Jayanti Dharma Teja: The Original Nehruvian Crony Capitalist
The rise and fall of the shipping tycoon, Jayanti Dharma Teja, India's original crony capitalist.
In the dotage-misted eyes of Nawab Nehru, the young lad and grandson-Nawab, Sanjay Gandhi could do no wrong. When he grew up, all of India would become his personal playground and its people, footballs to be kicked around or vasectomised. But as a schoolboy, he once saw an electric toy train in a friend’s house. The very night, his command rang loud and clear in the halls of Teen Murti Bhavan: I want the train right now. The Nawab’s grandfatherly heart couldn’t refuse either this or any other demand. But at that hour, all shops were closed in Delhi. But the grandson-Nawab wouldn’t relent. No wasn’t a word he had heard. And so, the grandfather who was also India’s Prime Minister immediately picked up the phone and began making calls. Over the next two-odd hours, the Prime Minister’s staff—paid for by the Indian taxpayer—went toy-train hunting. It finally arrived by midnight.
The moral of this story was not lost on the fawning courtiers of Nawab Nehru. Indeed, the history of the Nehru dynasty is also the history of the courtiers who maintained and sustained it.
Years later, when a teenaged Sanjay Gandhi showed a penchant for tinkering with nuts and bolts and hammers and scrap parts of automobiles, the courtiers shrieked with delight, “Pandit ji, someday, this boy will make a car of his own!” Needless, the aged Nawab believed that his home had birthed the future Henry Ford of India. The most consummate of these oily courtiers exclaimed, “But of course Sanjay, you will make your own car!”
His name is Jayanti Dharma Teja, perhaps the most notorious, flamboyant and original crony capitalist of Nehru’s commanding economic heights. His staggering rise and pathetic downfall presents an enduring case study of what happens when one gets too close to the Nehru dynasty.
The six-foot-four Jayanti Dharma Teja hailed from Andhra Pradesh, coming from a family of Brahmo Samajists. His father, Jayanti Venkata Narayana Teja established Brahmo units all over India from Chittagong to Nainital and was one of the founders of the Congress units in Odisha and (undivided) Andhra Pradesh. Per Jayanti Dharma Teja’s own admission, their house at Behrampore was visited by a galaxy of freedom fighters including Subhash Bose, Mohandas Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Dharma Teja distinguished himself as a brilliant student, took a degree in Chemistry from Mysore University and was known as a gifted mathematician. After independence, he went to Britain for higher studies where he met the Communist disgrace, V.K. Krishna Menon. However, conditions in the post-war England suffocated him and he promptly flew to the US where he obtained a fellowship in biochemistry at Purdue University. Soon, he switched fields and began studying nuclear physics.
Fortune smiled upon Dharma Teja. The iconic Enrico Fermi took him under his wings, promoted him and soon, Dharma Teja became the vice president of a company named Mystic Tape, which made magnetic tapes. He tripled its fortunes before exiting. Then he set up a massive chain of research labs across the US before enrolling for a PhD at the celebrated CERN. These labs yielded him enormous cash. According to his own boast, he made $1,000 a day “excluding windfalls.”
In the meantime, he had married an American woman, Betsy, a millionaire Jewish heiress, older to him by a few years.
Ambition soared. Dharma Teja wanted big. And so, in 1960, he bought two ships, acquired half a dozen research labs in the US, and bought huge mansions in picturesque towns and cities and coasts throughout Europe and America.
And then, by his own admission, a sudden wave of patriotism surged inside him: “I was tired of making money, and I had a yearning to do something for my country.”
It was time to rekindle his old political contacts. He promptly landed in Teen Murti Bhavan with Betsy. The meeting was a spectacular success. Nawab Nehru and Jayanti Dharma Teja hit it off superbly. Old stories and nostalgic memories were shared over dinner. An impressed Nawab presented him with two options: you can develop either the steel or the shipping industry. Dharma Teja chose shipping and left a three-page strategy note to Nehru before departing for Europe.
At Rome, Betsy apparently developed sudden complications of the nervous system and died under mysterious circumstances in just a day. Dharma Teja wasted no time in acquiring a new and vivacious trophy wife, the gorgeous Ranjeet Kaur who he had met in New York earlier.
It was now time for this new power couple to conquer Nehruvian Delhi. Ranjeet Kaur was his mascot in more ways than one.
In 1961, Jayanti Dharma Teja and his bombshell wife met Nawab Nehru again. This time, he dazzled Nehru with his grandiose spiel about taking the Indian shipping industry to a whole new level. He rattled off numbers, facts and painted an impossibly rosy picture of the ensuing glory days of shipping in India completely aligned with Nehru’s own “economic vision.” When it was over, Nehru was completely captivated both as the Prime Minister of India and as Jayanti Dharma Teja’s personal friend.
The result: the Jayanti Shipping Company Limited was formed with a princely seed capital of ₹ 200. But behind the scenes, Nawab Nehru instructed his Minister of Transport and Shipping, Dr. Subbaroyan, “Kuch thoda sa toh de do—give him something.” That something was a government loan of ₹ 20 crores. In 1961. Recall the eerie parallels to how the mammoth 2G scam began with a tiny amount?
Jayanti Dharma Teja’s loan application landed on the desk of the upright Secretary of the Ministry, Dr. Nagendra Singh. He instantly saw through the scam, “ disturbed at the manner in which Dharma Teja was sponsored by the PM. Because of this, he feared, healthy resistance to unorthodox procedures might break down at all levels and ultimately the whole thing might end in a scandal.” Which is exactly what happened. Predictably, Nagendra Singh was overruled. The Shipping Development Fund had sanctioned Dharma Teja’s loan.
