Radia Tapes: How One Woman’s Influence Peddling Led to a Snake Pit
In the history of scams in India, the Niira Radia tapes will be remembered as an episode that didn’t just cause embarrassment to the then ruling coalition, the UPA, but also cast a shadow on journalistic ethics, especially when eliciting information is the only concern, with no thought given to the means of doing the same.
Recorded between 2007-2009, these tapes included around 5,000 conversations between lobbyist-cum-entrepreneur Niira Radia and her clients – that included top-notch businessmen and politicians – as well as gossip with senior journalists who also seemed to be a conduit of information in the chain of events.
Probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in relation to the 2G scam, these tapes rocked the corridors of power with the transcripts revealing a cosy nexus between policymakers/ministers, corporate honchos, middlemen and scribes. According to Manu Joseph, former editor-in-chief of Open magazine, that first published the tapes, ‘The Radia Tapes raised many questions, it showed us how lobbying is done, how this country is run, how things work’.
At the heart of controversy were some of the top-notch businessmen, journalists and a PR professional all of whom seemed to be pushing for a deal between DMK and Congress with A Raja as the Telecom Minister after the general elections in 2009. Lobbying is an unregulated domain in India and that could be one reason why PR professionals are able to manipulate policies in favour of their paymasters.
The Quint revisits the controversy as we try and unravel the main characters and the plot behind India’s own version of Watergate scandal.
What Are the Radia Tapes?
In November 2010, Open was the first news magazine to publish, what was considered to be a huge risk, a cover story titled, ‘The X-Tapes’, sharing a tranche of telephonic conversation that sparked widespread outrage.
Two days later, another weekly news magazine Outlook published audio files as well as transcripts of 140 conversations between lobbyist Niira Radia and politicians such as A Raja, Kanimozhi and Ranjan Bhattacharya, the foster son-in-law of former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. These audio files also included tapped conversations between Radia and journalists such as Barkha Dutt, Shankkar Aiyar, Shalini Singh, late Jehangir Pocha and Vir Sanghvi among others.
These conversations, collectively referred to as the ‘Radia Tapes’, were recorded by the Income Tax Department over a period of 300 days between 2007 to 2009.
Who Is Niira Radia?
Niira Radia was born in 1959 to a Punjabi couple settled in Kenya. Her family later moved to the UK where she completed her education. In 1981, at the age of 22, she married Janak Radia with matrimony marking the beginning of her stint as an entrepreneur.
In the middle class, predominantly Gujarati neighbourhoods of Wembley, Kingsbury and Hendon, where the Radias lived for over a decade, people remember them as “the travel agent who had a shop where his wife also worked.”India Today, 24 December, 2010
From travel agent to aviation entrepreneur, Niira Radia’s rise is accompanied with the entry of low-cost airlines in India that challenged the monopoly of Air India following the economic liberalisation in 1991. In 1994, Radia came to India to negotiate a deal with Sahara Airlines that was looking forward to replace two Boeing 737-200 aircraft. There was no looking back for Nira, who went on to add an ‘i’ in her name for astrological reasons.
Since Radia held the status of PIO (Person of Indian Origin) the project couldn’t see the light of day, despite a clearance from the FIPB (Foreign Investment Promotion Board) as there were concerns regarding ‘financial soundness of the company, and undeclared source of foreign funds’. After Sharad Pawar refused to grant permission to the project in 2001, even his successor Praful Patel didn’t give a go-ahead in 2005.
It was, in fact, Niira Radia’s ‘proximity’ to BJP leader and former Aviation Minister Ananth Kumar (who currently holds the portfolio of Parliamentary Affairs), that has been cited as the reason behind the increase in her clout. In 2011, criminal lawyer RK Anand, who happened to be a friend of Niira, published his memoir, ‘Close encounters with Niira Radia’, which disclosed information on controversial political connections of Radia. An excerpt from the book published by Firstpost (dated 19 October 2011) said:
When she met Ananth Kumar, both of them needed each other. Kumar was a first time minister handling Civil Aviation and she had little political links, but had excellent knowledge of the aviation sector. So both benefited each other.Excerpt from ‘Close encounters with Niira Radia’
In May 2011, the Delhi High Court had stayed the release and circulation of the book after Radia sued Anand.
Slain journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, who was shot dead outside her residence in Bengaluru in September 2017, had also dedicated an edition of her magazine ‘Lankesh Patrike’ to the alleged links between Niira Radia and the BJP leader from Karnataka, Ananth Kumar, in 2003.
Radia’s friendship with Ratan Tata could be a plausible reason why the Mumbai-based business tycoon chose Gujarat as the destination for Nano project in 2008, after facing protests in Bengal’s Singur.
