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Hours that led to Haldia Petro shake-up

Calcutta, June 20: Managing director Partha Sarathi Bhattacharyya went into the Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd (HPL) board meeting on Tuesday with a Rs 1,000-crore business plan.

When Bhattacharyya stepped out, he was no longer the chief and in his pocket was his final settlement that would not have been more than a drop in the oceanic amount he was hoping to raise for the troubled company.

The dramatic chain of events has fuelled speculation if Bhattacharyya, who won plaudits when he led Coal India in his previous assignment, was forced to quit during the meeting.

But Bhattacharyya himself found nothing odd. “I came to the meeting with the business plan as I wanted to leave the company in a better shape,” Bhattacharyya said today.

Insiders said he was equally prepared with the resignation letter that he presented at the beginning of the meeting.

The state government had an inkling of Bhattacharyya’s desire to step down yesterday and had firmed up an alternative plan. The government was on the lookout for a replacement at the top post for sometime.

According to one version, Bhattacharyya might have told a senior government functionary on Monday of his desire to step down during the board meeting the next day. Sumantra Choudhury, who has now replaced Bhattacharyya, was contacted on that night itself and he agreed to take up the assignment, a source said.

Other sources said Bhattacharyya preferred to step down during the board meeting rather than by sending a letter to the chairman as the board had appointed him.

He apparently considered it prudent to do so yesterday as the next board meeting may be convened only after three months. “He felt that the government should work with someone with whom it has a higher comfort factor,” the source added.

According to this version, private HPL promoter Purnendu Chatterjee was in the dark about the timing of Bhattacharyya’s resignation.

Choudhury was called in the latter part of the board meeting, even though he did not take part in it. He was present at the media meet where industries minister Partha Chatterjee announced the change of guard at HPL.

Some of the representatives of the financial institutions did raise questions about Bhattacharyya’s exit with immediate effect and suggested that he stay on for a few more months.

They were apprehensive that the process of sanctioning a Rs 1,000-crore loan to bail out the company would be in trouble if he left immediately.

Bhattacharyya has had an excellent rapport with the bankers, the relationship going back in some cases to his stint at Coal India where he piloted the mammoth Rs 15,000-crore initial public offer.

But the state government was apprehensive that the private promoter could go to court and stall Choudhury’s appointment. An associate company of TCG, Purnendu’s group, had yesterday obtained a 24-hour stay on transfer of HPL shares, though the court dismissed the petition today.

The boardroom coup took many corporate observers by surprise. “I hope the development will not send out a wrong message that the state government was out to oust private investors,” said a city-based industrialist.

Minister Chatterjee said the government was open to all constructive suggestions from Purnendu’s TCG. “We are not against any private players. There was a vacancy and we had to fill it up because HPL could not remain headless,” the minister said.

Choudhury, the new managing director, took charge last evening itself. He visited the HPL office and participated in a meeting with the chief secretary at Writers’. He is likely to visit the plant later this week.

Sources said a person with technical knowledge of the petrochemicals industry could be inducted as deputy managing director in a few months.