There is a thin line connecting the downfall of three prominent Indians – a high court judge, a high-flying businessman and a shadowy moneyman – in recent years: an arrogant assumption that you are above the system and can cock a snook at it.
Yesterday (9 May), the Supreme Court not only ordered the arrest of a judge of the Calcutta High Court (K S Karnan) for contempt, but also Vijay Mallya, India’s former booze king who ‘crash-landed’ Kingfisher Airlines in 2011 and quietly moved some of his money to his children’s trusts abroad despite court orders. In February 2014, Subrata Roy, boss of the shadowy Sahara Group, was sent to jail (and he continues to be there after being given another chance to pay up) for failing to comply with the court’s order of August 2012 to refund Rs 24,000 crore of dues to investors.
The invisible link connecting these three cases is that they are the causes of their own downfall. In India, crooks, fraudsters and the corrupt routinely manage to thumb a nose at the law, not least because the legal system takes decades to decide cases, and help is usually forthcoming from having the right kind of connections. What you cannot do is make it difficult for the system to let you slip through the gaps.
This is the mistake that laid Karnan, Mallya and Roy low. They believed they were too big to be hauled up before the courts, and even when the courts started taking cognisance of their wrongdoings, they pretended that they could not be touched.
In Justice Karnan’s case, he repeatedly angered the Supreme Court by passing orders against the bench looking into his case, and also made allegations against fellow judges. A small apology or contrition on his part would have helped him complete his judicial term, which ends next month, without mishap, but he lost it midway.
In Mallya’s case, he continued to live a high lifestyle as though he owed nothing to banks or the taxman, and even as his former Kingfisher employees went unpaid. No less a person than former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan was forced to comment on Mallya’s insensitivity on this count. When the liquor baron hosted a lavish 60th birthday party in Goa, Rajan noted that “if you flaunt your birthday bashes even while owing the system a lot of money, it does seem to suggest to the public that you don't care. I think that is the wrong message to send. If you are in trouble, you should be cutting down your expenses.”
Mallya then compounded his mistake by failing to realise that the Supreme Court itself was beginning to take an interest in loan defaults, and had ordered him to not transfer the money he received from Diageo till further orders. It was his alleged flouting of this order that earned him a conviction for contempt of court, for which the court will pronounce a sentence on 10 July.
Worse, by his behaviour he has made it difficult for politicians to bail him out of a tight spot. Both the Narendra Modi government and the Finance Ministry are working overtime to get him extradited from the UK, and the Supreme Court’s decision to hold him guilty of contempt will strengthen the extradition request. By choosing arrogance and ego over commonsense, Mallya may well go down as the first major businessman to be made an example of by the Indian judicial system.
As for Subrata Roy, far from showing humility when the Supreme Court declared two of his companies guilty of flouting the law by raising thousands of crores from investors without Security and Exchange Board of India’s nod, he went ballistic and put up full-page ads justifying his actions. And even when various benches of the court gave him more and more leeway to pay up, he did not do so, forcing the apex court to finally send him to jail in 2014. He believed he was invulnerable since he knew many of India’s most powerful politicians.
The unwritten law in India is that if you play by the system’s rules, you may never be hauled up or go to jail. If you look sufficiently chastened and humble, Indians are even chary of punishing you – as has been the case with several convicted politicians or those under trial.
But if you let ego triumph over contrition and thumb your nose at the system repeatedly in a way that can’t be ignored, you will bite the dust. You bring it on yourself. Not for nothing did Hindu sages talk about conquering your ahankar.
Karnan, Roy and Mallya thought they were above the system, and are paying the price.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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