Inside the cosy club at NSE

Updated on: Feb 15, 2022

In his investigative book –the Market Mafia – Palak Shah chronicles the scandalous goings on at the exchange, and the rise of Chitra Ramkrishna and the controversial appointments she made

Those handful people, occupying the upper echelons of NSE, were letting down the very institution where they were employed for a long time.

On one side were Ajay and Susan, two leading stock market research scholars who were never formally employed by NSE, yet remained  ‘perfect insiders’ in the exchange for over two decades. They held key positions in crucial exchange committees and were awarded high-profile board memberships in NSE’s sister concern companies.

Apart from further reach and network, it gave them a blueprint of the core working of the stock market ecosystem and complete insider knowledge. On the other side were Ravi Narain and Chitra Ramkrishna, two of the longest-serving bosses of NSE with an image of erudite professionals who always played by the rulebook. They were what the Japanese call  ‘salary-man or woman’, popularly referred to white-collar workers with overriding loyalty and commitment to the corporation. These two, albeit were engaged with a lucrative remuneration package, bundled with perks and bonus that was the envy of any corporate honcho.

If Narain was cast as the Cambridge and Wharton-educated administrator, Ramkrishna, a chartered accountant, with extensive experience in resource management, treasury and project finance division of IDBI, was personally groomed by its executive director, Dr. RH Patil. She even had a brief stint with SEBI and was among the five of  ‘The cabal’ [sic] hand-picked by SS Nadkarni, then IDBI chairman, to set up NSE from scratch.

Interestingly, by her own admission, when Ramkrishna started her new assignment, she knew little about the business of bourses, yet slowly and steadily, out of the top five, Ramkrishna was to emerge as the more popular face of the organisation. The hush word around in NSE during her time was that the PR department had a mandate to run an ostentatious campaign for her, no wonder they were constantly hunting ways and means to put her into the spotlight and hype her corporate image. And they did a good job for her, as she was seen, heard and talked about in popular media and industry forums.

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After being a deputy to Narain for many years, nearly two decades later, on April 1, 2013, Ramkrishna took over the corner room of the exchange as its MD and CEO. Just six months down the line she was ranked as 17th in the list of top global women business leaders by Fortune magazine, USA and the second most powerful businesswoman in India.

Her popularity can be gauged from the fact that in one of India’s most-watched prime-time quiz shows hosted by Bollywood superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, a contestant was asked to name NSE’s first woman boss. It was a stunt well managed by NSE’s PR agency to promote Ramkrishna as a cult figure among CEOs in corporate India and also as a household name.

NSE’s board was filled with Babus (a term used pejoratively to refer to bureaucrats and government officials) retired from the Finance Ministry or entities regulated by it. Political patronage served to ensure that SEBI remained friendly to them. To the outer world, the BSE was a brokers club but NSE’s image was cast in its lofty standards of legal compliances.

On the day she took charge in April 2013, Ramkrishna made one of the most controversial appointments at NSE. Bypassing the Human Resources department, she got in one Anand Subramanian as a strategic advisor to her at an exorbitant pay and gave him a cabin next to her own.

Prior to joining NSE, Subramanian was employed at a Chennai-based logistics firm Transafe Services Private Limited, a joint venture between the state-owned Balmer Lawrie and the ICICI group. His annual pay then was a little over Rs. 14 lakh. Ramkrishna offered him a mind-bogglingly Rs. 1.7 crore remuneration package.

NSE officials say Subramanian was brought in as practically the number 2 at NSE and had the privilege to work from Mumbai as well as from Chennai, his hometown. In just two years, he was promoted to the post of NSE’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) with a rise in pay to again a mind-numbing Rs. 4.25 crore. The package was just a tad lower than Ramkrishna’s Rs. 4.78 crore. 

This kind of unbelievable step-up in salary has perhaps never been ever heard, at least not in India, however, it seemed at NSE it was pretty normal. There was no doubt this raised more than just eyebrows, and to quell the rising dissent, Ramkrishna had a rather lame justification. “I propose to use the facility of our chief strategic advisor to reduce my burden,” Ramkrishna told NSE staffers.

Subramanian was mandated to handle a horde of responsibilities including people management, new business, corporate communication, marketing, business excellence, research and development, pricing, strategic planning and NSE’s subsidiaries— IISL, DOTEX, NSE Tech and NSE IT. Yet, he was never designated as a key managerial person at the exchange. It was a blatant flouting of yet another rule of the exchange, which specifies the key managerial persons who have enhanced responsibility, their terms of appointment and salary are regulated by SEBI.

When confronted by SEBI on Subramanian’s appointment, Ramakrishna said, “He was identified by HR consultant. Interviews were done by HR and myself. Subsequently, the candidate also met Narain and Mathur (Chairman). I knew him through his wife Sunitha Anand.”

To the same question, Narain replied, “No, I did not have any role in the appointment of Subramanian.” Nearly a year after the Congress party lost elections to BJP, in January 2015, a whistleblower wrote an extensive letter to SEBI highlighting an Algo and  ‘Preferential Access’ scandal at the NSE. Buried skeletons started to tumble out of NSE’s cupboard, one after another and the ugly secrets hidden away for long started to uncover.

The axe first fell on Subramanian as the probe by the NSE board found irregularities in his appointment and he was shown the door in 2016. Subsequently, in months, even Ramkrishna had to quit but insiders knew that she was given the  ‘golden handshake’. She had netted nearly Rs. 50 crore in salary and variables in just about three years as MD and CEO. 

( Palak Shah is Senior Assistant Editor at Business Line, where he tracks the markets and regulations)

About the Book

The Market Mafia: Chronicle of India’s High-Tech Stock Market Scandal & The Cabal That Went Scot-Free.

Palak Shah

Notion Press

Rs 449 (paperback); 238 pages

Check the book out on Amazon

Published on February 15, 2022
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