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With Ghosn still in jail, the heart versus mind debate rages on

Murali Gopalan | Updated on January 17, 2019

Carlos Ghosn   -  REUTERS

He was charged with financial irregularities, but does the punishment fit the crime?

It is two months now since Carlos Ghosn has been jailed in Japan but he still continues to be in the news.

Increasingly, it looks as if Renault is gearing up to oust its disgraced Chairman and CEO (going by what the Finance Minister of France had to say in an interview) even while he has already been shown the exit door by alliance partners, Nissan and Mitsubishi.

However, what is perhaps more disconcerting is the recent revelation of the letter sent by his wife, Carole Ghosn, to Human Rights Watch.

She has referred to the treatment that he is being subjected to in jail where conditions are little to write home about.

It may be argued that the last thing a prisoner can demand is preferential treatment but the recent reports of Ghosn being led into court handcuffed and with a rope around his waist were quite disturbing. Sure, he was being tried for financial irregularities, but did the punishment fit the crime?

It is here that the ‘hostage justice’ of Japan comes into play where suspects are kept in jail for long periods till they eventually confess to their crimes. For now, Ghosn has denied any wrongdoing but it remains to be seen how long he can last.

Jail till confession?

There were reports that he had developed a fever while in jail though he has apparently recovered since. In his first appearance in court, he looked distinctly haggard and had lost considerable weight.

It is this reality that has prompted his wife to dash off a letter where she refers to his diet of ‘rice and barley-based meals’, which has resulted in him shedding nearly seven kilos in a fortnight. Additionally, Ghosn can exercise for 30 minutes daily though baths are confined to thrice a week.

Quite a dramatic fall for a man who was the proverbial jet-setter and the most charismatic CEO of the global automobile industry. Today, he is most likely being subject to endless rounds of interrogations in jail and the chances of a quick release on bail are looking even more remote.

In any issue like this, the debate always boils down to the heart versus the mind. At one level, it can be argued that the rules are the same for everyone and the guilty need to be punished. To that extent, it is laudable that Japan refuses to be overawed by the stature of an individual and has meted out the punishment he is seen to be deserving of.

This is in stark contrast to India where celebrities generally get away lightly even for the most severe offences. There have been exceptions for sure but it is common knowledge that those with substantial financial clout can manage to wriggle free.

However, when the heart takes over the debate, questions will be asked if Ghosn has to go through this exhaustive drill. Is it true that he needs to confess in order to be released from jail? Will his constant denial only increase his tenure behind bars?

Limited legal access

This is what Carole Ghosn’s letter, published in international media, implies where she refers to suspects in Japan being ‘routinely and repeatedly interrogated by prosecutors outside the presence of their lawyers’. They have no possibility of getting bail and with limited access to their own legal counsel, most of them finally relent and confess to their alleged crimes.

It was also some weeks ago when the Ghosn children were featured in a story centered around this entire saga where they were justifiably concerned about their father’s well-being.

After all, it can get difficult when one is not allowed to see him and can only depend on other sources of information to get constant updates. It is not the easiest of times for them and can be emotionally devastating.

It is a million-dollar question when Ghosn will be eventually released though it does not seem likely at least till the middle of this year. Even when he is out, he will really have little to look forward to professionally though being united with his family will more than make up for this void.

The show will also continue at Renault-Nissan except that it is impossible to predict who will now have a greater say in the alliance. Nissan is no longer the vulnerable entity of 20 years earlier when it was reduced by its stronger French ally.

Nissan more powerful

Today, the roles have reversed and it is Nissan that is the more powerful of the two, albeit with lesser powers like voting rights. It is very likely that the Japanese auto-maker will seek more leeway in the alliance. In fact, if reports are to be believed, Ghosn paid the price for attempting to push for a merger with Renault.

At this point in time, there are just way too many issues to be sorted out first. If Renault does throw Ghosn out as CEO, it will mark the beginning of a new chapter with Nissan. There will have to be greater attempts at accommodating its partner and the French government, which also has a stake in Renault, needs to play its part in not adopting an aggressive attitude.

The wounds will still be raw considering that the arrest of Ghosn took Renault by surprise and it will take time to rebuild the bridge of faith and trust with Nissan all over again. There are no two ways about the fact that the French car-maker could be smarting from the recent events considering that it was not kept in the loop despite being the larger shareholder.

Whilst he was on top, it was Ghosn who was the kingmaker of this alliance including the recent one of Nissan with Mitsubishi that was sewn up two years ago. Going forward, the power structure will be more decentralised though it is a moot point if a democratic ecosystem will end up being necessarily more efficient.

By the end of the day, it is important for the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi combine to strengthen their bonding and take the growth story forward. There is no question that it will not be the easiest of tasks and, like it or not, Carlos Ghosn will be a tough act to follow.

Yet, for the sake of its shareholders and to be able to cope with all the new challenges facing the automobile industry, the trio should pick up the pieces and move on.

Sometimes, change brings about with it a new surge of energy within the ecosystem, and the new leaders steering the alliance could just put the house in order all over again. It remains to be seen if Ghosn will be set free by this time.

Published on January 17, 2019

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