| Bajaj: Fireworks
Washington, Dec. 24: The phones continue to ring. From Washington state, which headquarters Microsoft, to Washington DC, the US capital, from California, home to Silicon Valley, to the Carolinas from where the Congressional India Caucus leadership hails.
Anyone who has anything to do with India in this country has been inundated by phone calls, faxes and email since Friday last week, when Avnish Bajaj, the CEO of Baazee, was arrested in Delhi. A sex video of two school students was sold on its online trading portal, baazee.com.
Bajaj's release on bail lowered concern here. But fresh reports today that Mumbai police had sent a notice to Baazee about a seizure of fake branded goods allegedly being sold on its website have revived worries not just about Bajaj, but also about the future of Internet commerce in India.
About 2,200 people here, mostly Indian Americans, have already signed a petition to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh drawing his attention to concerns that 'the entire legality of the e-commerce business in India is (now) called (in) to question'.
The petition says 'this is ironic, for the largest e-commerce operation in not just India but South Asia is the Indian Railways online ticket-selling business ' a government-owned and run operation ' which does business worth Rs. 18 crore a month'.
The decision of the magistrate in the Bajaj case 'seems to imply a lack of legal standing for all ticket sales online by the railways. It also calls to question all other e-commerce sales in India ' which amount to hundreds of crores of rupees a year'.
The Information Technology Association of America, the country's premier organisation for the information technology business, has been engaged in conference calls with the US office of the Confederation of Indian Industry, which has tried to allay fears here about the Bajaj case.
As far as perceptions go, the arrest of Bajaj has done more damage to India than Enron or the nearly 20-year-old moves to extradite Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson to answer for the Bhopal gas tragedy.
What has drawn international attention to the case is that it is not just about the detention of a foreign entrepreneur who has ventured into an emerging market with its uncertainties and risks.
The case is a volatile mix of sex, pornography, Internet commerce ' everything that draws interest.
It is clear that New Delhi was caught off guard by the interest in America in the case. Margaret C. Whitman, chief executive officer of eBay, the parent company of baazee.com, is a major contributor to President George W. Bush's election coffers.
In addition to the legally permissible personal contribution limit of $2,000, Congressional records show that on April 7, 2004, she gave $10,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
On April 26, she contributed $10,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
In addition, E Bay has set up a committee for 'responsible internet commerce'.
Among the recipients of this committee's political donations is a long list of Senators and members of the House of Representatives, both Republicans and Democrats. Prominent in this list is Republican Senator Sam Brownback, whose legislation led to the waiver of post-Pokhran-II sanctions against India.
Also in the list is Harry Reid, who will lead the Democrats in the new Senate to be constituted next month. These are only some of the contributions associated with Whitman in the 2004 poll season. There were other contributions during this season and in previous American elections.
Although Whitman and organisations with which she is associated has contributed to both parties, she personally is a Bush supporter. The interest taken at the highest levels in the US, acknowledged by the American embassy in Delhi in its statement last weekend, may have come as a surprise in India, but here it is being taken in its stride as something to be expected.
State department spokesman Richard Boucher, responding to a volley of questions on the issue, said 'secretary (of state Colin Powell) has been following (the case) closely'.
Boucher went so far as to say that Powell 'was actually asking about it' at his regular morning's staff meeting. 'It is a matter that we have been following,' Boucher said.
But he parried questions about whether national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had telephone anybody in New Delhi on behalf of Bajaj. 'I don't know if she has personally made phone calls on this. I do know this situation is one of concern at the highest levels of the US government.'