Khajuria Naviram village in Uttar Pradesh—Bilsanda block, Pilibhit district–is a seven-hour drive from the national capital.
It’s a long walk on a mud track to the house of Manmohan Singh, 52, a marginal farmer. Set on the edge of his eight-acre farm, it’s a modest two-room tenement, flanked by a thatched-roof granary on the right.
Two jute-rope cots lie outside the house. On one rests Singh’s ailing wife Narindar Kaur, 50, and on another, washed wheat is spread out to dry. A hand pump—painted green with moss—a bicycle, a clothesline tied to two pillars of a tin-shed at the entrance of the house, all speak of a quiet, unremarkable village life.
That’s until December 2015. That month, the remarkable happened, though Manmohan had no hand in its occurrence.
Hundreds of miles away in Mumbai, Manmohan Singh’s name cropped up in the books of India’s second largest public sector bank. He was identified as the “guarantor” for a Rs 550 crore loan taken by none other than Vijay Mallya, corporate India’s playboy.
The glitz and glamour of the (now) runaway business tycoon’s life can hardly find any resonance in Manmohan’s. The sheer size of Mallya’s loan might be well beyond his comprehension, having himself taken a Rs 4 lakh crop loan, a big burden on his meager means.
Manmohan and Mallya are worlds apart. But for Bank of Baroda, India’s international bank—its tagline says so—the world is indeed flat. So, that winter month when Manmohan visited the Bank of Baroda branch in Nand, to pay his monthly loan installment, he was told something he could hardly comprehend.
“I have two accounts with Bank of Baroda’s Nand branch. I wanted to pay the monthly installment for the crop loan I had taken. But the bank officials told me I cannot operate my accounts because they had been frozen. They showed me a paper and said they had orders from their Mumbai head office because I was guarantor to Vijay Mallya’s loan.”
Then began the ordeal to rectify what then seemed like a comic oversight on the part of the bank, the ever useful ‘technical error’.
“My wife has a brain tumour. She is undergoing treatment for that. And while we were struggling with all this, we were punished by the bank for no reason,” says Manmohan.
The trauma was not just logistical and emotional. It was financial, too. Harvindar, 22, the younger son of Manmohan, says: “We had taken a crop loan of Rs four lakh. The interest rate is seven percent on which we get a concession of three percent, so we have to pay around four percent interest. But because of the delay caused by the freezing of our accounts, we had to pay around 12 percent interest and our credibility also suffered.”
“We had never ever heard the name Vijay Mallya before that. After running around the bank branch for six months, we had to go to the media for help. Within a week of the news hitting national headlines, our accounts were re-activated.”
It hit national headlines all right, but only as a sidelight to the Mallya plot, just a comic break from the political, legal and constitutional storm it had set off. No sooner than the bank admitted to the inadvertent mistake and reactivated Manmohan Singh’s accounts, the media moved away.
The basic question lingered. Just how did this happen? How could a marginal farmer in an unknown Uttar Pradesh village, with a Rs four lakh loan on his head and all of Rs 5,200 in his accounts, stand guarantee for Vijay Mallya’s loan?
The bank’s explanation that Manmohan’s name cropped up as “guarantor” inadvertently, did not quite add up. Why Manmohan Singh of Khajuria Naviram, Pilibhit district of Uttar Pradesh? Why not, for the sake of argument, Susan George Pulimoodu, from the Peroorkada Branch in Kottayam district of Kerala? Or any one of the six crore account holders of Bank of Baroda in India?
This boggled the mind. Un-boggling it required a visit to the Nand branch of Bank of Baroda.
The response was on expected lines. Mange Ram, the manager, was incommunicado. After dozens of calls, he spoke to Firstpost only to tell us that he was on fieldwork and that he could neither meet nor talk to us.
At the Nand branch office, there was a discreet silence. The staff there had been instructed not to speak to the media. All we get to know was what is already known: Manmohan’s account was blocked on 15 December, 2015 and reactivated on 20 May 2016.
From outside the Nand branch, we called Ghanshyam Singh, the regional manager of Bank of Baroda stationed at Shahjahanpur. He responded but once again only to parrot the ‘technical error’ line. “Manmohan Singh has nothing to do with Vijay Mallya or his loan. We are investigating how this happened. At this juncture, I cannot disclose much,” said Ghanshyam Singh.
We had hit a dead end. Bank-client privilege meant that there was no way of knowing what happened unless the bank came out and clarified fully. And it was clear as daylight that the Bank of Baroda central office had issued gag orders to its staff. It seemed like we would have to return with nothing more than the already well-publicised comedy-of-errors narrative.
Then a lucky break happened. By now, we had spent considerable time in and outside the Nand branch trying to convince the staff to show us the letter from the central office ordering the freezing of Manmohan’s accounts. That’s when we ran into a middle-aged person who tipped us that if we were looking for the letter, we were looking at the wrong place. “Try Manmohan,” he said cryptically before walking away.