She can talk casually about a designer gown she hasn’t found an occasion to wear with industrialist Ratan Tata and chat up with the same ease with some of the most powerful people in politics, business and media to allegedly fix the telecom ministry for A. Raja Kenya-born and London educated Niira Radia was perhaps destined to fly high, but little did she know that she would be trapped by tell-tale tapes one day and be come the face of a multi-billion dollar scam.
Not many knew about her till Open magazine three weeks ago blew the cover off 5,800 reported taped conversations from Radia’s phone over a six- month period in 2009 that stunned the nation with intimate disclosures about the incestuous world of the powerful and power-mongers.
The tapes show the chameleon lobbyist talking with top industrialists and star journalists, hard-selling DMK politician A. Raja’s bid for the second stint at telecom ministry. Even as more skeletons tumble out of the closet and insinuations are being made about her being an agent of a foreign intelligence agency, there is very little known about her background and her meteoric rise to fame. Radia, said to be in her fifties, movedto London from Kenya in the 1970s and schooled at the elite school Haberdashers’ Aske’s in northern London. She graduated from the University of Warwick and got married to UK businessman Janak Radia, a Gujarati. The marriage did not click and the divorced Radia moved to India in midnineties. She started off as Sahara liaison officer and soon became India representative of Singapore Airlines, KLM, UK Air.
It is during this time she forged her powerful contacts in the civil aviation ministry, the government and the media. By this time, Radia’s sprawling Chhattarpur farmhouse was generating much buzz among New Delhi’s bold and beautiful.Some of her prized contacts included Ananth Kumar, civil aviation minister during NDA’s tenure in 1998-99, and Ranjan Bhattacharya, foster son-in-law of then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. She tried to float an airline, Crown Air, in 2000, but the plan did not take off. In 2001, she set up Vaishnavi Communications, followed by Noesis, Victom and Neucom Consulting. Radia’s big-ticket break came when she bagged all 90 Tata group accounts in 2001. She is rumored to have such an influence over Ratan Tata that the top industrialist does not tolerate anyone speaking ill of her to his face. Another crowing moment was when Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited joined her clients’ list in 2008.
What made her tick?
“She was leveraging the power of her clients who are some of the most powerful businessmen in the country,” Prashant Bhushan, a senior lawyer who filed a public interest litigation seeking the prosecution of Raja on the basis of the taped conversations of Radia, told IANS. In 2009, her ambitions soared further as she moved from corporate lobbying to fixing the lucrative telecom ministry, resulting in a scam that depleted the national exchequer by billions of rupees. Her overarching ambition perhaps became her nemesis when a suspicious IT department taped her conversations at the time of cabinet formation last year in UPA-II. Those tapes have now become part of the national conversation, showing a small elite subverting the system with impunity.
Fresh tapes of Radia’s conversations released by Outlook magazine reveal her telling Tarun Das, then chief mentor of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), that DMK chief M. Karunanidhi was insistent party member Raja retain his portfolio, despite questions over the manner in which airwaves were allotted to telecom firms. The government has told the Supreme Court that it authorized the tapping of PR executive Niira Radia’s phone.The government’s response was filed by the Ministry of Finance.
It said that the process of tapping Radia’s phone began on August 19, 2008 after a complaint received by the Finance Minister on November 16, 2007. The complaint had alleged that Radia in a span of just nine years built up a business empire worth Rs. 300 crore.It also alleged Radia was an agent of foreign intelligence agencies and she was indulging in anti-national activities.The affidavit states, “15 telephone lines including cell phone and SMSs of Radia and her associates were intercepted after the finance minister in November 2007 had received a complaint that the lobbyist had within a short span of nine years built up a business empire worth Rs. 300 crore and she was an agent of foreign intelligence agencies and was indulging in anti-national activities.”
The Finance Ministry then sought the Home Ministry’s clearance to tap Radia’s phone lines. 5800 phone calls were tapped during two periods: 120 days in 2008 and 60 days during 2009. A spokesperson of Radia’s firm, Vaishnavi Corporate Communications, has denied these allegations, saying she has never indulged in anti-national activities. The statement says, “There are queries arising from a case which is subjudice before the Honorable Supreme Court to which we are not a party. Therefore it is not within our knowledge and we cannot comment on the veracity of this. There are corporate vested interests which circulated an inadmissible and forged letter with malicious, baseless and derogatory content in November 2007. We had reached out to the media then and denied the same. We have complete faith in the investigative agencies. We hope that the forces working over time to harm us will be duly identified and punished. As responsible corporate neither we nor our promoter have ever indulged in any anti national activities.”
The affidavit also states that the tapes were not leaked by the Income Tax Department. The government has also said that while the leak should be investigated, it cannot stop the media from publishing transcripts of the conversations on the leaked tapes.
Some of those conversations with politicians, industrialists and others have been leaked to the media and have been reported on widely. Rata Tata, who is one of Radia’s biggest clients and was on the leaked tapes, had last month filed a case against the government in the Supreme Court on the grounds that the leaked tapes encroached upon his right to privacy. Tata said that while he had no objection to any investigation by the government, his conversations with Radia that were made available to the public were of a personal nature and are irrelevant to charges like tax evasion and foreign exchange violations, which are among the reasons why Radia’s phone was allegedly tapped from 2008-2009.
The tapes are also being used by the CBI to investigate the details of the 2G scam. Believed to be India’s largest-ever scam, it saw 2G spectrum being given at what are described as inexplicably low prices by former Telecom Minister A Raja to companies who were later found to be ineligible by experts. CBI raided Niira Radia and former TRAI chief Pradeep Baijal in the on going investigation of 2G scam that rocked the nation. The Raja Radia saga led the team to DMK doors wherein high profile Kanjimori connections are getting investigated.
-BY OPINION EXPRESS