New Delhi– In many ways, Rajendra Singh Sethia — the world’s biggest bankrupt in the 1980s, long before the insolvency and bankruptcy code emerged in India, or the US saw its share of Chapter 11 bankruptcies — represents the archetype of a Greek tragic hero. The Nigeria and Sudan experience meant that the wheel of fortune had taken a dive, a death spiral which plunged him to depths of despair.
Overnight the king had become a pauper. He lost his two-storeyed $225,000 ‘White House’ in Hendon, north London, three Rolls Royce, two Mercedes and even a Boeing 707. He lost his businesses in Nigeria and Sudan. His Holland hotel in mid-Manhattan, his tea company in India Jokai and his family (as some members chose to desert him). Yet karma, God and yoga have kept him alive.
Sethia is the same man who once paid $3.6 million for his Boeing aircraft and spent another $600,000 to install a boardroom, bedrooms, sauna and jacuzzi in the plane. The high flier who belongs to Sujjangarh, near Bikaner, became a Londoner after spending his childhood in Calcutta where his great grandparents moved to just before Partition in 1944.
Here is the second part of an incredible tale where imponderables and vicissitudes have strewn Sethia’s path, he tells us about India and his interminable expedition to clear his name. He may have lost his hair, what is left is tied up in a pony tail, but not his mojo, the moustache remains as fierce as ever, the Marwari in him defiant:
INDIA: The CBI arrested me on March 1, 1985. The questioning tack was how much bribe did you pay Pranab Mukherjee? My response was that I had never met him or spoken to him. All the money I made was from official banking transactions. I didn’t realize that this agency’s built up and propped up case would haunt me for 34 years. It was clear that V.P. Singh, an icon of virtue and anti-graft crusader of the time, had got me arrested.
Two top journos of the time (names withheld) told V.P. Singh here was this criminal and embezzler who was living slap bang in Delhi’s Maurya’s Presidential Suite cocking a snook at the government. No bank ever filed any complaint against me. In 1991, the PNB in a sworn affidavit said it has no complaint against me as everything was fully secured.
Mr Clean V.P. Singh labelled me the world’s biggest bankrupt (September 1984) and at the same time, London banks filed a case against me. I want to go back to England to clear my name. This was an eerie time in India, after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, Pranab Mukherjee had thrown his hat into the ring and that had put paid to his chances, V.P. Singh was the new poster boy till he too fell out. V.P. tried to make an example out of me at the behest of two journos who are now my friends.
On February 13, 1987, after serving my term in Tihar Jail, Amod Kanth had me re-arrested for financing Charles Sobhraj’s escape. One of the inmates was Madan Bhaiya (who became a politician), he is still my friend. Charles and I became friendly. It took me three to four months to understand I was the No.1 prisoner among the 8,000-odd inmates. After all, I was supposed to be the biggest criminal the world has seen — one who embezzled crores and millions.
I now slept on the floor, solitary first four and last six months and those months are embedded in my memory recesses for they teach you nothing is permanent. Money and power mean nothing, God and understanding him and his ways means everything.
PRESENT: Since 1987, I am stuck here, I make the best of what I can. My first wife divorced me, the second divorced me, the third Sonia died in a car crash. I have two children (daughter and son live with me), I have had four heart attacks, five stents, but I still do two hours of yoga everyday and continue to believe in exercise as the bedrock to keep you going.
I am broke, yet my kids have financially supported me — son 48, daughter 45 — they are really protective of me. So many unbelievably fantastic people in Delhi who have supported me till day. Nobody from London helped and supported me. I have a moderate liquor business and it keeps us going. I don’t care if people call me Delhi’s bootlegger.
I had to clear my name, all of us are going to die one day and maybe God has kept me alive for this purpose, it is a mission for me. Money is useful as a tool. I have no love or attachment for it, good if you have, good if you don’t, cant allow it to take over your life.
I have spent 10s of crore since 1984-85 to clear my name. Almost 30 to 40 millions of dollars were spent in London itself. Lawyers don’t charge me anymore, they have become my friends, they know my harrowing tale, how I have been wronged. I didn’t travel for 25 years. Aryama Sundaram took my case to Supreme Court. He is a friend, the court agreed to hear, they finally gave me permission to travel overseas.
I remember the court asked for Rs 1 crore cash surety. Sundaram said he has no money, he is a friend, not a client — Rs 1 lakh — asked to provide and I got my passport back.