Overnight, Jayanti Dharma Teja had become an international shipping tycoon, gambling with government money. He immediately went on a buying spree. The Jayanti Shipping Corporation acquired twenty-six ships in just five years and controlled forty percent of India’s shipping tonnage. Dharma Teja now sported swanky offices in London, New York, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo. He also maintained opulent apartments overflowing with every imaginable luxury in these cities. His swanky place on the French Riviera was a hub of sin and splendor.
If this was one side of Dharma Teja’s operations, the other side was truly venal. By capturing the Prime Minister himself, he had simultaneously captured his family. Nawab Nehru’s durbaris became his chums. These included the Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, India’s ambassador to the USSR, T.N. Kaul, and Nehru’s cousin, R.K. Nehru among others. He appointed the disgraced B.M. Kaul as his Jayanti Shipping’s ambassador to Japan. A P.A. of Nawab Nehru resigned his government position and joined Dharma Teja at a phenomenal salary. Then there was the son-in-law of the Nawab’s sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit, then in a powerful position at Ciba-Geigy. Thanks to this connection, Ciba-Geigy acquired a financial interest in Jayanti Shipping.
Jayanti Dharma Teja was unstoppable and everywhere—in the lavish parties thrown by the Delhi elite but most importantly, he had unfettered access to the Teen Murti house. Always accompanied by his wife. At one social function that Nawab Nehru threw, Jayanti Dharma Teja’s wife kissed the Prime Minister of India in the presence of ministers and bureaucrats. While this caused a huge scandal, it simultaneously boosted the couple’s social standing even further.
Indira Gandhi, the hostess of all such social functions at Teen Murti, was especially fond of and in awe of the charming couple for a straightforward reason: they simply doted on her two young sons, Rajiv and Sanjay. Especially Sanjay, the aforementioned future Henry Ford of India. Jayanti Dharma Teja offered a promising future for this gifted boy: an apprenticeship at the Rolls Royce factory in England. Motherly gratitude overflowed. The story of Sanjay’s wild exploits in England are too well-known to be repeated. “Uncle Teja” indulged every whim of the boys. If London bored them, they could always enjoy a luxurious break in his Riviera sanctuary. Or in Rome. Or Paris. The future Henry Ford was receiving quite an education.
Jayanti Dharma Teja was also careful to ensure that the aforementioned chums—Nehru’s courtiers—were constantly oiled with extravagant gifts. For example, India’s Ambassador to Moscow, a connoisseur of photography, regularly received the latest camera equipment and film projectors. Others received expensive electronic gadgets and the women received the most opulent mink coats.
And then Jayanti Dharma Teja’s luck began to run out. Especially after Nawab Nehru’s death. His brazenness in business, politics and pleasure had materialized in the form of thick files and dossiers.
The new Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri decided wield the axe. As a first step, he summoned Dharma Teja to his office. The overconfident Dharma Teja arrived with his wife. When Lal Bahadur Shastri spoke, it was akin to a slap: “The appointment was for you, not your wife.” However, Prime Minister Shastri died before he could pursue the matter.
But then the shrewd Dharma Teja saw the writing on the wall: in June 1966, he fled India. A year later, he was arrested in New York but escaped by jumping a bail of $20,000 and holed up in Costa Rica. The dictator and president, Jose Figueras (aka Don Pepe) was not only his protector but an old buddy. The story of how two presidents and the Costa Rican Supreme Court defended Jayanti Dharma Teja makes for torrid reading.
Eventually, it was Dharma Teja’s hubris and a sense of his own infallibility that caught up with him. He was arrested at the Heathrow airport by Scotland Yard. After a prolonged legal battle in the London court, the Indian government finally extradited Jayanti Dharma Teja and threw him in Tihar jail. Even in these circumstances, Jayanti Dharma Teja was not cowed down. He hit back in the London court in November 1970. While Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, her close aide, Uma Shankar Dikshit (Sheila Dikshit’s father-in-law) demanded ₹ 10 Lakhs for National Herald in the presence of the Commerce Minister Manubhai Shah. If the payment was not made, he would be finished off.
In India, the CBI built an airtight case against him with the result that the court found him guilty on seven major counts. The decisive evidence was given by Fumiho Karaki, vice-president of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Tokyo. The company had paid a grand total of $220,500 to Jayanti Dharma Teja for the purchase of three shipping vessels. His company, now in thorough doldrums, was soon taken over by the Government of India and heavy fines were imposed by the Income Tax Department. He was sentenced to a three-year jail term on October 1972.
To cut a long story short, till the very end, Jayanti Dharma Teja looked for succor towards the Nehru dynasty now led by the “supreme leader,” Indira Gandhi. The succor never came because she was herself being hounded both inside the outside the Parliament with a barrage of questions from the dogged Ram Manohar Lohia and others. She had no answer to these questions: was it true that Dharma Teja looked after her sons in England? Was it true that Vijayalakshmi Pandit had received money from him to buy a jeep for her election campaign? Was is true that she had received an expensive mink coat as a gift from him?
The rise and fall of Jayanti Dharma Teja is just one more high-profile but chapter of the Nehruvian State, and the fate of anyone who gets too close to the dynasty. And a mere page in the dark encyclopedia of Nehruvian socialism that birthed such characters.
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