Downturn for Bombay's 'Big Bull': The alleged kingpin of an pounds 800m stock-market fraud, bailed after three months, is almost worshipped by many Indians, writes Tim McGirk in New Delhi

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The Independent Online
TO THE Indian detectives who led him away in handcuffs from his Bombay penthouse with its own nine-hole putting green, Harshad 'Big Bull' Mehta was an arch villain who is the prime suspect in an pounds 800m stock market and banking swindle. Yet many Indians still look upon Mr Mehta as a role-model and a folk hero. He has inspired a play, and Bombay film makers are trying to rush the Big Bull Mehta Story into production. Fan clubs have sprung up to proclaim him a wronged man, a scapegoat. There are new Harshad Mehta jokes coined nearly every day, and many newspaper columnists have leapt to defend him.

One writer, Bachi Karkaria, described Mr Mehta as 'the biggest hero, the Bachchan (a famous Hindi film star) of the Bombay Stock Exchange, the man who put money into the poor man's pocket even while allowing the rich to rob'.

He is less of a hero, perhaps, in bureaucratic New Delhi than he is in Bombay, a city under the sway of Ganesh, a scruffy, fat-bellied god with an elephant-head who rides around on a large rat. Ganesh is the Lord of Auspicious Beginnings and Prosperity, and in this year's annual procession in his honour many of the floats had the smiling elephant god side by side with an idol of Mehta.

Mr Mehta symbolises the ethos of Bombay, a bustling, desperate city of more than 10 million people, half of whom sleep on the streets or in slum shacks. Everybody is looking for a chance, a good luck talisman, or a guru to follow. And for many, Big Bull Mehta was like a roly-poly incarnation of Ganesh.

It was a role Mr Mehta relished. 'I want to be like the Pied Piper,' he once remarked before his fall. He is 38, a big, boyish-looking man who talks in a soft, persuasive whisper.

Before becoming a broker, Mr Mehta's 14 previous business ventures had ended in failure. He came from a lower-middle class family, and it was only by pawning a typewriter that he and his brother, Ashwin, were able to set up shop in a grimy room at the wrong end of Dalal Street, the heart of Bombay's shares market.

While everyone likes to make money, when the insider trading scandal broke on Wall Street many people were appalled by the unmitigated avarice of stockbrokers who had amassed more than the GDP of many developing countries. In India, however, corruption is so rooted in everyday life that Mr Mehta is admired as a genius who played the system to astronomical advantage. He told the Times of India this week that 80 per cent of market operations in India involved violation of central bank guidelines.

'If I was to remain or become one of the major players, I had to follow the system in existence,' Mr Mehta added. 'If they come into the market with nuclear weapons, I can hardly go in with a stick.'

The scheme allegedly worked like this: in India, funds from interbank transfer of receipts for government securities are processed manually, which often takes two weeks. With help from bank and government officials, it is alleged, Mr Mehta illegally tapped these idle funds to play the stock market. Almost alone he pushed the Bombay Stock Exchange Index from 1,300 in June 1991 to 4,500 in April 1992.

There were hundreds of thousands of Indians who followed the piper's tune played by Mr Mehta. They were not only big investors, but small-timers, the sari shop owners and clerks who previously had never dreamed of risking their savings on the stock market.

Sucheta Dalal, a Bombay journalist, recalled: 'I watched one of his men go on to the floor of the exchange and ask for a share price. Just asking was enough to make the share jump 35 rupees.' From 1989 to 1991, Mr Mehta went from being a nobody to a stock market savant, capable of writing personal cheques of pounds 20m. If an industrialist wanted the share values of his company to go up, all he had to do was ostentatiously drive up to the Bombay Stock Exchange skyscraper in a limousine and take Mr Mehta out for lunch.

Mr Mehta revelled in this fame. He hired publicists to take out full-page newspaper advertisements for himself. He loved showing off his collection of 29 luxury cars. Once, for a TV documentary on his rise, 'Big Bull' Mehta posed at Bombay zoo, feeding bears.

Himanshu Shukla, a computer salesman on Dalal Street, said: 'Harshad did good for a lot of people. They were able to buy flats, or get out of debt.'

Always a man for numbers, Mr Mehta claims that in Bombay jail he was interrogated for more than 500 hours by 60 different detectives. His health has deteriorated. 'I am treated worse than convicts. This amounts to pre-trial punishment and conviction without trial.'

The truth is, for the alleged scheme to have worked on such a mammoth scale, many of the country's top bankers and high government officials had to be involved. So far, only the commerce minister and chief planning commissioner have been arrested along with Mr Mehta.