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ICICI board’s clean chit to Kochhar too hasty?

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MUMBAI: The ICICI Bank board jumped the gun in reposing full confidence in CEO Chanda Kochhar without knowledge of what investigative agencies were looking at, according to a government source. The CBI is probing the possibility of conflict of interest in restructuring loans given to Venugopal Dhoot-headed Videocon.

Two board members – the government nominee Amit Agarwal, who has since been replaced, and VK Sharma, chairman, Life Insurance Corporation – were not at the meeting last week when the bank’s board gave a clean chit to Kochhar. It is not clear whether their agreement was sought on the board decision.

Agarwal has since been replaced with Lok Ranjan though banking sources say the move does not appear to have been triggered by recent events as both are joint secretaries in the department of financial services.

What has rankled some people in government circles is the blanket statement of support for Kochhar. On March 28, the bank board issued a release stating that it reposes “full faith and confidence in its MD & CEO” and there was “no question or any scope of favouritism, nepotism or quid pro quo”.

In a note following the board statement, Hemindra Hazari, a Sebi registered research analyst, had said that the directors did not address the specific allegations of the whistleblower. “The board has neither clarified anything about the specific charges nor stated that it sought information on them and was satisfied. Did the board seek clarifications about the nature of the dealings between NuPower (promoted by Kochhar’s husband, Deepak) and Videocon?” said Hazare in the note.

“In my opinion the board should at least have appointed an external agency to look into the allegations and have the agency submit the report directly to the chairman,” Hazari told TOI. “The statement issued to the exchange said the board finds no evidence of any wrongdoing and reposes full faith and confidence in the CEO. Since there is no contrary statement from the government or the LIC nominee, it implies that there has not been any dissent. This puts the government in an awkward position given that its representative is going with the board statement while another arm is investigating ICICI Bank.”

Although ICICI bank is a private lender now, it was historically a joint sector undertaking with shareholding from domestic financial institutions. Shareholding is predominantly by foreign institutional investors, but the government and LIC continue to have nominees on its board.

Updated: April 7, 2018 — 7:12 pm

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