The Whiff of a Scan­dal

What we (don’t) know about the mys­te­ri­ous sui­cide of Café Cof­fee Day founder chair­man V.G. Sid­dhartha

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Prosen­jit Datta

It has hap­pened be­fore. Busi­ness­men and entreprene­urs com­mit­ting sui­cide, that is. For rea­sons per­sonal as well as re­lated to the fail­ure of busi­ness. Mukesh Ag­gar­wal, who ran an ap­pli­ances com­pany and mar­ried the movie star Rekha, took his life in 1991, just a year af­ter his mar­riage; what drove him to it never came to light. Much later, about a decade ago, Dadan Bhai, who grew PCL Ltd to a Rs 1,000 crore com­puter empire, com­mit­ted sui­cide af­ter one of his most am­bi­tious mar­ket­ing plans went awry, leav­ing the com­pany in se­ri­ous fi­nan­cial trou­ble.

But the death of V.G. Sid­dhartha, whose listed busi­nesses were worth close to Rs 4,500 crore in fi­nan­cial 2019, has cre­ated big­ger shock waves. The

rea­sons are pos­si­bly a mix of moolah and mys­tery—there are many tan­ta­lis­ing ques­tions still unanswered about the af­fair. As more facts come to light, the air will per­haps clear, but at the time of go­ing to press there were more the­o­ries than facts about the case.

Sid­dhartha had built India’s first and biggest cof­fee chain—Café Cof­fee Day—from scratch. And that was not even his only claim to fame. He was one of the most suc­cess­ful tech­nol­ogy in­vestors—hav­ing been an early in­vestor in both In­fosys and later MindTree. And while his com­pany had taken on huge debt, it seemed to have a plan to service it. It was a profitable com­pany at the con­sol­i­dated level, and his sale of MindTree shares to L&T was aimed at slash­ing the debt to ser­vice­able lev­els. Besides, his assets were sev­eral times his debt, and his fi­nan­cial trou­bles, such as they were, didn’t look likely to drive him to such an extreme step.

A num­ber of peo­ple who knew him well have ques­tioned the au­then­tic­ity of the sui­cide let­ter—for ex­am­ple, they find the sig­na­ture on the let­ter sus­pect. And in the cloud of mys­tery swirling around the case, there are also ques­tions about the timing of the sui­cide—why did he sign and leave it two days be­fore he ac­tu­ally com­mit­ted sui­cide? Did he plan this ahead?

The two pres­sure points the let­ter men­tions—the in­come tax depart­ment and a pri­vate eq­uity share­holder—also leave ques­tions unanswered. First, the in­come tax raids took place a cou­ple of years ago; it is un­clear whether he is re­fer­ring to the ear­lier raid or some­thing more re­cent. Also, while it’s plau­si­ble that a PE firm was pres­sur­ing him, he had prom­i­nent friends in Ben­galuru who might have come to his aid. For in­stance, Nan­dan Nilekani, co-founder and cur­rent non-ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of In­fosys, was one of his prom­i­nent share­hold­ers. The na­ture of the agree­ment with his PE part­ners— whether it featured a fixed-time buy­back clause, for ex­am­ple—is also not clear at this point.

The chat­ter in Ben­galuru cor­po­rate cir­cles is that Sid­dhartha got caught up in a po­lit­i­cal fire­fight. He was, af­ter all, the el­der son-in-law of S.M. Kr­ishna— the for­mer chief min­is­ter of Kar­nataka, who re­cently joined the BJP—and was close to Kar­nataka Congress stal­wart D.K. Shivaku­mar.

Was it only busi­ness pres­sure, then, that drove Sid­dhartha to de­spair or is there more to the story than meets the eye? He did en­joy quite an im­pec­ca­ble rep­u­ta­tion in the busi­ness cir­cles of Kar­nataka. Raised in a prom­i­nent cof­fee-grow­ing fam­ily, he was me­dia-shy and fru­gal in his habits, had no ap­par­ent vices, and had built his com­pany from the bot­tom up. Yes, he was in debt but he also seemed to know his way out of it. Why then? Will we ever get to the truth of why V.G. Sid­dhartha took his life? ■

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