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The Radia Tapes: Much ado…

Omkar Goswami


I recall the words of an astute man, now dead. He said, “Never forget that Delhi is a derivative city. People think they derive power by claiming to be close to others in power. It is circular. The mirage works for a few, and doesn’t for most. But it takes a while to recognise who really knows what is going on, and who doesn’t.”

Nothing explains Delhi or Washington DC better than these sentences. These capitals have only one game in town. It involves behaving as if you are a deep political and administrative insider; and making others believe that you are the crucible of critical information, which you dole out in bits with just enough veracity for the listener. If your professed connections fail often enough and in relatively quick time, you are abandoned for the next ‘in-the-know’ in town. Sometimes to rise like the Phoenix, usually under a different political and bureaucratic dispensation.

That brings me to Niira Radia. Until now, I hadn’t bothered about the tapes. I don’t know her; probably wouldn’t recognise her even today; and wouldn’t care to either. What was the big deal about her? After all, there are at least half a dozen such people like her floating around Delhi, who are to be seen at the Chambers or the Belvedere, and in the front of British Airways flights. What was so special about her, other than her tattles being taped, and then being released to the press?

Eventually, I decided to hear some of the tapes. I found bits of fairly serious stuff interspersed by mountains of trivia, gross unprofessionalism and a tragedy. First the trivia. A columnist writing a piece exactly the way that one of Radia’s client’s would have liked, and giving her a précis before it was put to bed. An über rich spouse being irked by a write-up on her, and having someone ask Radia to fix it. The connected husband of an adopted daughter and Radia sharing well known juice about the near death bankruptcy of a major Delhi-based property developer-qua-nascent mobile player, whose bounced cheques were manifest missiles of the past. Some wickedly perspicacious comments by a retired IAS honcho, now a Rajya Sabha member, involving Shivji ki baraat (various creatures in the Union cabinet), the apparent demotion of the erstwhile Commerce Minister from glories of the WTO to fixing the nation’s potholes, and the unexpected rise of Anand Sharma and Jairam Ramesh in the post-2009 election dispensation. And conversations with Ratan Tata — including one where Radia spews nineteen to the dozen, while Tata says, “Yeah”, “Uh, huh” and “Um, hmm” thirty-three times.

All of this was fairly known stuff; some cleverly put; some bitchy; some utterly silly; and nothing unexpected. To me, an astounding feature of the tapes is Radia’s inexhaustible ability to yak. Almost every conversation is 80:20 in the lady’s favour. Her modus operandi is ancient. Glean some information from A; play that out to B, adding a twist or two to get some more dope; stitch them together and play it to C, and so on. By the time you reach K and then replay all this to A, everyone is convinced that you are totally in the know. There are some past masters of this game in Delhi. Radia learnt the ropes well, despite talking too much.

For me, the tragedy is a tale of gradual delusion of a financially honest, semi-retired person with a desire to be the nation’s Eminence Grise. His need to be recognised as the advisor to those who matter, be thought of as a permanent invitee to all in camera matters of consequence, and be known as a peripatetic friend who is in the loop with the highest authorities in Delhi and Washington DC was cleverly leveraged by Ms. Radia, acting as child at the feet of the master. Some of this person’s provenance is true. Some is not, but has taken a life of its own in the derivative atmosphere of Delhi. Radia played him so well that he — a tight-lipped person — felt the need to speak way more than he should have, dropping too many names for anybody’s comfort, sharing spicy tit-bits and then apologising. A tragedy for a good individual who built and ran a class outfit for over four decades.

The gross unprofessionalism is Radia’s. For a person in the game of influence peddling and getting-things-done-for-my-patron, she was over the top in talking about her key clients to others. “Ratan said this” and “Mukesh wishes that”, “Ratan can’t trust Mukesh” and “Sunil is a difficult nut to crack” are hardly what serious policy manipulators say on phones. Or say at all. I was also amazed at how she shared information about one key client or the other to various third parties. It was yak, tease, gossip, cajole, drop little goodies all the way.

The serious stuff is how Radia worked tirelessly to influence the outcome of the 2G spectrum sales. She worked the press; worked Raja; worked his minions; and even worked those who need not have been worked. Did she influence the outcome? It is very difficult to say. If Raja somehow had his brain addled and did the right thing and the Radia tapes had leaked, we would have all said that the lady failed. But with Raja doing the wrong thing, did Radia succeed? Or did others, who had doled out vast amounts of cash to unknown coffers, while she kept the band playing? I suspect that was the case.

What have we learnt that we didn’t know? That there are PR people who try to influence decisions? That there are corrupt ministers? That the size of the take has increased exponentially? That some journalists do planted stories? Even a decade ago, a leading newspaper was called The Greenhouse for its many plants. Radia is a phone-working, hyper talkative intermediary who is being given way more importance than she deserves. The real muck of the 2G scandal lies elsewhere.

Published: Business Standard, December 2010


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