Writing about his encounter with Niira Radia, senior journalist and former resident editor, The Times of India (Ahmedabad edition), Kingshuk Nag wrote in a column dated 22 November 2010:
As is well known, Ratan Tata was so miffed by the happenings in West Bengal that he decided to move his proposed Nano plant elsewhere. My hunch (and this is not confirmed information) is that Niira, being an adviser to Ratan Tata, had a clear idea about the specifications of the land that Tata Motors wanted. She also knew the kind of incentives that would make Ratan Tata plump for Gujarat for his Nano factory. All these details she possibly passed on to Narendra Modi, who was well prepared with land and incentives the moment Tata Motors pulled out of Singur.Article titled ‘An encounter with Niira Radia’, 22 November, 2010
Apart from Ananth Kumar, Niira was also a close friend of Rao Dheeraj Singh, who happens to be the grandnephew of former Haryana Chief Minister Rao Birendra Singh. Niira had met Dheeraj in 1994 when she had joined Sahara Airlines as a consultant, and he was working there as an air traffic supervisor. Dheeraj soon turned into a trusted ally of Radia, as he accompanied Niira and her sister (Karuna) to Zurich to open bank accounts for depositing money accruing from profitable deals. Niira, however, fell out with her partner in 2003 after she accused him of kidnapping her 18-year-old son Karan, a case that landed Dheeraj in Tihar Jail for two years.
In an interview (24 December 2010) to journalist-turned-AAP leader Ashish Khetan, speaking about Niira’s ‘political’ influence, Dheeraj had alleged:
Niira used to get a lot of information and then send it to her clients in France and all over the place. At one point, she wanted to get into defence deals as well.
Buoyed by political support, Niira set up Vaishnavi Communications in 2001 that was entrusted with handling public relations of 14 Tata companies; this number had soared to 90 by 2009 with annual revenues touching Rs 57 crore (according to India Today). She was also handling the PR affairs of Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries since 2008.
Following the controversy over leaked tapes and her ‘alleged’ involvement in the 2G case, in October 2011, Niira Radia announced her decision to quit the public relations business. In an internal mail to around 200 employees of the Vaishnavi Communications Pvt Ltd., Radia said:
For many years, a few with vested interests have been trying to cause harm to Vaishnavi and me personally… today I want to give them their victory and let them savour it. If that makes them better human beings then I am happy to have brought in a positive change in them.
Who Sanctioned the Tapping?
It remains a mystery which ministry – whether it was the Finance or Home – had ordered the tapping of phones and who leaked these conversations to the media. In December 2010, in an interview to the Wall Street Journal, former Home Secretary GK Pillai spilled the beans when he admitted that the tapes released were ‘only the tip of the iceberg as some 5,000-plus such recordings were being looked into for a tax-evasion investigation’.
Pillai later clarified in his statement:
Since I have neither heard nor seen the tapes, the allegations that I am leaking these tapes, at the behest of the Union Home minister, is totally unfounded and false.
But what could be the political objective behind the leaking of these tapes?
In an article, dated 17 December 2010, former Deputy Editor, India Today, Dhiraj Nayyar (who’s currently Officer on Special Duty and Head, Economics, Finance & Commerce, NITI Aayog) had written:
Many in the DMK believe that someone in the Congress leaked the tapes to harm the DMK in the run-up to the Assembly polls in May 2011. The party is seriously worried about losing Congress support before the elections.
In a recent column, written for the Huffington Post, titled ‘The Ratan Tata of the Radia Tapes’, dated 28 October 2016, former editor-in-chief of Open, Manu Joseph, suggests that the Finance Ministry was behind the surveillance:
The (Income Tax) department had made the decision to stalk her (Radia), according to an official explanation, after an anonymous letter sent to the Finance Ministry claimed that Radia was a covert operator of a foreign government. While it is not unusual for the Finance Ministry to receive anonymous letters, it remains a mystery why such a letter was taken so seriously, and how it reached the highest levels in the ministry.
What Was A Raja's Link With the Radia Tapes?
It is, in fact, the content of these tapped conversations that led two investigating agencies, the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), to probe Radia’s role with respect to policy decisions like spectrum allocation in the 2G case.
Sample some of these conversations below that unravel the extent to which Niira Radia was cosy with those in power and some well-known faces in the media sector.
Date of Conversation: 22 May 2009
TRANSCRIPT & ITS SIGNIFICANCE:
This conversation between former telecom minister A Raja and Radia lasts for about 1 min and 59 seconds. It gives a sense of insecurity in the DMK camp, as UPA-II, after storming back to power, was not willing to give enough elbow room to its trusted ally.
DMK had refused to support the UPA government, which was falling short of the magical figure of 272 in Lok Sabha by 11 seats, as they wanted with nine ministerial berths (five Cabinet and four Minister of State). Congress, on the other hand, didn’t want to budge beyond seven ministerial berths (three Cabinet and four Minister of State).
