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Ghosn gone from Japan, will bare all from Lebanon

Murali Gopalan | Updated on January 02, 2020 Published on January 02, 2020

Former Nissan Motor chairman Carlos Ghosn   -  REUTERS

Houdini act of former Renault-Nissan Chairman leaves the world gasping, and Japan embarrassed

It was a Harry Houdini act that stunned the world. Nobody expected the last day of 2019 to end on such a dramatic note.

As news of Carlos Ghosn’s escape from Japan hit the headlines, the reaction was one of absolute astonishment, bewilderment and even a sense of amusement. Here was the former Chairman of Renault-Nissan, virtually a prisoner in Japan since November 2018, who managed to give the authorities the slip and landed in Lebanon.

How did Ghosn manage to escape when he was under such strict surveillance, with shadows constantly on his trail, cameras at home to detect every movement he made, and virtually no contact with the outside world? It is but natural for all the key stakeholders in Japan to be furious and embarrassed, especially the cops and the lawyers.

Music case escape

Ghosn’s legal team is as flummoxed, especially when all his three passports (France, Brazil and Lebanon) are in their custody. All kinds of stories have been doing the rounds and the one that is perhaps the most intriguing is how he was smuggled out in a music case. Clearly, careful planning went into this astonishing caper and there is little hope of Japan ensnaring its celebrated prisoner in a hurry.

What does one make of all this? To some, Ghosn’s reputation has taken a beating and the fact that he has absconded means in no uncertain terms that he was guilty. To that extent, he joins a list of infamous fugitives — one that has some prominent Indians, too, who are in the UK and the Caribbean.

Like them, Ghosn has been charged with serious financial embezzlement except that nothing has been proved conclusively yet. His trial was yet to begin but even to the diehard optimist, his chances of being freed were remote.

Ghosn, of course, has constantly maintained that he was innocent and how all this was nothing but a huge conspiracy by Nissan to fix him. It is now almost certain that one of the key irritants to Nissan was his intent to merge it with Renault. To Nissan, this was unacceptable and Ghosn had to be stopped in his tracks.

Exhaustive money trail

Well, this is only one side of the story. It is equally likely that the former Chairman also made a killing and had to be punished. This was what Nissan alleged and the money trail is quite exhaustive. These, however, remain accusations and the truth would have only come out at Ghosn’s trial but it is still a million-dollar question if he would have had the leeway to prove his innocence.

After all, Japan’s ‘hostage justice’ system has come under criticism from human rights activists since it is seen as too harsh and inhuman. Ghosn’s own experience is a case in point: he was whisked away to a detention centre in Tokyo where he was grilled endlessly for over 100 days, He had no access to lawyers and was finally released on bail.

Soon, he was rearrested after releasing a brief video where he blamed Nissan for this carefully orchestrated arrest that, in his words, was tantamount to backstabbing. As in the first instance, he was out again after paying hefty bail. Thereafter, his only point of contact were his lawyers and he was not even allowed to talk to his wife.

Fall from grace

This was a dramatic fall from grace for a person who had spearheaded the Nissan turnaround story since the time Renault threw a lifeline to the beleaguered company in the late 1990s. It was Ghosn who emerged the poster boy for the dramatic recovery and soon became a household name in Japan.

Manga, the Japanese graphic novel, even featured the Nissan story in its comic strips along with the man who was at the centre of its revival. He was an icon in Japan even while resentment was brewing within Nissan on his near invincible status and the fact that he was a one-man army. It was Ghosn who also brought Mitsubishi into the alliance’s fold; the next plan of action was a possible merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Everything seemed hunky-dory till the arrests happened in November 2018 and Ghosn’s carefully cultivated image over the years went to smithereens. As news of his alleged corruption began doing the rounds, the entire automobile world gasped in astonishment.

Needless to add, there was no opportunity for him to defend himself even as the detention period stretched for 108 days. In the interim, Ghosn made a brief appearance in court and it was apparent that the tenure in jail had taken its toll on him in terms of weight loss and more greying on the scalp.

This was also the time when Japan’s system of justice came under the scanner. It was Carole Ghosn who constantly spoke out against the harsh and inhuman treatment her husband was being subject to. Even if he were guilty, the way he was being paraded as a serious offender was galling to many.

This is where Ghosn’s escape becomes an interesting inflection point. He has issued a statement that he will meet the local press in Lebanon, which implies that his side of the story will now be heard. There may not be too much sympathy for him across industry circles since he will be perceived as a fugitive who escaped the clutches of the law.

But neither will Japan’s judicial system emerge smelling good, thanks to the way it subject a former CEO to such ignominy. It will also raise uncomfortable questions on preferential treatment to Japanese executives who could have committed similar crimes. ‘Guilty till proven innocent’ is not a line that is familiar in many parts of the world but in the case of Ghosn, this was precisely what occurred.

Back home

For all practical purposes, he is a free man today since there is no threat of being expedited to Japan. Ghosn is Lebanese and is a hero in the country which believes that he is innocent of all the charges. Japan and France may fret and fume but, for now, that is all they can do.

Ghosn, of course, will be raring to go. He has been on a gag order for 20 months now and for someone who was an interviewer’s delight, you can expect him to come out all guns blazing. As CEO, he was in the driver’s seat for many years and it is but natural for him to have the kind of information that has the potential to wreak havoc.

Since the time he was arrested, the Renault-Nissan alliance (which also includes Mitsubishi) has come under tremendous strain, with the levels of distrust/discomfort reaching new highs. A new CEO is in place at Nissan while his counterpart at Renault is holding interim charge.

Over the months, many heads have rolled and some of Ghosn’s loyalists have exited the scene. High profile executives such as Hiroto Saikawa, former CEO of Nissan, were also forced to step down over allegations of financial impropriety. Ironically, he had accused Ghosn of the same misdemeanour but got away more lightly.

Today, with a new management structure in place, things look a lot more promising for the Renault-Nissan alliance except that the recovery process will be slow and tedious. Nobody reckoned with the December 31 shocker when Ghosn flew the coop and this is what could turn out to be the biggest threat to the future of the alliance.

Skeletons in the cupboard

If he begins to sing like a canary and more skeletons tumble out of the cupboard, there could be even more difficult days ahead as high and mighty individuals could be the centre of some fresh accusations. Ghosn will obviously try to win people over to his side while giving his version of events. Neither is he going to go soft on what he saw in Japan and its constantly alleged dark system of justice.

It remains to be seen if his credibility has taken a beating because of his new stature as an absconder. Ghosn is no longer the colossus who strode various global fora in the past and had his audience mesmerised. Yet, there will be enough and more people keen on listening to his story. It has been a while since the former CEO of Renault-Nissan was heard even though it is going to be on a completely new platform.

Perhaps a movie on this great escape will be contemplated at some point in time. Whether there will be another Manga offering on the dramatic event is of course another matter altogether. Japan is clearly not amused at the recent turn of the tide and will be itching to get even.

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Published on January 02, 2020
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