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June 17, 1998


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If I am not granted an extension I will sue the government, VSNL strongman B K Syngal explodes!

Priya Ganapati in Bombay

Email this story to a friend. B K Syngal, the besieged chairperson and managing director of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited, told Rediff in an exclusive interview on Wednesday that he will sue the Government of India if he is not granted an extension of his tenure which ends on June 30.

"It is a matter of my right. The age of superannuation has been raised to 60 years. I will go to a court of law. I will not easily let off the government," he promised.

He is also set to slap a defamation case on T H Chowdhary, a former chairperson of VSNL, the state- owned overseas telecommunications monopoly.

Chowdhary has been running a campaign to ensure that Syngal does not continue in office.

Ever since the deadline to renew Syngal's tenure came in sight, the campaign to oust him took off. Media reports have been ferrying allegations and counter-allegations between the rival camps and they range from the completely bizarre to the suspiciously plausible.

The heat turns on, especially as the Public Enterprise Selection Board prepares to take up Syngal's case on Thursday, June 18.

It began with Chowdhary firing off letters to Union Home Minister Lal Kishinchand Advani and Communications Minister Sushma Swaraj, pleading that it is "highly desirable that a second extension is not given to him (Syngal)."

When contacted, Chowdhary elaborated on the letters and said, "his (Syngal's) style of functioning is not good. He is arrogant, authoritative, cynical and frustrated."

To this, Syngal shot back: "Yes. I am cynical. I am authoritative too. Can anything get done in India if you are not autocratic?" he asked.

A senior disgruntled VSNL employee passed on to Rediff a photocopy of a report by the reputed global headhunting firm Heidrick & Struggles. It had interviewed Syngal for the post of deputy director general at Inmarsat and then failed to shortlist him. They had their reasons.

Its report says of Syngal, 'Talks rather than listens, he is cynical but has real presence and authority, his voice carrying both authority and weight. Polished in style and approach to problem solving, he has become used to being in command of a business though he can be over self-confident and brisk on occasions...'

Later on, the Heidrick & Struggles report appreciates Syngal's skills as a leader, but concludes with an explanation of why he could not be in the running for the Inmarsat position.

It says: 'On the negative side, however, there is the issue of style and management effectiveness. Syngal is arrogant but there again he has achieved a great deal. Our main concern is whether he could bring people together and find the commonality and overlap of ideas or whether he would seek to divide and rule. There does not seem to be much evidence of a modern progressive management style based around ideas, interaction, dialogue, debate, team-building and empowerment. He is more authoritarian, particularly when looking down an organisation.

'It is this issue of management style that is our main reservation. We do not place him on our shortlist but have put him in the second section of candidates.'

When confronted with this assessment, Syngal shrugged it off as "ultimately a positive report in my favour. There were 50 candidates for the post and I was among the top eight."

Chowdhary claims that several VSNL officers have resigned or are on leave because they cannot tolerate Syngal's high-handedness. "V Babuji was a director. Syngal's merits did not appeal to him so he resigned and went away. C V Naidu, who was also a director, died because he was harassed by Syngal," he alleged.

Syngal clarifies that "Babuji and I are good friends. He resigned because he was not satisfied with his job at the board. Naidu was suffering from a terminal disease. He was eight years younger than I was, but when he used to climb two flights, he used to breathe in a very funny way. I told him, 'Naidu, I don't like the way you breathe when you climb the stairs.' I have nothing to do with his death."

Chowdhary goes beyond pointing a finger at Syngal's style of management. He more than hints at financial foul play.

"There are Central Bureau of Investigation and DoT's vigilance wing cases against him. I think the charges in the cases are 100 per cent true," he alleges.

Syngal retaliates with equal venom: "Chowdhary is a big liar. He should be trampled under an elephant's foot... There are no CBI cases against me. They have just asked for files and there are no cases filed in any court. After all, on examining the files they found that there were no misdeeds. In fact, one of the cases was dismissed outright by the Sikkim high court."

He, in turn, points out that Advance Radio Masts, the company embroiled in the infamous Sukh Ram telecom scam, has Chowdhary as its vice-chairperson.

Now it is Chowdhary's turn to get defensive. He told Rediff, "This is absolutely untrue. Yes. I am the vice-president of ARM, but no director, chairman or the company itself has been chargesheeted. P Ramarao, the managing director, was charged in his individual capacity.

"Even that chargesheet has no substance. I am convinced. So I did not resign from the board," he fumed. "I am a member of the IT taskforce (set up recently by the Union government). If these allegations were true, I would not have been on the taskforce," he says.

His irritation at Syngal's accusations reached a point where he could not resist a personal attack. "There are reports that his (Syngal's) daughter was working with PR agency Dewe and Rogerson which was also doing PR work for VSNL. Later he got his daughter a job at Intelsat by misusing his position. He also landed a job for his son with Siemens, which has business arrangements with VSNL."

Syngal denies his daughter worked for the PR agency, but concedes that she is working with Intelsat. "However, I had informed the board that my daughter is working with Intelsat and they did not object. My son was picked up directly by the company from Imperial College, London."

