you and tell you what line I’m taking.
RADIA: Okay. And you’ll do it for next Sunday, is it?
VIR: No, no tomorrow
And now, a conversation on an entirely different issue. In May 2009, as coalition talks between the DMK and Congress broke down, Niira Radia was apparently involved quite actively in opening channels between the two parties through, among others, Vir Sanghvi
VIR SANGHVI “I won’t get into Sonia in the short term, let me try and get through to Ahmed”
DATE 22 May 2009 TIME 13:03:19
VIR: Hi Niira.
RADIA: Hi Vir. Where are you, Delhi or…
VIR: I’m in Jaipur. Coming back this evening.
RADIA: Okay. I just wanted to… I’ve been talking to my Tamil Nadu friends.
RADIA: I just need to… I don’t know whether you are in the position to get through to anyone at Congress. I just met Kani just now.
RADIA: And I’ve been, you know, we re-united since yesterday. The problem is…
VIR: I was supposed to meet Sonia today, but I’ve been stuck here. So, now it’s becoming tomorrow. I’ve been dealing with Rahul, but tell me?
RADIA: No, I’ll tell you what---they are not understanding that they are actually communicating with the wrong guy. Not because I detest Maran, but actually the father has not nominated Maran to negotiate. Now, you know, it’s like a banana republic where the Cabinet…
VIR: Then why Maran became the face? They all hate Maran.
RADIA: No. He is not, he is not. I know, no. But the Congress is under the impression. They have already apparently indicated to Maran that the Prime Minister will not give infrastructure berth to DMK, which… but he himself is desperately pushing for an infrastructure berth for himself.
RADIA: But the problem is that there is a leader which is Kani’s brother, which is Alagiri, who’s won that election and he is a mass leader.
RADIA: Now what has apparently… Maran has gone and indicated to Congress that he will accept a MOS independent, and you leave it with me, everything will be okay.
RADIA: Which blames Baalu, Raja and Maran Cabinet posts independent to Alagiri and MOS to Kani.
RADIA: Now, Alagiri is a very, you know, he is, he is a mass leader. He controls half of Tamil Nadu for Karunanidhi’s point of view.
RADIA: He is far too, too senior for Maran. So, what he has told his father that if you make Maran a Cabinet minister…
RADIA: …I’ll not come into the Cabinet. And the father cannot afford to upset him because…
RADIA: …simply because of his position.
RADIA: Right now, the Congress doesn’t seem to be understanding this.
VIR: So, who should they talk to?
RADIA: They need to, look, they need to talk directly to Karunanidhi, they need to talk to Kani.
VIR: Sonia spoke to him yesterday, you know.
RADIA: No, she didn’t speak to him. Only Prime Minister spoke, even that was Kani was translating for him. It was very brief that, you know, let’s try and resolve this issue. There is nothing at all and whatever. They need to get Ghulam Nabi Azad to speak to Kanimozhi.
RADIA: Seriously, that’s the only thing that will work and Kani will take them to her father.
VIR: I won’t get into Sonia in the short term, let me try and get through to Ahmed.
RADIA: No. But they need to speak to Kani [Kanimozhi, DMK Chief M Karunanidhi’s daughter], and Kani will take him to their, her father directly.
RADIA: He has no problem with three Cabinet berths at all. In fact, it is the Congress that messed it up.
RADIA: Had they, had they not kept on insisting and kept on pushing Maran forward… themselves have been pushing Maran forward. They would have left it to Raja and, and Baalu even if they wanted, or Raja and Alagiri and Kani would taken independent, nobody will, it is Congress they started this whole Maran dialogue.
VIR: Oh, I have been thinking that DMK nominated Maran.
RADIA: No. No. No. No, they did, they’ve sent a list earlier with five portfolios and Maran’s name because father was pushed … so he had to send a list with everybody’s name on it. But he was hoping that Congress would come back and say, ‘Okay, we will accept Raja,’ or ‘We will not,’ or ‘Not Raja, we will give you only three portfolios,’ right? But they have not able to, the communication that’s been happening in Congress with DMK has been completely warped. They are talking to the wrong guys.
VIR: Okay. Let me try and get through to Ahmed.
RADIA: The, the simplest way is Kani [inaudible; 0:03:24].
RADIA: And Kani [inaudible; 0:03:27] will take them to her father directly.
RADIA: And they can have this, you know, whatever are the, the concerns, whatever they want to say, let them say in front of Kani.
VIR: And he’ll never mind. He will not mind.
RADIA: Yeah, they should say, they should say, ‘We don’t want Maran.’
VIR: Okay, done. Let me just try and get through and I’ll let you know soon.
RADIA: But the moment you drop Maran, your problem gets resolved because Alagiri has done okay.
RADIA: Okay. Give him this message. She is right now…
VIR: I just…
RADIA: [Inaudible; 0:03:51] She is in her South Avenue residence.
VIR: They have a mobile , you know?
RADIA: I just met her.
RADIA: And some Tamil Nadu Congress guys also want just now to meet her.
RADIA: I don’t think it needs to be done at that level. It needs to be done at, at Ghulam Nabi Azad level or…
VIR: Well, I’ll talk with Ahmed. I’m going to talk to him.
A follow-up discussion on cabinet berths for the DMK’s leading lights, including of course the Telecom Ministry for A Raja
NIIRA RADIA “Thanks…That was really great, you know, you all, I mean it was exactly as you had said”
DATE 23 May 2009 TIME 22:26:42
RADIA: Sorry to disturb you.
