Promises have been made in the past about cleaning up bank boards, revamping processes, purging vested interests. How far away is that Promised Land?
It would turn out to be the last day at Yogakshema, the curvaceous Nariman Point central office, for Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) chief S K Roy. Hundreds of miles away in the quaint educational hub of Manipal, some 1,077 shareholders of Syndicate Bank had gathered for an extraordinary general meeting.
On the agenda was the election of a shareholder director. Non-promoter shareholders were to cast their vote as two candidates were in the fray.
First was S Rajagopalan, a professor at IIIT Bangalore, who had “extensive experience of working with technology and innovation systems within and outside government organisations. He was the chief executive officer of the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology from 1982 to 1993 and was involved in managing innovations that addressed the problems of Karnataka,” according to his official profile.
Second was Sunil Vashisht, a Delhi-based chartered accountant. One of his public profiles said he was the national co-convenor of the Commerce Cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and “has been active and zealous in promoting the ideology and principles of the BJP ever since his early childhood.
In view of his dedication and efforts for the party while holding several important positions and his outstanding performance, he has been entrusted with the responsibility of co-convener at Commerce Cell.” BJP publications dating back to 2010-11 confirm this. Though officially these cells stand dissolved, the BJP’s website continues to refer to him as convenor of the CA Cell.
No prizes for guessing who won. Vashisht won with 80.01 million votes against 20.05 million votes polled in favour of Rajagopalan. Of the votes polled in Vashisht’s favour, 79.84 million came from one public institution.
The only shareholder who had that many votes was LIC. Though LIC held 101.98 million shares, its voting power was restricted to 10 per cent. The total outstanding shares in Syndicate Bank were 798,499,537, 10 per cent of which translates to 79.84 million.
The story does not end there. In October, when Vashisht contested for the shareholder-director position, he lost to Mumbai-based Kamal Kishore Singhal, a chartered accountant who had a long association with LIC.
According to Bloomberg data, he is chief risk officer of LIC. What has changed between then and now? Why was Vashisht shunned last year and preferred this year? What are the parameters that LIC takes into account before backing a candidate? Does it get calls from North Block? Did the best candidate win?
It would be helpful for all stakeholders, including policyholders, shareholders and the public, if there is more transparency in the voting policy of LIC. LIC did not respond to an email seeking comments.
At the individual bank level, it is a mockery of the framework as the government already exercises complete control over appointment of top management and government nominee directors.
By having an indirect say on shareholder directors through LIC, it is monopolising even this space. For the institutions that polled 19.93 million votes in favour of the losing candidate, this eyewash would have been frustrating.
Vashisht is not the first BJP member to have got into a bank’s board. In July 2015, BJP’s Punjab unit vice-president Rajinder Mohan Singh Chhina got elected as a shareholder-director of the Punjab National Bank.
There is BJP flavour in the government nominee route too. Three months back, Gopal Krishna Agarwal was appointed as non-executive part-time director of the Bank of Baroda. He is a national spokesperson and member of the BJP national executive.
While the performance of these individuals would speak for themselves, the troubled history and legacy of chartered accountant directors who are close to the ruling party cannot be forgotten easily.
Promises have been made in the past about cleaning up bank boards, revamping processes, purging vested interests. How far away is that Promised Land? Or was it another jhumla?