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The last to know: on ICICI imbroglio

 The board of ICICI Bank has finally acted on the allegations of misconduct against its CEO and managing director, Chanda Kochhar. It had earlier maintained that she was on annual personal leave; now, she will stay away from the office till the completion of an inquiry into the charges levelled against her by a whistle-blower. Rather than allow the controversy to fester, the board of ICICI Bank, an institution that often sought to hold a mirror up to the inefficiencies of public sector banks, should have acted earlier. Till the inquiry is complete the bank will be steered by a new chief operating officer, Sandeep Bakhshi. The official version is that he will report to Ms. Kochhar, who herself took the decision to go on leave till the end of the inquiry — but this is at best a face-saving cover for a board that was reluctant to act since the controversy broke. Meanwhile, the tenure of M.K. Sharma, the chairman of the bank’s board, is set to end this month and there is still no clarity on his successor. This extended uncertainty in a crisis situation is unwarranted. ICICI Bank’s troubles are rooted in a 2016 complaint by an investor alleging a quid pro quo deal between Ms. Kochhar’s immediate family members and the Videocon group, which got a ₹3,250-crore loan from it. When this ‘conflict of interest’ complaint resurfaced in the public domain this year, Mr. Sharma said he had personally inquired into it two years earlier and found nothing amiss.

With the Central Bureau of Investigation and later the stock market regulator SEBI swooping in, the issue of whether the bank had failed to make adequate disclosures about its dealings with the borrower (who is now a defaulter) and a firm related to Ms. Kochhar’s husband was spotlighted. The bank is yet to respond to SEBI, but changed tack after the latter decided to launch a probe into allegations of a quid pro quo and alleged misconduct by Ms. Kochhar. Three weeks on, the names of the members of and terms of reference for the probe panel to be led by retired Supreme Court judge B.N. Srikrishna are still awaited. It is debatable whether such a high-profile panel is required to ascertain if Ms. Kochhar, whose term ends next March, had made adequate disclosures while deciding on the loans. The board itself could have dealt with this through an internal investigation rather than giving the impression that it wanted to paper over the issue, sending a poor signal to all stakeholders. No doubt Ms. Kochhar, a star on the corporate firmament, enjoys a formidable reputation as a banker. While one should not prejudge the inquiry findings, there is no doubt that the strength of corporate governance practices in the bank has come under question because of the way the issue has played out.

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