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Courting trouble the Lalli way

Controversies have never kept a distance from B S Lalli,the beleaguered CEO of Prasar Bharati who has been indicted by the Central Vigilance Commission on a number of charges....

Controversies have never kept a distance from B S Lalli,the beleaguered CEO of Prasar Bharati who has been indicted by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) on a number of charges,including breach of parliamentary privilege and financial mismanagement. Before he got embroiled in a messy turf war at Prasar Bharati with its Board members,Lalli has had a chequered career.

A 1971-batch officer of UP cadre,Lalli was Secretary (Border Management) when he was selected to become the CEO of Prasar Bharati in December 2006. He had done stints in the ministries of Home,Defence and Urban Development in senior positions,and not one of them was uneventful. People who have worked with him recount several tales about the brash and abrasive behaviour of Lalli which got him into trouble with remarkable regularity. But he managed to have his way on most occasions by being on the side of the people who mattered. Still,his selection for the present position came as a surprise and had an element of luck as well. S Y Qureshi,the new Chief Election Commissioner,and incidentally a batchmate of Lalli,had almost been finalised to lead the public broadcaster. Qureshi,who was then Secretary (Youth and Sports),was seen to have the right credentials for the job,having been Director General of Doordarshan earlier. But before his selection could be formalised,he was appointed as one of the Election Commissioners. The selection panel,headed by the Vice-President,then picked up Lalli to be the CEO of Prasar Bharati.

Once there,Lalli ruled Prasar Bharati like his personal fiefdom,never constrained by the fact that he had to act only in accordance with the decisions by the Board as mandated by the Prasar Bharati Act. Lalli showed scant regard for the Board,ignoring and overruling its decisions on most occasions. He got into questionable financial deals and many of his decisions seemed to favour private broadcasting companies. Some of these decisions have become the basis for his indictment by the CVC. Lalli’s confrontation with members of the Board had remained confined within the boardrooms till The Indian Express reported on the internal wranglings in March 2009.

Ironically,the government,which sees Lalli as an embarrassment now that he has been indicted by the CVC,had come to the rescue of the belligerent CEO on earlier occasions. Like last year,just before the general elections,when the government decided that an amendment to Prasar Bharati Act,raising the retirement age of the CEO from 62 to 65 years or a total tenure of five years,would apply retrospectively to the incumbent as well. The decision came two days before Lalli was to retire and gave him an extra two years in the post.

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Similarly,when Lalli,in 2007,decided not to press rights-holder ESPN to share the feed of the inaugural T-20 World Cup — a tournament won by India — with Doordarshan,he based his decision on a letter from the private secretary of the then Information and Broadcasting Minister P R Dasmunsi. Telecast rights-holders of all sporting events of national importance are mandated by law to share their feed with Doordarshan but the letter from the private secretary said the T-20 World Cup was not an event of national importance and that Doordarshan should not waste its time telecasting it. This three-paragraph letter — signed by the minister’s private secretary and not the minister himself — was enough for Lalli to overrule legal opinion and advice of Prasar Bharati’s Empowered Committee on Sports,and ignore the law. This decision has now come under flak from the CVC.

The biggest support to Lalli has been the Prasar Bharati Act itself,which makes removal of the CEO extremely difficult. The law says the CEO can be removed by the President on the advice of Supreme Court,only after the court,through an inquiry,has satisfied itself that the CEO was involved in wrongdoing. At the time of enacting the law,in the nineties,such a difficult provision for removal of CEO was thought necessary to send out the message that Prasar Bharati was indeed autonomous and its CEO free from political pulls and pressures.

Aware that his removal was a cumbersome and time-consuming process,Lalli never shied away from taking advantage of government’s helplessness,ignoring criticism hurled at him. When the crisis started going out of hand,the government reconstituted the Board this year,appointing people supposedly close to the political establishment. But even the new members,including Chairperson Mrinal Pande,found it difficult to rein in the CEO.

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The CVC report,which has passed serious remarks against Lalli,might just be the ammunition that the government needed to proceed against him. The I&B Ministry,which received a copy of the report,is awaiting legal opinion from the Law Ministry on how to go forward on this issue. As of now,it seems the curtains are finally drawing on Lalli’s tenure at Prasar Bharati.

First published on: 02-08-2010 at 11:44:17 pm
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