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Before Ramalinga Raju, there was Dharma Teja

Inder Malhotra | February 12, 2009

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Around the time the sixth decade of the last century dawned, there descended on the Delhi scene a strikingly impressive couple: Dr Dharma Jayanti Teja and his attractive wife. The word soon spread that the couple was very special, and almost immediately it became the toast of the town.

As it happened, Dr Teja was the first of the species that later came be known as the 'hugely successful NRIs.' He was said to have lived for a long time overseas, worked very hard almost from scratch, and earned a fortune by the dint of sheer enterprise and drive.

The Tejas threw lavish and glittering parties and they themselves were entertained by Delhi's creme de la creme. Politicians and bureaucrats were as anxious to befriend the Tejas as they were to cultivate men and women of power and influence.

Consequently, they had little difficulty in gaining access to Jawaharlal Nehru who, as a respecter of achievers, was happy to welcome them. This boosted their stock so much that there was a scramble to be on their right side.

At this juncture the good doctor let it be known that he had earned the money he needed or wanted. He now wanted to do something for his motherland. Since shipping was his forte, he had made elaborate plans to expand exponentially India's puny maritime fleet. If only the government could see its way to make some initial investment, and he would work wonders.

Some bureaucrats, particularly in the directorate general of shipping -- dubbed by Teja 'abominable no-men' -- expressed deep reservations about his claims. Inevitably, the matter was referred to the Cabinet. Nehru told his colleagues: 'Thoda kuch de do (Give him a little something).' The government machine translated this into over a crore of rupees.

Today this amount would be laughingly dismissed as chickenfeed, but in those days it was substantial. It enabled Teja's Jayanti Shipping Company to buy a number of ships from Japan by the simple expedient of paying only the first instalment on them and launching these ships both ostentatiously and profitably.

Possession of them enabled him to hypothecate them to acquire more ships or raise money. Jayanti's earning soared, and so did Teja's reputation as an entrepreneur extraordinaire.

His lavish and jet-set lifestyle -- flitting from his villa in south of France to the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York and rushing back to Delhi on way to Tokyo -- added to his mystique. By the time Indira Gandhi became prime minister, Teja was both an international celebrity and a national icon.

If this evoked admiration and envy among many, it also bred anger of those who were opponents of Nehru and felt that Teja, while flourishing because of the prime minister's patronage, had acquired undue, perhaps sinister, influence in the highest circles.

But Teja was unconcerned. As power passed to Mrs Gandhi after Lal Bahadur Shastri's death, Ram Manohar Lohia, the principal Nehru-baiter, demanded in Parliament as to what was Teja doing at Tashkent during Shastri's talks with President Ayub Khan of Pakistan.

The then foreign minister, Swaran Singh, brought the House down by declaring: 'The hon'ble member's impression is a case of mistaken identity. There was a Teja at Tashkent but he is a Foreign Service officer, J S Teja, posted to our embassy in Moscow.' This did not prevent Lohia from insinuating that Teja had gifted a sable coat to Indira Gandhi when she was 'nothing more than her father's daughter.'

Soon after becoming prime minister, Indira Gandhi went on an official visit to the United States. Dharma Teja was among the Indian tycoons that had gravitated to Washington and New York for the occasion. I had a nodding acquaintance with him, but I met him at some length for the first time at a dinner at the home of G Parathasarathi, India's ambassador to the United Nations at that time.

It was a relaxed occasion because the prime minister had already left. The food was excellent and I particularly praised the jumbo prawns. Teja concurred with me but insisted that I should taste the even better prawns at his place in the south of France. I thanked him, but said there was no way I could stop by in France on way back home after finishing my work in New York.

The next morning he startled me by phoning me to say that he was sending me a first class plane ticket to Nice so that I could join him and his wife there even for a day to share a seafood meal. I thanked him profusely, but declined the invitation.

Sooner or later the bubble was bound to burst and it did so not with a whimper but with a bang. Teja's Japanese suppliers discovered, to their dismay that instalments of payments due from him were no longer coming in. They therefore wanted to foreclose the sales of ships.

Others who had accepted these ships as securities for financing Teja were also up in arms. Crews of various Jayanti ships complained that they were not getting their wages.

Investigations showed that Teja's financial empire was a mirage. Through his elaborate scam he had taken the Indian government as well as the Japanese shipyards for a ride. In any case, there was no way the government loan to Teja could be recovered.

Consequently, the public sector Shipping Corporation of India [Get Quote] took over and assimilated Jayanti Shipping. Teja was tried for massive fraud and sentenced to imprisonment for seven years.

At the same time the word went round that his comely wife was at first his private secretary. She was cruising with him and his first wife, a foreigner, when the latter died on board in mysterious circumstances. What became of the lady nobody knows. Teja, however, died soon after being released from jail.


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