Not long after the elections I received a phone call from a good friend of mine. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘take this seriously. They’re going to put you in jail.’
For a moment I was speechless. They were going to do what? I had no idea what to say. Who was going to put me in jail? For what? But this statement had some context.
It started after Rajiv and the Congress went down in defeat. I had watched it happen, sitting in the principal secretary’s office with the others, staring at the television screen as the election news poured in. As it slowly became clear just how badly the Congress was losing, the principal secretary stood up and said, ‘I have to go to the PM and inform him. We need to prepare for the transition.’ One great thing about Indian democracy is that the transfer of power happens routinely, without any hassles or bloodshed.
We didn’t expect to lose in such a fashion. It came as a big shock to everyone in the room. But the Opposition had used the Bofors scandal more effectively than we had imagined, undermining the popular public perception of Rajiv as a clean, progressive leader who kept the people’s interests above all else. I knew in my own heart that a lie had been perpetrated. But that was irrelevant. We were out of the game, and a new government under former defence minister V.P. Singh was coming into power.
I sat there, stunned. I felt as if someone had punched me hard in the chest. I hadn’t thought about this. I never expected it. I could see my whole dream falling apart in front of my eyes: C-DOT, the Technology Missions, the Telecommunications Commission and all the plans I was already developing for the future. I was up to my ears in the challenge of restructuring India’s telecommunications sector. And now a new team was coming in. There was a chance that they wouldn’t support any of it.
I knew V.P. Singh, who was taking over as prime minister. Earlier, he had served as both finance and defence minister for Rajiv before leaving the government to form the Opposition coalition led by Janata Dal, which had gone on to win the election. But our paths had never crossed in any meaningful way. We were neither friends nor enemies. But the backing I had enjoyed for the past five years, that had allowed me to do the things I was doing, that was now history.
I met Rajiv. ‘I’m very upset about this,’ I told him. ‘It’s a disaster.’ Strangely, he didn’t seem distressed. ‘There’s no need to take it that way,’ he said. ‘What’s the problem? We’ll sit in the Opposition for a while.’ I thought he’d be depressed, traumatized even, by the loss. But that was not the case at all. ‘It’s not that big a deal, Sam. We’ll be in the Opposition. Believe me, it’s okay.’
Instead of licking his wounds, Rajiv was already thinking ahead. He had every intention of coming back. In his view, the cloak of dishonesty the Opposition had pinned on him was not going to last. He was still the head of the Congress. He’d be a part of the Opposition for a while. Then the fates would favour him again.
My own problem was more imminent. Most of the advice I was getting was that I should resign. That since I was Rajiv Gandhi’s man and he was out, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to continue. That I should give the new guy’s people a chance. Even Jairam Ramesh, my colleague, was of the opinion that stepping down would be the right thing to do.
Gandhi, I thought. He provided the political will, but I didn’t do it for him—I did it for India. That’s what drew me back here in the first place. I could very well have stayed in Chicago. Resigning now would be cowardly. How was I supposed to reconcile myself to the fact that I went along fine when I was comfortable and feeling safe, but when the tough times came I gave up? Was that the kind of person I was? Of course, if V.P. Singh wanted to fire me, that was his prerogative. If he wanted to bring in his own man, he was free to do that too. But I wasn’t just going to give up and walk away.
Prime Minister Singh’s newly appointed telecommunications minister was a man named K.P. Unnikrishnan, a former journalist who had entered politics some time ago. As chairman of the Telecom Commission I was required to report to him. But we had never met before. I had no idea even of his reputation, so I had no expectations. But our first meeting did not go well.
Shortly after his appointment Unnikrishnan scheduled a visit to the ministry headquarters. He was supposed to arrive at eleven in the morning, at which point the ministry officials, myself included, would meet him with the usual garlands and welcoming rituals. But his arrival time was revised to three in the afternoon. Meanwhile, I was busy with meetings, but I had left instructions to be informed when he arrived. He didn’t get to the building until four and, as it happened, I had someone in my office whom I couldn’t just abruptly get rid of, so when Unnikrishnan finally did arrive I was a few minutes late in getting downstairs to greet him.
By the time I got there the outside welcoming ceremonies were completed and he was in the minister’s first-floor office already. On my way downstairs someone handed me a bouquet of flowers. When I saw Unnikrishnan, I went up to him, gave him the flowers and put out my hand.
‘Mr Unnikrishnan, I’m Sam Pitroda. Congratulations. Welcome.’ I extended my hand. I did not bend and do a traditional namaste, and he didn’t look pleased with that. ‘Didn’t you know I was coming?’ he said.
‘Yes, I knew. I’m sorry, I had somebody in my office, I got delayed a little.’
clearly disrespecting him by not observing hierarchy. In his mind what had happened was an ‘incident’, in mine it hardly merited notice.
The press picked up on the episode though, and the next day it was all over the media. I had arrived late. The minister was angry. What would this mean for Indian telecommunications?
Even back then I dismissed all the hoo-ha. The fact that we had got off on the wrong foot didn’t mean things had to stay that way. Besides, I was a political appointee. If Unnikrishnan or Singh really had issues with me and didn’t like me, they could simply appoint someone else in my place.
