One of the facts that went largely unremarked about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with senior bureaucrats on Wednesday was that he instructed them to keep away from media.
Modi has also reportedly asked his cabinet colleagues to refrain from speaking to the journalists and instead letting official government spokespersons do the talking on their behalf.
These instructions may well be the first serious step to turn New Delhi into Gandhinagar, where during Modi’s three terms as chief minister, members of his cabinet would not speak to the press unless they had obtained permission from him. Even the customary press briefings after the state cabinet meetings – which in other states are addressed by ministers – are either not held at all in Gujarat or are addressed by spokesmen of the state government.
Already in Delhi, senior bureaucrats have been avoiding journalists, just as they do in Gandhinagar. So have union ministers – even those who till recently appeared so eager to talk to journalists.
The change in the behaviour of ministers like Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar and Nirmala Sitharaman is glaring. Jaitley, who till recently used to be surrounded by journalists, appears busy guarding against any leaks from his ministry. According to Business Standard, the Finance Minister has written to his subordinates asking them not to quote him or share his views while talking to the press.
To many, the silence of Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman – the Bharatiya Janata Party’s TV face so far – is no less baffling, especially as it came in the aftermath of her statement that the government would oppose Foreign Direct Investment in retail. Telecommunication Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar have also gone mum.
One news source that is fast acquiring a monopoly over the dissemination of the government news – apart from the Press Information Bureau, which is churning out press statements at an unprecedented pace – is the Prime Minister himself. But, as he has shown in Gujarat, press conferences are not his preferred means of making statements. Instead, he appears to be more comfortable with his Twitter handle. Modi’s tweets, in fact, are fast becoming the main source of news for the mediapersons in Delhi.
Political observers, both inside and outside the Sangh Parivar, agree that this is a step towards developing a single-window system for the flow of information. One of the reasons being suggested for this attempt to cut the government off from the media is the growing fear of a possible sting operation – on the lines of one carried out by Tehelka that jolted the Atal Behari Vajpayee government over a decade ago – to investigate the new ruling dispensation.
Such is this fear that one of the ministers in Modi government, Minister of State for Agriculture Sanjiv Baliyan, has put up a notice outside his office asking visitors to not bring a mobile phone or even a pen inside his cabin.
Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight
Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.
Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.
In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.
One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.
Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.
Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.
It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.
Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.
The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.
The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.