Chanda Kochhar: From Kamath’s angel to jail

The high-profile, much-talented, discussed, rewarded, awarded and decorated woman banker with a ‘Midas touch’, the former Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the private ICICI Bank, Chanda D. Kochhar, was finally arrested along with her husband Deepak Kochhar.

It is some seven years after the first of the complaints surfaced that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) bit the bullet to nab the Kochhar couple in connection with the alleged massive Rs 3,250 crore loan fraud involving the defunct Videocon Group.

Among other things, the CBI has accused Chanda Kochhar, 61, of irregularities, flouting banking rules and laws in a series of loans sanctioned to industrialist Venugopal N. Dhoot’s Videocon Group between 2009-2011, when she was lording over the bank.

The CBI earlier in 2019 booked the Kochhar couple and Dhoot, besides naming the companies like Videocon International Electronics Ltd., NuPower Renewables Pvt. Ltd., Videocon Industries Ltd., Supreme Energy Pvt. Ltd., under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code and Prevention of Corruption Act.

In an alleged quid pro quo deal, the CBI claimed that after the Videocon Group got the loan of Rs 3,250 crore from ICICI Bank in 2012, Dhoot reportedly diverted a Rs 64 crore to NuPower Renewables where Deepak Kochhar had a 50 per cent stake, raising eyebrows and questions on ethics, as Chanda had set the credit limits for the Videocon Group companies.

The CBI charge sheet said that under Kochhar, the ICICI Bank sanctioned the loans to Videocon Group and others in complete violation of the bank’s policies, and later these were declared non performing assets (NPAs) causing losses to the bank and illegal gains to the borrowers and accused.

The CBI also wanted to investigate the role of other ICICI Bank’s senior officers who approved the loans to Videocon Group, among others, allegedly at Chanda’s behest.

The loans to Videocon Group companies and others eventually turned into NPAs by 2017, and the CBI said that most were grossly flouting the laws, banking rules and the bank’s regulations, and were red-flagged as ‘frauds’ after the probe.

Independent banking circles say that the ICICI Bank reported the maximum NPAs during Chanda’s leadership and as per a RTI reply received by a Pune businessman Prafful Sarda, it had accumulated up to a staggering around Rs 200,000 crore till 2021.

Just last week, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman informed parliament that among other banks, the ICICI Bank had written off loans worth Rs 42,164 crore.

As the heat was turned on, in early-2018 Chanda went on leave and then applied for early retirement, which the ICICI Bank accepted, ostensibly as it was kept in the dark on certain facts and non-disclosures on various issues, which came up later.

Rattled by the complaints and media exposures, the ICICI Bank appointed a committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge, Justice B. N. Srikrishna in June 2018 to probe all the allegations against Chanda from April 2009-March 2018.

The report damned her for ineffectively dealing with ‘conflict of interest’ and ‘due disclosure or recusal’ requirements, violating ICICI Bank’s Code of Conduct, lack of ‘diligence’ with respect to annual disclosures as required by the bank,

After this report, the ICICI Bank decided to treat Chanda’s separation as ‘Termination for Cause’ with severe consequences including revocation of all her existing and future entitlements like unpaid amounts, bonuses, increments, unvested and vested and unexercised stock options, medical benefits and clawback of all bonuses paid to her during the probe period and take any further actions as warranted.

Shaken by the turn of events, Chanda not only questioned Justice Srikrishna’s report but also challenged her termination by the ICICI Bank in the Bombay High Court and later Supreme Court, only to face disappointment.

These developments drew the curtains on the Jodhpur-born and Mumbai educated bright babe of Indian banking falling into disgrace – all within 16 years – from 1984 when she joined the ICICI Bank as a trainee and became the Executive Director in 2001.

From there on, she spread her wings and soared up the ladder quickly, to become the all-powerful MD & CEO in 2009, after which the apparent downhill slide started for her and the bank.

Over the years, awed by her perceived calibre and skills, Chanda picked up a string of many national and international awards or honours, was conferred the Padma Bhushan, advised the government on policy issues and was a much-sought after speaker at domestic and global events.

Chanda’s arrest by the CBI marks yet another grisly end to what could have been a glorious banking career, ranks among several of the high-profile banking scams arising out of the lure of lucre that have rocked the Indian banking industry and she counts among a handful of shining top women bankers to crash under an eclipse of ignominy…

(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at: q.najmi@ians.in)

20221225-083601

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