That was why it was such a big surprise some time later to pick up the phone and hear, ‘Sam, they’re going to put you in jail.’
‘Yes. They’re cooking up some corruption charges against you.
They’re going to put you in jail.’
‘That’s crazy. I’ve never heard anything about this. There’s no such thing. It’s not possible.’
‘Well, they’ll conjure it up. You’d better take this seriously. We believe that by attacking you, they are attacking Rajiv Gandhi.’
Early the next evening the bureau chief for the Financial Times of London rang my doorbell—a friend of quite a few years.
‘I need to talk to you,’ he said. ‘Don’t you know what’s happened?’ ‘No, what?’
‘I’m just coming from a press conference with the telecom minister. He’s alleging that you’ve abused your office and stolen money—23 million dollars. He claims you diverted C-DOT money from the government to yourself and your family.
My son, Salil, was around, listening to this, very upset. ‘Dad, what’s happening?’
I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll find out.’
‘But what are you going to say? How are you going to defend yourself?’
‘Salil, my only defence is the truth. Other than letting the facts come out, there’s nothing to do.’
I turned the TV on, and there was Unnikrishnan saying that I had done illegal things and embezzled money.
me—not Unnikrishnan, not the ministry, not the police. I went to the office the next day and everything seemed more or less okay. People were obviously upset, though—you could see the stress and confusion on their faces. ‘Aren’t you worried?’ they asked me.
‘What can I do?’ I said. ‘I don’t have anything to do with this.’
Nothing happened over the next few days. Nobody put me on notice. Nobody fired me. Nobody did anything.
But then the backlash began. Unnikrishnan began appearing on television and at press conferences waving a thick file, saying, ‘I have in this file all the details of Pitroda’s corruption.’ His attacks made the papers every day. Headlines constantly screamed: Unnikrishnan says this. Unnikrishnan says that. Pitroda does not answer.
I didn’t read the papers. The articles were worthless. The Indian press was always shouting about something or the other. The next day they’d be screaming hoarse about something else. That’s the way things always worked. This will pass, I thought, as soon as they get hold of something new to create a fuss about.
I didn’t defend myself in public either. If some reporter asked me a question, I answered. But I didn’t call any press conferences myself, I wasn’t proactive about it. I didn’t think there was any need to be. Why would I call a press conference to say that I didn’t do anything wrong? When you respond and counter-attack, the situation escalates, I thought. What good would that do?
Besides, the comptroller general of audit was beginning an investigation, examining C-DOT’s books and auditing the transactions. Such investigations were notoriously thorough; their success rate in finding something to condemn was high. But what was there to find? I had cut some bookkeeping corners to get things done faster. No doubt I had violated more than one regulation regarding things like what level person was permitted what kind of expense. I was ready to take on any kind of blame for sins like that. I called the comptroller general. ‘If you have any questions for me,’ I said, ‘I’m available.’
But the attacks were mushrooming. Rajiv had lost, but he was still a force to be reckoned with. In the Singh government’s eyes he was still a threat, down but not out, and they wanted to put him out. Since we were so closely connected, I was an obvious target too. Rajiv had to them since I was technically a non-resident Indian, an NRI. Worse than that, according to them, was that I wasn’t just an NRI, I was a foreign national whom Rajiv had allowed to penetrate the government’s inner sanctum.
The day this issue was raised in Parliament I received a call from Rajiv. ‘Sam, I know you’re an Indian citizen. That’s correct, isn’t it? Are you absolutely sure you are?’
‘Of course, I’m sure.’
‘Can I send somebody to look at your documents? If there’s a problem this could look very bad.’
Rajiv sent former foreign minister Natwar Singh to my home. ‘Sam,’ he said, ‘Rajiv asked me to check personally to make absolutely certain everything’s in order.’
I showed him my Indian passport.
‘So why are these people saying you’re a foreign citizen?’
They were accusing me because they didn’t know and they hadn’t bothered to check. I was fairly certain I had told Rajiv at some point that I had revoked my citizenship, but it was possible he wasn’t sure either.
‘I knew something like this would eventually come up,’ I told Singh, ‘so I changed my citizenship a couple of years ago.’
What had happened was that some years ago a little newspaper had reported that the CIA had planted a man in the prime minister’s office, and had made a reference to me, though not by name. It was a minor article in an obscure paper; I wasn’t sure who—if anyone—had even seen it. But I had realized then that the issue of my citizenship would come up at some point and, when it did, it would surely be blown out of proportion.
Besides that, I was aware that I shouldn’t be working with the Prime Minister of India day in and day out and not be an Indian citizen. Rajiv had never expressed concern on this subject, so I had written a letter to the US ambassador on my own initiative.
It wasn’t an easy letter to draft. I valued my American citizenship more than I could easily put into words. I kept a copy of the letter with me.
I had gone to the American Embassy in Delhi to get this hard task done, but was told, ‘We don’t know how to do this. Nobody’s ever relinquished their US citizenship here before. You will have to wait until we can get information on the procedure from Washington.’