VIR: Hi, no problem.
RADIA: They had a meeting.
RADIA: MK Narayanan [National Security Advisor at the time] had come.
RADIA: And as suggested it was Kani only.
RADIA: And they had a… they are still stuck to their four formula and one independent.
RADIA: But these people will also think about it and let him know tomorrow morning. He is…
VIR: But they will not send him about the family or whatever, right?
RADIA: No. He clarified everything that you had told him.
VIR: Okay, very good.
RADIA: I think that there was no issue, and there was, and there was lot of relief from this Chief Minister’s side.
RADIA: And he realised that, you know, this is all being done by…
VIR: By Maran.
RADIA: …yeah. [inaudible; 0:00:42] But the thing is that it appears that he is still under a lot of pressure to take Maran, you know, so…
VIR: Where is this coming from, this pressure?
RADIA: It’s coming from Stalin and his sister Sylvie.
Radia: So, I believe Maran has given about 600 crores to Dayalu, Stalin’s mother.
VIR: 600 Crores, okay?
RADIA: 600 Crores, is what I’m told.
VIR It’s hard to argue with that kind of pressure?
RADIA: Isn’t it. So, he is…
RADIA: …but no, but he doesn’t know, the father doesn’t, I mean...
VIR: Doesn’t realise what?
RADIA: Doesn’t realise that. But this is the feedback that Alagiri has got.
VIR: So, basically what they want is a little more flexibility and posts right? They want probably more cabinets or something?
RADIA: They are saying one more cabinet and Kani was independent charge.
RADIA: But if they stick to three and give independent charge, then Kani gets her independent and then Alagiri, Baalu and Raja come in?
VIR: That is not so bad, you know.
RADIA: Yeah, so I think…
VIR: …unless Maran is one of the cabinet.
RADIA: Yeah. But yeah, unless Maran is one of the cabinet. But I don’t think he can give it to three family members.
RADIA: That will send a very wrong signal.
VIR: That’s right.
RADIA: So, the best thing is, you know, if I don’t know whether Narayanan can say that, I mean he can’t say who should be the people. But he could probably go back and say that, you know, Baalu and Raja and Alagiri is the best option and Kani, you know.
VIR: And it’s good for the Government also. That doesn’t seem to be giving it to the family.
RADIA: Yeah. Yeah but then I don’t know whether he is in the position to take names, you know.
VIR: Because Baalu and Raja are saying it is being spread by Maran saying that we don’t, nobody wants them because they are crooks to advance his own career, you know.
RADIA: Yeah. Yeah. So, if there was anything that could be said which is, that, that you know, you know, if, if Narayanan was to come back tomorrow and say by looking, I think, we think that may be the three, and we’ll see a little later for the fourth one. But for now let’s just look at Alagiri, Baalu and Raja…
VIR: And, and, and see Maran…
RADIA: …and we can give independent to Kani.
VIR : Yeah. Makes sense.
RADIA: And, and that would be a, a good thing for him to say. And they are asking for environment and forest.
VIR: See, Narayanan will talk to PM. Then they have to communicate, he won’t talk to the Congress President.
VIR: He won’t talk to Congress president. So, somebody … he’s PM’s man, he has gone on behalf of PM. So, they will, PMO will send its feedback to Congress party. So, that stage my friends will get a….
RADIA: So they will in any case speak to Ahmed, you know.
VIR: Yeah. Yeah, they will. And nothing will happen without his getting involved.
VIR: So, I’ll speak to him right away and convey this?
RADIA: Yeah. But maybe that, you know, he would have to specify then that we are not too comfortable with Maran…
RADIA: …and let it be Baalu and Raja because so much has been said and then it would also, also send a wrong message that if you don’t take Baalu and Raja now. But I don’t know whether they will say that?
VIR: I don’t know. Well let’s, let’s. No, harm trying.
RADIA: But therefore Kani, is asking for, he is not told Narayanan this, but they’ve suggested a couple of ministries.
VIR: Which one?
RADIA: But they are saying okay, telecom is going to Raja in any case.
RADIA: That, the old man is very clear about.
RADIA: But as far as the other two are concerned, he doesn’t mind. He is not very fussed about chemical, fertilisers and labour.
RADIA: How funny, he would prefer that she gets independent charge Environment and Forest or something like that. You know, where she can get her teeth in and she is I think, she is very upright with it. So, they shouldn’t have any problem with that, or by the way aviation also.
VIR: What about Civil Aviation?
RADIA: And Civil Aviation.
VIR: It gives her the, it gives her the profile she would need, you know.
RADIA: She wants the aviation because, why she says aviation because she can do Chennai airport, Salem and Madurai and all that, you know…
RADIA: …it gives her the, the foothold for the political side.
VIR: We don’t have anyone there. Let me talk.
RADIA: Yeah. And she is intelligent and she will do just, because they are saying Environment and Forest and Aviation for Kani in independent charge.
VIR: I’ll pass this on?
RADIA: Yeah. Thanks. Thanks to you.
RADIA: That was really great, you know, you all, I mean it was exactly as you had said and…
VIR : Okay.
RADIA: They were very relieved and she was so relieved. So, wants to say thank you to you personally.
VIR: I’ll pass it…
VIR: Oh, very good.