The day this conversation happened, on 22 May 2009, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had told reporters:
We hope that they (DMK) will see reason. Whatever UPA offered (to DMK) is reasonable. They (DMK) are our respected colleagues. We still hope in the next few days they will reconsider their decision.
While A Raja calls upon the ‘leader’ (reference to party chief M Karunanidhi) to intervene and sort out issues, Radia shares how he (apparently a reference to Dr Manmohan Singh) was not willing to accommodate Baalu:
Niira Radia: Hi! I got a message from Barkha Dutt just now.
A Raja: Huh?
Niira Radia: Barkha Dutt.
A Raja: What does she say?
Niira Radia: She says…that she has been following up the story with the Prime Minister’s Office tonight. In fact, she was the one who told me that Sonia Gandhi went there. She says that he has no problem with you, but he has a problem with Baalu
A Raja: …but it has to be discussed with leader.
It’s in fact not difficult to connect the dots between various characters caught in a political joust in the summer of May 2009, that marked the second term of Congress-led government, a period when Manmohan Singh was “defanged” by his party.
In his memoir ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, released in 2014, former aide to prime minister Sanjaya Baru recalls how Dr Manmohan Singh wanted to assert his moral authority, but had to bow down before the party’s diktat:
The PM had tried to put his foot down on the induction of A Raja of DMK well before the 2G scam became public knowledge, but after asserting himself for a full twenty-four hours, caved in to pressure both by his own party and the DMK.Excerpts from ‘Accidental Prime Minister’
What Was the Role of Ranjan Bhattacharya?
Date of Conversation: 22 May 2009
TRANSCRIPT & ITS SIGNIFICANCE:
As the deadlock between Congress and DMK over portfolios continued, Niira Radia called Ranjan Bhattacharya, the foster son-in-law of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, informing him of Sunil Mittal’s aversion to Raja as Telecom minister and why it would be tough to accommodate Dayanidhi Maran this time around.
Niira Radia: Your friend Sunil Mittal….
Ranjan Bhattacharya: Hmmm…
Niira Radia: He’s lobbying against Raja.
Ranjan Bhattacharya: He’s lobbying against Raja?
Niira Radia: And he’s pushing Maran.
In another conversation that lasts for about 7 min and 55 secs, Ranjan proposes reaching out to senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad in order to resolve the crisis.
Ranjan Bhattacharya: Listen I, I mean talking to Sunil is no point because obviously he has got this thing. Between you and me, I have a great line to Ghulam Nabi, for whatever he counts.
Niira Radia: I have been sending him a message since morning, I told Mukesh also to speak to him and tell him to speak to Kani, because Kani will take him directly to her father. They really spoiled it for themselves because they could have got away with two cabinet berths.
How Barkha Dutt Was Embroiled in the Controversy
Date of Conversation: 22 May 2009
TRANSCRIPT & ITS SIGNIFICANCE:
Niira Radia: Yeah. Listen, the thing is that they need to talk to him directly. That is what the problem is.
Barkha Dutt: Apparently now the message from the other side is that why did he go? Why did Baalu go public? They claim that at this point they had offered him this formula and this guy said, “no”. This guy never told them they were going to withdraw support. Not withdraw support. But outside support. Apparently, PM was really pissed off ‘cause they had went public.
Niira Radia: But that’s Baalu’s doing, naa… he was not instructed by Karunanidhi to do that.
Barkha Dutt: Oh, he wasn’t?
Niira Radia: This is not. He was told to come away and tell Congress that.
Barkha Dutt: And he went public.
Niira Radia: Well, the media… media, the media was standing outside.
Barkha Dutt: Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?
It was this conversation with Niira Radia regarding cabinet portfolios which proved to be costly for senior journalist and NDTV’s former Group Editor, Barkha Dutt. Dutt had been associated with the news channel for 15 years when her name appeared in these tapes in 2010.
In an unedited show, that was aired on 30 November 2010, moderated by Sonia Singh (NDTV’s Editorial Director) in which senior journalists like late Dileep Padgaonkar, Sanjaya Baru, Swapan Dasgupta and Manu Joseph had participated, Dutt tried to justify her actions as clips from her work (an OB Live on 22 May 2009) were broadcast in order to showcase objectivity and balance in the coverage on news related to Manmohan Singh’s cabinet.
Admitting it to be ‘an error of judgment’, Dutt said:
I didn’t know that much about Niira Radia because I’m essentially a political journalist. I was not fully abreast of proxy wars in telecom sector.
Elaborating how the breaking news of cabinet formation was of utmost importance to her as a professional, she went on to say:
I was desperate for khabar, I took it from whoever I did. My error of judgment is that one got to be careful about how one talks to somebody who has special interest and I acknowledge that inadvertent, innocent error of judgment.
Vir Sanghvi: 'What Kind of Story do You Want?'
