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Nira Radia: The lobbyist who flew too high

Sunday December 12, 2010 09:03:36 PM, Manish Chand, IANS

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New Delhi: 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 Nira Radia was perhaps destined to fly high, but little did she know that she would be trapped by tell-tale tapes one day and become 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, moved to 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 mid-nineties. 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 rumoured 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.





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