Ranjona Banerji: Will the Radia Tapes issue resurface in the Tata controversy?

28 Oct,2016

By Ranjona Banerji


Without a doubt, the fight within the Tata conglomerate has dominated news and discussion this week. The sudden replacement of chairman Cyrus Mistry, the return of Ratan Tata, the allegations made by Mistry, the counter-allegations made by Tata: this is bigger stuff than the battle of the Ambani brothers had been once. Bigger because it was not quite expected and though Ratan Tata himself swept Bombay House clear of all JRD Tata satraps once, the fightback from Mistry has been quick and ruthless.


Without a doubt, it was the media which built Ratan Tata up as India’s top CEO. India’s economic liberalisation happened in 1991. JRD Tata died on November 29, 1993. Ratan Tata’s ascension did not come without heartache but the media was smaller in those days and 24-hour news television barely on the mandatory watch-list. Since then, as Ratan Tata invested here and there and across the world, his reputation in the media grew. The acquisition of Corus in the UK, of Jaguar and Landrover and the announcing of the people’s car in the Rs one lakh Nano all emphasised a dynamic and forward-looking Tata Group. And in the media also means in the public eye.


Since investigative journalism in the business world is non-existent and corporate sucking up is essential to ensure the flow of advertising, all reports were largely on the goodie-goodie side. This love affair with all things business and all things Ratan Tata however became rocky not because of good business journalism but because of general journalism.


The first sign of trouble was in 2008 and the Tata Nano project in Bengal and Mamata Banerjee’s strong objection to seemingly dodgy land acquisition practices in Singur by the CPM-led state government which was apparently not questioned by the Tatas. The resulting shoddy compensation to farmers led in part to Banerjee’s historic win in 2011, ousting the Left Front from Bengal after 34 years. Ratan Tata in a huff took his project from Bengal to Gujarat, announcing that he was going from the “Bad M” (Mamata Banerjee) to the “Good M” (Narendra Modi).


It says much for the media that the treatment of farmers in Sanand, who also lost their land to the Nano project with mean compensation, was barely reported. It is also worth noting that when the Tatas (under the eagle eye of Darbari Seth) acquired land for the Haldia Petrochemicals project in Bengal, compensation was given at the highest legally permissible rate and more, rather than being organised at cheap discounts through the state government. Ratan Tata later pulled out of Haldia Petrochemicals, giving control to Purnendu Chatterjee.


The Supreme Court, much later, pulled up both the Tatas and the Bengal government, for the procedures followed in the Singur land acquisition.


But the biggest loss to reputation came during the release of the Niira Radia tapes, by Open and Outlook magazines in 2011. Rumours of these explosive tapes had been floating for a while but few realised quite how damaging they would be to so many reputations in the media, the corporate world and the government.


The tapes – conversations by PR person Radia – can be seen as part of the “2G scam” and suggested that several telecom majors, including the Tatas, Airtel and Reliance (then under Anil Ambani), had tried to influence the choice of telecom minister in UPA 2 to ensure their own safe passage through spectrum issues. The Tatas, then still under Ratan Tata, pulled back advertising to Open, Outlook, Pioneer and Bennett Coleman publications over negative coverage. The late great Vinod Mehta describes the impact of this decision on Outlook and on the end of his career in the very readable book, Editor Unplugged.


However, now we see that most of the media has been reporting extensively on this Tata crisis. It is perhaps too big a story to be ignored and advertising be damned! Even our business channels, which rarely dip their toes into controversial territory, have come out of their stock market-induced somnolence and had some rather explosive discussions on this war. The weaknesses and mistakes of both Ratan Tata and Cyrus Mistry have been examined.


And yet, it will be interesting to see whether the Radia tapes make a re-appearance and how much information is garnered from old Tata hands, especially those who predate Ratan Tata’s first reign in Bombay House. It is in the small details that the media’s bias and attention to facts will be seen.


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One response to “Ranjona Banerji: Will the Radia Tapes issue resurface in the Tata controversy?”

  1. Anil Pedgaonkar says:

    nice article. but ratan tata has done three good projects for people nano tata -air asia and vistara and jaguar . kores was a wrong decision.
    he might be corrupt who thinks very clearly that jrd was not corrupt that time there was not media eye.
    the only serious thing is that tata not paying armers due compensation
    in that case hyen tata has deviated from oroginal tatas . but sil blood in tata is of tata as though naval was adopted child he was child from tata lady. genes runs more through women.
    especially the prominent like intellect sports.
    also sacking of cyrus is ok is he is forming nexus with swamy. people want brand name tata and for his one eason noel tata will be better as chiarman as brand value . may be cyrus blackmailed and pressurized tata to make him chsair and he could not avoid but then with his nexus and eveling of fraud transactions ratan finally decided to sack him