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The pickle that proved too spicy

By Dhiraj Shetty
Last updated on: December 22, 2003 16:17 IST
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It is not often that people who bribe Indian politicians make such issues public. It's bad for business.

But if you do, be prepared to spend the rest of you life in courts, answering one charge after another.

But Lakhubhai Pathak was different. He was a non-resident Indian, which made him immune to retribution from the Indian government.

Based in London, his flourishing business in pickles earned him the title 'pickle tycoon'. Not much is known about his other businesses but he was interested in supplying newsprint and paper pulp to India. The government plays a major role in buying this product from abroad and selling it in India.

It was the early eighties and any contract entailed numerous trips to government offices.

But like any ingenious businessman, Pathak knew it was all a matter of knowing the right person in the right place.

In this he managed to get divine intervention in the form of Chandraswami, who seemed to know everyone everywhere, including the ruler of oil-rich Brunei who was once referred to as the richest man in the world.

Pathak came in contact with the infamous but extremely powerful godman while disposing off his brother's ranch in Texas, the United States.

Chandraswami made sure that abundant pictures of him hobnobbing with his wealthy and powerful friends were in circulation in public at any point of time. He and his associate K N Agarwal, alias Mamaji, often used these to worm their way into circles that comprised people who controlled the levers of power in governments.

Pathak was suitably impressed. In December 1983, Chandraswami and Mamaji reportedly introduced him to their contact in the Indian government, external affairs minister P V Narasimha Rao, at Hotel Hollorum House in New York.

Rao, according to the pickle tycoon, told him: "Swamiji has told me everything and your work will be done."

Chandrasawmi then demanded Pathak prove his financial soundness to the government by paying him $100,000.

Pathak handed over the money to Chandraswami on January 4, 1984 through two cheques. The CBI claims that they were deposited in the account of W E Miller, the godman's frontman in New York.

But the contract never materialised.

In 1989, the Congress lost power and Rao was in wilderness till 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi's assassination catapulted him into the prime minister's seat.

Till Rao came to the end of his tenure, Pathak was nowhere in the scene. At that time, several of Rao's colleagues were embroiled in corruption cases and he appeared to be the only one in contention to lead the party during the 1996 general election.

The NRI's bribery allegations spoilt Rao's party. Pathak came to India to pursue the case. Though old, he insisted that he would see to it that the case was taken to its logical conclusion. Rao claimed the allegations were politically motivated.

The Central Bureau of Investigation was assigned to probe the charges, and though it meant frequent trips to India for the ageing tycoon, his resolve did not falter; Rao's downfall seemed to be his only aim.

The Congress lost power in 1996 but Pathak's allegations continued to haunt Rao.

Pathak, who stayed in India for some time to pursue the case, died a few years ago but by then the case took a life of its own.

Whether proven or not, his allegations exposed the murky goings-on in the corridors of power. Also, people did not take kindly to their prime minister hobnobbing with the likes of Chandraswami, who even in the best of times did not enjoy a clean reputation.

Chandraswami reached the peak of his glory when Rao was in power. After Rao returned to the wilderness, the godman lost his divine touch. Nowadays he keeps a low profile. Though some politicians continue to patronise him, not many are brave enough to admit it in public.

Rao is hailed as the man who pushed economic reforms down India's reluctant throat.

Today, when the foreign exchange reserves have crossed $100 billion, the man who made it all possible is seen to be slowly but surely removing the irritants that denied him his due.

Rao's tenure was characterised by a number of scams involving huge sums of money. Pathak's case does not stand out in that context. But people remember it for an ageing tycoon who refused to let a politician push him around.

Two decades after the alleged offence occurred, Special Judge D Dayal announced his verdict in a courtroom set up at the high-security Vigyan Bhavan annexe in New Delhi on Monday. Rao, Chandraswami and Mamaji were acquitted.

CBI counsel: K N Sharma

Rao's counsel: Kapil Sibal

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Dhiraj Shetty
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