The Whiff of a Scandal
What we (don’t) know about the mysterious suicide of Café Coffee Day founder chairman V.G. Siddhartha
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? ■