Politics

The NPA Furore Is Like the Hindu-Muslim Debate – It Is Meant to Fool the People

When a ‘strong’ government and political class is unwilling to tell the people the names of the corporate loan defaulters behind the NPA crisis, any debate on it is meaningless.

Can Prime Minister Narendra Modi summon up the courage to publicly name the companies that took low-interest bank loans – sourced from the Indian public – only to renege on their repayment, toting up a staggering loan default of Rs 10 lakh crore?

Can finance minister Arun Jaitley or BJP president Amit Shah gather the strength to name the defaulting corporates? Do Congress leaders like Rahul Gandhi and P. Chidambaram have it in them to mention those who, it seems, must not be named?

When leaders across the political spectrum are not able to take the name of corporate defaulters, what is this entire debate about?

What the people need to understand is that the brouhaha over non-performing assets (NPAs) achieves exactly what the polarising Hindu-Muslim argument is drummed up to do – make fools of them. It stands to reason that if the political debate over NPAs is about economic crimes (where alleged frauds have been committed) the names of loan defaulters should be made public. However, the furore is centred on one question alone – ‘in which government’s tenure was the loan given’; there is not even a strangled whisper about the real issue, namely ‘who was given the loans’?

At a time when every politician claims to be a ‘strong’ leader, how come they are so queasy about divulging the names of the corporates and their companies which took loans worth lakhs of crores of rupees and made no move to repay them? Is it that our political parties have accepted the status of being in servitude to the corporates? If so, then the people of India can no longer trust these political parties to keep the spirit of India’s democracy intact.

Also read: The Thin Line Between Exuberance, Incompetence and Corrupt Lending in India Banking

For that matter, why doesn’t the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) reveal the identity of the loan defaulters to the Indian people? Its silence is mystifying, considering that every bank boasts a framed picture of the RBI’s order that the name and photograph of any defaulter can be published in newspapers. Go to your bank and see for yourself. How are we to interpret the RBI’s reticence then – that the officials of this august institution too are unwilling to name the big corporate loan defaulters?

In the Rafale matter, Rahul Gandhi did utter the Ambani name and the concerned company. It is rare for a politician to name the owner of a prominent family-owned business that has acquired the character of a ‘gharana’; in fact it is an exception. His deed was rewarded with a defamation suit of Rs 5,000 crore against his party.

Clearly, defamation suits are the latest weapon to silence questions, but surely the prime minister of India has nothing to fear. Moreover, his party chief has stated that the BJP is poised to rule for the next 50 years. What stops the duo from publicly releasing the desired information – which companies, and corporates, took loans from which banks; what was the amount of loan taken; how many of them have become NPAs; and under which dispensation did this happen.

This much is clear – a sum of Rs 10 lakh crore disbursed as loans by public sector banks has not been paid back. The loan that is not recovered by the bank becomes a non-performing asset for it.

On April 6, 2018, minister of state for finance Shiv Pratap Shukla informed the Lok Sabha that the banks’ NPAs stood at Rs 2,67,000 crore in March 2015. On June 30, 2017, the NPAs had touched Rs 6,89,000 crore. That is, in a period of about two years, the NPAs had risen by about Rs 4 lakh crore. Questions arise – which government was in power then; how much of the loan was given during the UPA’s tenure and how much during the time of the Modi government. Do the people have a right to know this or not?

Also read: Why a Multi-Agency Probe Is Needed to Get to the Bottom of India’s Over-Invoicing Scams

A banker explained that when a loan is declared an NPA, no interest is added to it. So any increase in the amount of NPA represents a new loan. If this is true, then we need to know whether the NPAs rose under the Modi government. Also, the people need to know whether the corporates who defaulted on their loan payments during the UPA regime were given loans during the time of the Modi government as well.

Without these facts in the public domain, what use is a debate on NPAs? A question for all those political parties which pride themselves on their assertiveness and claim to speak for the people – why don’t you ask your cadres and workers to go door to door armed with posters showing the photographs and names of corporates who have defaulted on bank loans sourced from the hard-earned savings deposited in banks by the people.

Indulging in antics like tearing posters off the walls or preventing meetings and seminars from being held is easy, not so going to the people with the names of big corporates who have not repaid their loans. Vijay Mallya will return to India sometime – tomorrow if not today, and he will be made a symbol of the government’s roaring success. But there are many more like him who fled India’s shores. Jatin Mehta, who had an outstanding loan of Rs 6,712 crore, made his getaway; when will he return? And while on this topic, what news of Lalit Modi?

A recent report in the Indian Express has disclosed that three months before Nirav Modi fled India, he was trying to acquire citizenship of the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Mehul Choksi has managed to get the citizenship of the Caribbean island nation of Antigua. While these gentlemen have been intent on their island-hopping pursuits, our government and leaders have been busy with something else – marooning the people in a state of infantilism, keeping them bereft of vital facts.

Also read: Rajan Report on NPAs Underscores How in India, Crony Promoters Always Enjoy Immunity

According to a Hindu Business Line report on urban development minister Hardeep Singh Puri’s press conference in March 2018, he stated that it was the Congress-led UPA government which had aided Mehta’s flight from India. Strangely, Puri, who holds the urban development portfolio and not finance, gave a detailed account of the loans Mehta had secured between 2010 and 2013, with the amounts and the names of the banks which had provided the loans. The minister said that Mehta had secured the citizenship of St. Kitts and Nevis on November 10, 2012. In December 2014, he surrendered his Indian passport to the authorities at the Indian high commission in Singapore.

Going by Puri’s own statement, if the Congress-led UPA government aided Mehta’s flight from India, are we to understand that Messrs Modi (Lalit), Modi (Nirav), Choksi and Mallya pulled off the disappearing trick without any help from the powers that be? Puri’s press conference is proof that when it suits the government, it is willing to reveal everything – the names of defaulters, the amount of loans taken by them and the time period in which they were given the loans.

If the prime minister, and Amit Shah, are deterred by the thought of publicly revealing the identities of the defaulting companies and their owners, if Rahul Gandhi too finds himself unable to mention them, if the entire debate on NPAs is to proceed without names and details, then I have some simple advice for you – put your newspaper aside, switch off your television set.

Ravish Kumar is an anchor with NDTV India.

Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan. You can read the Hindi version, first published on the author’s Facebook page, here.