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Radia shuts shop

Print edition : Dec 02, 2011 T+T-
Corporate lobbyist Niira Radia arrives to appear before Parliament's Public Accounts Committee in New Delhi in connection with the 2G spectrum allocation scam.-KAMAL NARANG

Corporate lobbyist Niira Radia arrives to appear before Parliament's Public Accounts Committee in New Delhi in connection with the 2G spectrum allocation scam.-KAMAL NARANG

The 2G scam claims another victim in the form of Vaishnavi Corporate Communications, which its owner, Niira Radia, shuts down.

NIIRA RADIA was a name that was known only in business and some media circles until tape recordings of her conversations over a period of time with journalists, corporate honchos, politicians and others were leaked to the media in end-2010.

The transcripts exposed a web of deceit and influence-peddling that involved lobbyists of telecom companies, Ministers and officials and helped unravel several threads in the 2G spectrum allocation scam. Today Niira Radia's is a much discredited name in the public relations fraternity.

A media analyst said: She and her band of lobbyists thought they were powerful influencers who could get away with what they were doing.... Radia probably typifies the kind of people who rise because of their associations with influential people and become so powerful that they think they are beyond the law.

Radia is embroiled in the 2G scam for allegedly attempting to broker deals in connection with the allocation of spectrum. In November, perhaps as a consequence, Radia shut down her public relations firm, Vaishnavi Corporate Communications, which had among its clients the Tata group and the Reliance (Mukesh Ambani) group. She cited health and personal reasons for doing so.

She may not have broken the law but what she did was unethical, said a senior police official in Mumbai. It is a pity that almost 200 people have lost their jobs, he added.

Radia came to public notice when the Income Tax Department kept tabs on her as part of its investigations into possible money laundering, restricted financial practices and tax evasion. With authorisation from the Home Ministry, the department tapped Radia's phones for 300 days in 2008-09. What emerged, among other things, was Radia's alleged lobbying with politicians and journalists for the appointment of A. Raja of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) as Union Communications Minister. The leaked transcripts of the telephone conversations also exposed her role in the 2G scam.

Last year the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) revealed it had 5,851 recordings of telephone conversations between Radia and well-known journalists, corporate heads, politicians and senior bureaucrats. They were at some point leaked to the media, and OPEN magazine carried several of the transcripts. The tapes, which were made available on the Internet as well, gave clear details of how Radia worked the media to use their influence to appoint Raja as Communications Minister after the United Progressive Alliance returned to power in the 2009 general election. Additionally, Radia was heard chatting with the Tata group's chairman, Ratan Tata, who later petitioned the government to acknowledge his right to privacy.

The 2G issue goes back to August 2007 when Raja was Communications Minister and when the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had initiated the process of granting Unified Access Service (UAS) licences to telecom companies providing mobile phone services. At this time the Prime Minister and the Finance Ministry apparently raised concerns over the procedure adopted to issue licences. Raja rejected these concerns.

Suddenly, in January 2009 the DoT advanced the issuing of licences on a first-come, first-served basis. The three telecom companies that were allotted licences Swan Telecom, Unitech and Tata Teleservices sold their stake at higher prices, which raised suspicions of irregularities. A complaint filed in May 2009 to the Central Vigilance Commission kicked off the investigation.

From May 2009 to the present the 2G spectrum scam has not spared anyone. Once Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy came into the picture demanding a probe and sought sanction to prosecute Raja, the situation turned murkier. In February 2011, Raja was arrested in connection with the scam and a few days later Swan Telecom's promoter Shahid Usman Balwa was also arrested. In April 2011, DMK Rajya Sabha member Kanimozhi was arrested.

Meanwhile, Subramanian Swamy claimed that Home Minister P. Chidambaram, when he was Finance Minister, had a hand in the scam.

Radia's name cropped up in 2008 with regard to her involvement with the Tatas, and the CBI homed in on her after it got permission to tap her phone. Once it had substantial evidence of her lobbying, the Enforcement Directorate questioned her, and she is still under its scanner.

Radia is said to have had complete control over the Tata group's PR work. This was around the early 2000s when she opened Vaishnavi Corporate Communications. The association with the Tatas opened doors for her and within a few years Radia had over 50 big corporate clients in her portfolio. They included Mukesh Ambani's Reliance group. Numbers are hard to come by, but it is believed Vaishnavi's annual revenue was close to Rs.100 crore.

Following her involvement in the 2G scam, it was inevitable that Vaishnavi would shut shop. In a press release, Vaishnavi said: For nearly a year now, there have been transcripts of purported conversations between our Chairperson Ms Niira Radia with some reputed personalities from various walks of life. These unverified transcripts and tapes have been widely circulated in the media by motivated and vested interests intent on maligning us, and deflecting public attention from their own wrongdoings in the telecom sector. Indeed, many of the purported transcripts being circulated have absolutely no relevance to telecom at all, and are merely being used for dramatic effect, and to create the illusion of wrongdoing on our part.

For the media, access to the Tata group was only through Vaishnavi Corporate Communications. It was a nightmare to get anything out of Vaishnavi, said a business reporter. They would only reach us when they wanted to. In fact, even if you had Ratan Tata's e-mail or phone number you could not reach him without Vaishnavi coming into the picture.

Another reporter had this story to tell:

In the days following the November 26, 2008, attacks on Mumbai any information was valuable and essential. People across the country, not just in Mumbai, were seeking details on the violent strikes, including at the Tata-owned Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which claimed over 170 lives. The Tata group had at the time enlisted the help of Vaishnavi Corporate Communications to manage' the media. Whenever mediapersons tried and reach them, they dodged questions or refused to answer them.

Eventually, Vaishnavi held a press conference where Taj heads were to speak about what happened during the attacks and about the post-attack plan of action. When I called the PR firm to get details on the location and time, I was told by a staffer: This press conference is only open to the foreign press and a selected few others.' I was obviously furious at this discrimination, but there was little I could do as it was the only point of contact for information on anything connected to the Tata group.