C P Surendran
According to one estimate, the total amount of Gross Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) for public and private sector banks in India is around Rs 6 lakh crores. Public sector banks account for Rs 1.54 lakh crores of the missing money. The rest owes to all the fine work by private banks. These are astronomical sums; like the distance between the galaxies. We can only think of it as vast, but unreal. We are out of these figures, though it is our money. We are in another orbit.
Ms Chanda Kochhar heads the largest private bank in India — ICICI Bank. There have been allegations against her in connection with the bank’s dealings with Venugopal Dhoot’s Videocon group, a company never quite famous for its transparency and ethics.
ICICI Bank had lent, as part of a 20-bank consortium, loans amounting to Rs 40,000 crores — of which Rs 3,250 crores went to Videocon. Never ask on what basis this amount went into Mr Dhoot’s pockets. Never ask if Video is a Con. You are not likely to get a satisfactory answer, just as you will not get a satisfactory answer if you ask the same questions of Nirav Modi or JP (Jaypee? This is one group that no one is clear what its registered name could be at any given moment) Associates.
Ms Kochhar is in trouble not just because of the loan that her bank is highly unlikely to get back. Her real problem is how to defend her husband, Deepak Kochhar, who in 2010 allegedly received Rs 64 crores that a generous and grateful Mr Dhoot gave through a fully owned entity to NuPower Renewables Pvt Ltd (NRPL), the company that he had set up with Deepak Kochhar and two of his relatives.
Mr Dhoot had helpfully transferred proprietorship of the company to a trust owned by Mr Kochhar for Rs 9 lakhs, six months after he received the loan of Rs 3,250 crores from ICICI Bank.
A few years ago Ms Kochhar, in keeping with the trend then of maternal celebrities (a point highly appreciated, too, then, by the suffering women brigade) writing to their daughters letters of seemingly pained self-appraisal and cloying sense of self-worth, addressed this letter to her daughter: “My career would not have progressed the way it did were it not for your father, who never once complained about the time I spent away from home. Your father and I nurtured our relationship despite the fact that we were both busy with our own careers, and I am confident you will do the same with your partner, when the time comes. If you had complained and whined about my extended absence from home, I would never have had the heart to make a career for myself. I am blessed with a great and supportive family and I really hope you too will be as fortunate when you set out on your own!”
In the passage above, Ms Kochhar specifically mentions that her husband never complains about her absence. Why would he? Money liberates. Absolute money liberates absolutely. Shall we put the tag for great domestic accord as around Rs 64 crores — the money that found its way into the Kochhar family kitty?
The ICICI board of directors have sworn their faith in Ms Kochhar. Of course.
Ms Kochhar has turned ICICI into the largest private bank in India in a short time. Everybody should be equally happy. Except that Ms Kochhar’s family is a little more happy than the others. It is in that small quotient of difference though that we are likely to find the reason why the rich in India are growing richer at the expense of the poor.
Right now, the CBI is inquiring into the Kochhar transactions. That is good, but not good enough. The consortium of banks that lent Mr Dhoot money was led by the State Bank of India, a public sector bank. Last year, when, for instance, the JP group (a company that has been helped unstintingly by both public sector and private banks, and no questions asked) scam relating to its Noida housing projects came to light, the first thing that one of the SBI chiefs said was that if push came to shove, the flat buyers should bear the brunt and that the banks that had lent money to JP should be the first to recover their investments; the investments that had not been graced with due diligence.
It is clear who the fall guy in all this is. It’s you. But you knew it all along. Except that huge financial crimes somehow rank way below, say, dalit atrocities.
It’s not clear to me why this is so. Why is race or tribe a greater social evil than nepotism and corruption? Indeed, it’s not clear to me why Ms Kochhar has not stepped down at least temporarily to facilitate the investigations. It is not clear to me why Nirav Modi can’t be traced. It’s not clear to me why Videocon needs Rs 40,000 crores and where it has gone. It is not clear to me why Jaypee’s Manoj Gaur is out at large.
But it’s clear to me why demonetisation and all other digital revolutions are bound to fail everywhere except in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mind. PayTm can’t really change a nation’s character. Ask Ms Kochhar. And all the others.