Date of Conversation: 20 June 2009
TRANSCRIPT & ITS SIGNIFICANCE:
A chat with lobbyist Niira Radia where Vir Sanghvi discusses the slant of his forthcoming column raised hackles in journalistic circles.
The conversation took place in the backdrop of the Bombay High Court order on distribution of gas from the KG Basin.
Vir Sanghvi: What kind of story do you want? Because this will go as Counterpoint, so it will be like most-most read, but it can’t seem too slanted, yet it is an ideal opportunity to get all the points across.
Niira Radia: But basically, the point is what has happened as far as the High Court is concerned is a very painful thing for the country because what is done is against national interest.
Vir Sanghvi: Okay.
Niira Radia: I think that’s the underlying message.
Vir Sanghvi: Okay. That message we will do. That allocation of resources which are scarce national resources of a poor country cannot be done in this arbitrary fashion to benefit a few rich people.
Niira Radia: That’s right.
Vir Sanghvi: Yeah. That message we will get across, but what other points do we need to make?
Niira Radia: I think we need to say that you know it’s a lesson for the corporate world that, you know, they need to think through whenever they want to look at this, whether they really seriously do give back to society.
After the conversations were leaked, Sanghvi said that the tapes were ‘manipulated’:
It sounded like me but the tape had probably been electronically synthesized from different conversations. To the naked ear, it sounded like my voice. But a good audio lab could tell the difference.
Others Who Were Involved
Apart from the names that figured in the audio tapes released by the Outlook and Open magazines, the CBI had red-flagged 16 instances of criminality in the Niira Radia tapes. As reported by Ritu Sarin for The Indian Express on 10 August 2013:
Some of these issues included Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda asking for money from Tata Steel, former telecom secretary Pradip Baijal getting a plum post-retirement job, Tata Motors using Radia’s contacts to secure a bus contract in Tamil Nadu, etc.
The Legal Tussle's Timeline
16 November 2009: CBI approaches the Directorate General of Income Tax for information on Niira Radia
20 November 2009: Information by IT Department reveals role of corporate players in the policies of DoT
15 November 2010: Prashant Bhushan’s Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) approaches Supreme Court, requests transcripts to be made public
18 November 2010: Telephonic conversation between Raja and Radia made public by the media
29 November 2010: Ratan Tata files petition in Supreme Court on Niira Radia tapes
24 January 2011: Supreme Court issues notice to Centre on Niira Radia tapes
19 October 2013: Supreme Court tells CBI to probe 14 issues; Court says ‘Radia’s conversations reveal deep-rooted malice by private enterprises’
22 May 2015: Niira Radia let-off by the CBI for ‘lack of evidence’
6 January 2018: Delhi High Court allows a defamation suit filed by journalist Vir Sanghvi for hearing by trial court
The Radia tapes gave a tough time to the UPA government that was reeling under the impact of the Commonwealth Scam and the Adarsh Housing scam. The Parliament was in turmoil for three weeks as the Opposition demanded a JPC (Joint Parliamentary Committee) probe in the telecom scandal. The Manmohan Singh-led government had not been able to counter the CAG report, released in November 2010, which had claimed that the flawed policy on allocation of 2G spectrum licenses had resulted in a loss of Rs 1.76 lakh crore to the public exchequer.
Ethical Issues Raised by Radia Tapes
Niira Radia tapes posed serious questions for journalists in India who routinely interact with a cabal that is close to the seat of power and is willing to part with information that can offer leads for a story. As late Dileep Padgaonkar had rightly asked in the NDTV debate: When does journalistic curiosity turn into a go-between job? It’s this very question that scribes need to ask every time they cosy up to a person who can be a potential ‘source’.
Sharing information can be a valid means of eliciting more information from an individual who is well-connected, which in this case was lobbyist Niira Radia, so when is it imperative for a journalist to draw a line?
It is public interest that should be the guiding principle, according to the former editor-in-chief, Open, Manu Joseph who told The Quint in an email response:
A journalist can use any legal means to extract information. The objective should be to share it in some form with the public or to use it as a corroboration for a set of facts that are with him. If a journalist sources information purely to update powerful people, without sharing it with the general public, then it is probably called fixing or brokering or something else depending on the ultimate objective of such an act.
Sudden shutdown of the 168-year-old tabloid, News of the World, owned by UK-based media mogul Rupert Murdoch, in 2011, is a case in point that shows why the fourth estate can’t compromise with the basic tenets of journalism. Journalists employed by the newspaper had to face a probe following allegations that voicemails of British celebrities, politicians and well-known figures were hacked, and related information had found its way to eye-catching headlines.
That’s the flip side behind the rush to file ‘exclusive’ stories and perhaps that is the reason why it would be foolhardy to discard the Niira Radia tapes as merely a controversy that was blown out of proportion.