‘Not a leak, but theft’

Print edition : March 20, 2015

Mani Shankar Aiyar Photo: Vijay Kumar Joshi/PTI

Interview with Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Minister for Petroleum & Natural Gas.

MANI SHANKAR AIYAR, a member of the Indian National Congress, is a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. He served as a Union Minister of Petroleum & Natural Gas in the United Progressive Alliance-I government. Excerpts from an interview with him:

The investigations on corporate espionage have created some ripples. Where do you think it will lead us to?

I have no idea. In fact that is the acid test, which is why you should have conducted this interview not now, but much later. This is the beginning of the investigative process. And already it is climbing from the roots in the direction of the branches. It is only when the investigations reach the topmost levels of the tree, we will know whether big business houses are involved at the level of the board of directors, and if so whether the government will have the courage to pursue the investigations at that level. At the present stage, all we know is that a theft took place and it seems to be a pretty low-level theft involving people who had no idea about the implications of the documents they had stolen. They were selling these documents to an intermediary for sums as small as Rs.1,500 or Rs.2,000. They had no idea about the true value of the papers. It also appears from newspaper reports that information contained in these could have helped the beneficiaries in two ways—firstly, they could have made a killing at the stock markets by getting advanced information, and two, a knowledge of which direction policy-thinking is going so as to bring corporate interests to influence policymaking. But we know nothing more than this. It also seems to involve a journalist who may have legitimate reasons to access the documents that are not really serious but are only marked secrets as the Supreme Court had said in 1999. But if he was selling the documents for commercial purposes, it makes him more than a journalist. With so many uncertainties in the story, I do not think this is the stage to draw definitive conclusions. But certainly it is important that the progress of the investigations be monitored very carefully, particularly with the view to see what happens when the story turns from a petty theft to corporate corruption on a massive scale.

But does it not reflect a larger trend? People have been talking about this corporate nexus with the bureaucracy and a section of the political class.

But you have to first establish that this involves a major corporate corruption. We don’t know yet. At this stage, to the best of my knowledge, all that they have unearthed is very small people having undertaken the actual operation of theft and some of their documents having reached the cupboards of fairly middle-level executives in various oil corporations. Does this directly involve the oil corporations? Somebody offers you to give some information, you take it, but you don’t know where it has come from since you haven’t organised the theft.

The only thing that has been clearly established is how the energy consultancies have been doubling up as lobby groups.

I don’t think the investigation has established that at all. All the investigation has established is that some petty thieves were operating. Now whether they were operating at the behest of a seller mafia, that is satte ke dalal, who were sitting there collecting this information in order to sell it further or were they operating on behalf of a buyer’s mafia, that is big corporates, having set them up to obtain information for their own use…. We don’t even know whether these people were the agents of a seller’s mafia or a buyer’s mafia.

Even if we assume that the consultancies involved in buying the stolen papers are independent in nature, the fact remains that they have a corporate clientele.

How do you know that? A journalist has been arrested and we need adequate proof to establish him as a lobbyist. Mr [Santanu] Saikia is saying that he is being asked to sign blank papers. I don’t know what the story is. In this context, I am not willing to join this speculative game. I am quite willing to wait a day, another two days, a week or two weeks to let the story emerge. To jump the gun now would be a highly irresponsible thing to do.

Is that the understanding the Congress party as a whole is advancing?

I am very alienated from the Congress party. Nobody in the Congress party talks to me and I rarely talk to anyone in the Congress party. These are my views. They have nothing to do with the Congress party.

As a parliamentarian, have you seen the relationship between bureaucrats changing with the corporate houses, especially in the post-liberalisation era?

Commercial espionage is as old as commerce. I am not surprised that they have tried to set up these low-level networks among very low-level officials. Does this go further up? Possibly. But I don’t know. Does this reach into the higher echelons of the bureaucracy? Possibly. But I don’t know. Does it reach into board rooms? Possibly. But I don’t know. In my time we did not have a theft of this kind. I see that a lot of journalists are mixing a leak with a theft. This is not a leak, this a theft of documents, which took place in the middle of the night with keys that have been fabricated.

Was this the first time they had gone in, was this a regular operation being done? In an office that has 400 people working, how do you screen somebody who says, “Main toh apne mama se milne aaya hoon?” [I came to meet my uncle]. With a pen drive, you don’t even need to steal documents. So all these are leads, which the investigation will have to pick up on. Let’s see where it goes.

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