In turn, Syngal accuses Chowdhary of having shown undue favouritism to Amar Raja Battery in his capacity as VSNL chairman. "After all, he has promoter shares in that company," he alleges.

An indictment of Syngal's functioning comes from a draft report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, a copy of which is in Rediff's possession.

The report cites the case of joint venture company Telstra V-Comm. It was formed to provide domestic VSAT service with equity participation between VSNL, Telstra and Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Limited in the ratio of 40:40:20.

The report says, 'However, it is observed as on 31.03.97, the joint venture company suffered a loss of Rs 7.65 crore (Rs 76.5 million) and there seems to be no scope to achieve internal rate of return of 47 per cent..."

Syngal blames the loss on a two-year delay in a policy decision by the government that led to "disappearance of the entire market".

The CAG draft report also talks of the Elnet fiasco. Elnet Technology of Madras, in collaboration with VSNL, was to provide domestic email services.

The report says: 'Elnet advised VSNL that they were meeting with only limited success in marketing email services which was attributed to introduction of VSNL's Internet services. VSNL and Elnet accordingly decided to terminate the agreement on mutually agreeable terms w.e.f August 1996...

'It is to be noted that while the first agreement was with the approval of the board, the company put up to the Board Agenda Note for the termination of the agreement and the proposal for the second agreement with Elnet only for the Note of the Board. Apparently, correct procedure was not followed in dealing with the case at the board level.

'In addition to the serious acts of omissions and commissions brought about in this deal, the decision of VSNL deprived it of Rs 123.73 lakh (Rs 12.37 million) of its legitimate dues.'

Syngal is defiant. "We lost only Rs 25 lakh (Rs 2.5 million) in the entire deal. In turn, we gained 2,500 customers. Overall, if you see, we have gained from this."

The CAG draft report has several other points to make. It claims VSNL has shown poor planning in setting up a earth station far from the landing point of SEA-ME-WE-2 cable system. It accuses VSNL of expanding its cable links and at the same time keeping the earth station capacity underutilised. It points out that VSNL could have avoided payment of interest on cash credits to the extent of excess investment made with Inmarsat had it invested the amount only up to utilisation level.

To all this, Syngal says, "After all, it was a draft report. Besides, I have already replied officially to all these charges. Also, there is a 25 per cent return from all investments in Inmarsat and Intelsat."

Syngal justifies the reasons for demanding another extension by brandishing the dramatic growth in VSNL's bottom line all thorough his tenure.

But Chowdhary claims otherwise. He faxed Rediff a nine-page essay on 'VSNL's true performance'.

Chowdhary writes, "VSNL is claiming DoT/MTNL revenue on international telephony as VSNL's. This false claim has been initiated a few years ago during his stewardship of the VSNL. Earlier it was not so. In order to impress (but it is actually misleading) the foreign investors in time of going in for the GDR in 1984, this false claim and practice was initiated."

Barely controlling his temper, Syngal points out that what Chowdhary is saying is in effect calling international investors and auditors "fools".

The disgruntled VSNL officer who gave Rediff some of the photocopied documents also belittles Syngal's claims of inducing phenomenal growth in the organisation. "The rise in revenue is only because of the rise in international telephony due to the economic liberalisation. What has Syngal go to do with it?"

Krishnamurthy, a consultant with VSNL, bears this out. "Up to 75 per cent of our revenue is from telephone services," he says.

Talking of Krishnamurthy, there are allegations that Syngal has appointed his "favourite" employees as 'consultants' even after they retired. Krishnamurthy's case is often cited in this connection. He was controller of accounts. After retirement, he has continued as a consultant for the last four years.

When reached, Krishnamurthy said, "There is nothing wrong in this. In many government departments officers are appointed on special duty after retirement because the government cannot afford not to utilise talents of senior employees."

However, he was cagey when asked to elaborate on the precise nature of his consulting work. All he would say was that, "It cannot be defined. I do work from the administrative as well as the finance side. I am a pro-Syngal man. When you are a responsible officer you have to support your senior. He is a very kind hearted gentleman. It is heaven for all the people working under him. He gives promotions every three years as compared to every five years before. He is disciplined. He only shouts if things are not on target. You think of a military commander here. If he fixes a target, it should be met. Dogs may bark and bark, but we should not listen."

Charges Chowdhary, "Syngal has pocketed the employees union by giving extensions or by engaging retired fellows as consultants and advisors. Balan, who is the secretary of the union, after retirement, was made a consultant."

Syngal defends himself: "This is not true. These appointments were made by my predecessor. I don't want to terminate them just because I have not made them. Balan is an advisor to the federation (of employees), I don't use his services though he is a good man and a good trade union leader."

When asked why he thinks Chowdhary is running a campaign against him, Syngal alleged that "Chowdhary wants to have his own man in my post so that he can indirectly control the organisation. I have nothing to be afraid of. I have done nothing wrong."

When Rediff brought to his notice a case filed against him by a non-governmental organisation called Akhil Bharatiya Bhrashtachar Unmulan Sanghatan, he charged, "They have been paid money by the CIA under pressure from AT&T. They do not want me to be there. All the multinationals are behind this campaign to oust me. They are jealous of my success. As long as I am here, they know there will be no irregularities."

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