Eventually, two big volumes of citizenship law arrived and the authorities called me. ‘To relinquish citizenship you will need two witnesses and you will have to take an oath.’
I went prepared with two witnesses. The official asked me, ‘Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?’
‘Yes, I am.’ I was warned that I would be stateless for a while until I received my Indian nationality. I understood the risk and agreed to move on.
I then had to swear under oath that I was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I had to certify that no one was forcing me to give up my citizenship and that I was under no political pressure. Then I had to state that I was sane. After that my witnesses had to swear that they knew me personally, that I was not under undue influence and that I was sane. After this, I signed the renunciation documents and handed over my US passport. It was a traumatic afternoon for me. I remember coming home afterwards with feelings of deep nostalgia and sadness. But I didn’t want my decision to affect Anu and the children, so they remained US citizens. Unnikrishnan’s assault was wide-ranging and continuous. He was claiming in press conferences and other public forums that I was corrupt, but he needed to show proof that the charges weren’t merely politically driven; he needed other voices to join in. That was why he had the comptroller general initiate an audit of C-DOT; it was something, he believed, that could expose my illegitimate money dealings. He also established a so-called ‘independent committee’ to investigate C-DOT’s record of accomplishments—or non-accomplishments, according to him. The chair of this committee was Mr K.P.P. Nambiar, secretary of the electronics department, someone I had personally been responsible for putting in his job after Rajiv had asked me to vet him. Nambiar was going to be looking into how and where we may have violated our warrants and guarantees regarding the equipment we had promised to produce and
what wrongdoings we were guilty of on the technological side.
The idea was that Unnikrishnan would employ the two reports— the comptroller general’s and the investigative committee’s—to corroborate and use to demonstrate the objective nature of his charges. Through all of this the C-DOT engineers were getting more and more angry. They knew the situation. They knew I had never taken a salary in India. They knew I had devoted myself to my work to improve telecom and connectivity in India. They remembered very well that when they had gone to the United States on working visits, Anu had received them warmly at the airport with winter coats, that she had cooked for them and looked after them, that she and her brother, Yash, had been family to them during their stay in America. The engineers knew one couldn’t be corrupt and do those special things. They knew
me and knew it wasn’t true.
The C-DOT engineers in Delhi got so worked up that they began demonstrating on the streets, marching and chanting and waving flags. That attracted the media. At first there were daily articles about Unnikrishnan’s supposed revelations of corruption. Now the papers
began running editorials supporting me, one after another. The headlines screamed: ‘Fairness for Sam Pitroda’. ‘How C-DOT Benefits India’. ‘Let C-DOT Do Its Work’. ‘Leave Pitroda and C-DOT Alone’. Things had escalated and this had now become a major national issue. And it was developing in a way Unnikrishnan could not possibly
have been happy with.
But he persevered with the onslaught. At some point he decided to go to Bangalore to give a speech in front of the C-DOT hardware- division engineers, apparently believing that delivering a rousing condemnation of me would drive home the potency of his allegations. On stage in front of 300 or 400 engineers he began to wax eloquent on my wrongdoings—that I had taken money from C-DOT for my own purposes, that I had ‘looted the exchequer’, that I had nurtured a personality cult at C-DOT, which was unacceptable.
As he said these things, the entire audience stood up and walked out—all the engineers. Unnikrishnan was left on stage, facing an empty auditorium. These young people had the guts to simply walk out on a minister—an unbelievable stunt. Who had ever heard of such a thing? And, of course, the press jumped all over it.
It was the courage, conviction and confidence of the C-DOT employees that won the day, however. This was evidenced by the fresh appointment of the communications minister within a month of the submission of the controversial Nambiar Committee report. Although the person at the helm of affairs changed, the attitude of the government towards C-DOT and me did not. The new government directed that ‘the Chairman of the Telecom Commission, namely, Sam Pitroda, would not deal with C-DOT’, At the same time the government launched a CBI inquiry and special audit of C-DOT, which remained in newspaper and television headlines for some time. C-DOTians were thoroughly demoralized and the main exchange project got further delayed. The export potential of C-DOT products in fifteen developing countries also received a setback.
Finally, with the fall of the National Front government and the
formation of the new government led by Mr Chandrashekhar and supported by the Congress Party, the crusade against me ended. Answers to Parliament questions in both the houses clearly indicated that there had never been any mismanagement in C-DOT’s finance and purchases.
In all of this fracas, Unnikrishnan never saw fit to say anything to me directly. He never came to me and said anything on the lines of: These are the discrepancies I’ve found: A and B and C. This looks like this, that looks like that. Could you please explain these things to me. He hadn’t done that because, as I had come to understand earlier, this campaign was, at its core, not really an attack on me at all, it was an attack on Rajiv Gandhi. This attack on me was intended to demonstrate that not only was Rajiv corrupt himself, the people around him were also corrupt, that corruption pervaded the administration.
It didn’t end well for Unnikrishnan. As it became clear that his allegations were false and unfounded, V.P. Singh had no choice but to sack him and appoint a new minister.