Businessmen managing Parliamentary Committees. Politicians helping dilute a murder investigation to protect corporate interests. Money earmarked for a Supreme Court judge to ensure a case is dismissed. Both Outlook and the Indian Express on Friday reported on a complaint sent to the Prime Minister's Office, claiming that almost anything in India can be bought for a price.
The complaint is based entirely on audio recordings featuring the voices of some of India's top businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats. And it's only come into the public ear because of a corporate rivalry.
Between 2000 and 2011, according to the reports, the Essar group allegedly tapped the phones of some of the most prominent personalities, including industrialists Mukesh and Anil Ambani of Reliance, former Prime Minister's Office officials Brajesh Mishra and NK Singh and politicians like Piyush Goyal and Pramod Mahajan. The conversations that were recorded – if genuine – reveal the rot at the heart of the Indian system and offer a fascinating look at how the country is actually run.
Among the conversations allegedly taped are:
- Discussions between Reliance India Limited chairman Mukesh Ambani and director Satish Seth wherein the former tells the latter to get four or five letters written by chief ministers, and another 500 letters written to support Pramod Mahajan's continuance as telecom minister.
- A conversation between Anil Ambani and Seth wherein there is "a clear disclosure regarding how Reliance has managed the Shivani Bhatnagar murder case to favour Mr Pramod Mahajan as the same has been diluted".
- Numerous conversations between PMO official NK Singh and Mukesh Ambani where the latter is heard "influencing the making of the annual budget."
- A conversation regarding an amount allegedly paid to a Supreme Court judge to get a telecom case dismissed.
- An "explosive" conversation between Samajwadi Party Members of Parliament Amar Singh and Samata Party MP Kunwar Akhilesh Singh regarding "managing" a Joint Parliamentary Committee.
The Indian Express reported on a 29-page complaint submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by Delhi lawyer Suren Uppal, who claims to be representing the Essar employee who allegedly did the phone tapping. The employee in question is Albasit Khan, who was Essar Group's security and vigilance head for more than a decade, and was allegedly in charge of the tapping operations during that time.
According to Outlook, which also put out a story on the Essar Tapes on the same day as Express's story, Khan was suddenly terminated in 2011 and forced to part with all the tapes that he had accumulated. But Khan held on to a few CDs, as per Uppal, and records were also "placed" at the former Essar employee's doorstep. This prompted Khan to approach Uppal, a lawyer who has worked with Congress leader and lawyer P Chidambaram in the past, to blow the whistle.
Complaining to PMO
Instead of going public, though, the duo sent caution notices to Essar and Reliance Industries Limited, accusing them of violating the law and asking for an "explanation." Since then however, Khan seems to have disappeared. "I feel he was being bought over by these corporates," Uppal told Outlook. "They tried to manage him."
Uppal claims he wants to continue with the whistle-blowing even if Khan is no longer with him. He told the Express that he wants the government to look into the alleged illegalities and eventually wants the "apex court to set up a probe team for the case".
On Friday, Reliance Industries issued a statement, claiming that the "conversations attributed to us are false and appear to have been doctored by someone who seeks to defame us".
Outlook expressly compares the Essar Tapes to the Radia Tapes from 2010, which blew the lid off the 2G spectrum scandal and opened a window into the backroom dealings that influence party positions and policymaking. The then-chairman of Tata Sons, Ratan Tata, explicitly blamed the tapes on a corporate rivalry: his lawyer told the Supreme Court that if a "corporate battle had not happened, this would not have come out in public”.
In this case, the connection is even more explicit. We may not yet know the full reason why Khan chose to give the tapes to Uppal and then disappeared. But there wouldn't even have been tapes in the first place if the Ruias, who run the Essar Group, were not competitors of the Ambanis and Reliance.
In a country where policy making remains opaque and rumours of high-level corruption abound, one aspect of the market – competition – has turned into the means by which some of these allegedly secret dealings end up being exposed.
But, as the lack of mainstream media follow-ups have shown, even ensuring such details are published doesn't mean anything will actually be done about them.