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Aniruddha Bahal: Red SpiderMan

What was Op Red Spider about? What did the media think or not think? And will it be forgotten like all other exposés in India?

Operation Red Spider

Before we get into what the Cobrapost exposé was all about, let’s tell you what Aniruddha Bahal had to say to the media who’d bothered to show up at his Operation Red Spider press conference. According to Bahal, Cobrapost was a small media outfit and actually a bigger media house should have undertaken this sting op. Nothing like a rap on the knuckles from the very person whose press conference you’ve come to cover. Here’re his exact words.

So what was the exposé which Bahal thought the big boys of the media should have been the ones to undertake? It was all about black money in India. Being laundered. That too by banks. Shocked? Well, it definitely seems like Bahal thought that the nation would be. Which is why, since day before, we’ve all been hearing about his and Cobrapost’s new exposé. An emailer was sent out, announcing Operation Red Spider two days ago.

Why name an exposé after a plant-feeding mite, you ask? And is it relevant that the most effective way to get rid of the mite is by using another predatory mite? We promise to get you the answers to these existential questions in due course of time.

In the meanwhile, back to the million-dollar question – what was the exposé all about? As the invite informed us, it would expose money laundering in corporate houses. And all journalists were welcome to attend the press conference at Constitution Club at 9.30am, which would be followed by the film of the exposé.

Come 9.30am, while there were 30 cameras set up, there seemed to be hardly any reporters on the scene. And Newslaundry’s Abhinandan Sekhri informed us, after a quick pow-wow with Bahal, that the exposé was about banks.

Aniruddha Bahal

 

And here we were – being caught up in semantics – thinking it would be about big bad corporates. But banks it was. (And somewhere we could hear TV18 and India TV breathing a sigh of relief.) The question was, would HSBC make an appearance in this exposé? Given its charmed history in the last few years, it would be surprising if it didn’t. After all, it was just in December 2012 that HSBC Holdings Plc agreed to pay a record $1.92 billion in fines to US authorities for laundering money from Mexico. This was as penalty for laundering $881 million of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel and Colombia’s Norte del Valle cartel through HSBC’s Mexican unit.

Now that the international market had set our hopes high, as had Bahal and his emailer, we were expecting fireworks. And here’s what other people – okay make that the one person who’d managed to make it to the conference with his camera crew before 9.30 am – thought the conference would be about. He’s a reporter with ETV and showed at least a glimmer of intrigue at the thought that the conference would reveal some great money laundering secrets.

Come 9.30am though, Bahal took the podium and showed us why it’s good to indulge in some expectation management. Since this is what the conference was actually about.

To sum up, the exposé focused on money laundering in banks. To be precise – ICICI, HDFC and Axis Bank. So would we see Chanda Kochar, Deepak Parekh and Shikha Sharma put under the scanner? And would Cobrapost track the laundering of billions of unaccounted wealth of some well-known politician or his offspring through our banks?

What we got instead was more like a damp squib. Or maybe we are just so immune to corruption nowadays, that unless we hear some big names and amounts in billions, it seems like small fry.

We also got to spot some celebrities – journalist Javed Naqvi, Arundhati Roy and Prashant Bhushan.

Segue time over, back to the details of the exposé. Over an investigation conducted across 6 months, a Cobrapost person with the alias of Syed Hasan pretended to be a politician’s go-between. He approached branches of HDFC, Axis and ICICI across the country and told them that he wanted to convert his boss’ black money into white. And was given a royal welcome by them and informed of the various ways by which the banks can help him do so – keep the money in their lockers, invest in their mutual funds and fixed deposits, even get the money deposited in NRE accounts. The banks made it very clear that they were more than happy to connive with clients to hide their black money in investment instruments which seemed to be used quite generously for laundering. The bank managers would even pick up the cash from Hasan if required.  ICICI bank officials went one step further and said they would help create alternate fraudulent profiles for investment purposes. As Bahal said, “who needs Swiss banks when desi banks are providing fool proof services? They even come home with cash counting machines”.

What we got to see was three-and-a-half hours of footage of various bank managers ranging from tellers to the relationship desk being shot on hidden camera explaining how they could help Hasan launder his boss’ money. Which did make you wonder why the big fish weren’t shown even once. There wasn’t even an interview with Kochar/ Parekh/ Sharma asking them if they were aware of the laundering services provided by their banks.

But that’s just us splitting hairs. And maybe Arundhati Roy, who also scooted within 20 minutes of the film starting.  Which we have to grant was better than the journalists who decided to catch up on their forty winks while the magnum opus expose rolled on.

Bahal, and Manoj Mitta of The Times Of India seemed most impressed by the exposé. Not surprising that Aniruddha would be, since it was his exposé, but at least he had compatriots who were impressed by his endeavour. Here’s what he and the others had to say.

Manoj Mitta, in fact, thought it was “humungous what has come about”. Here’s what else he had to say.

But what did the rest of those who attended the conference think of the revelations? People seemed to have come to the press conference with all sorts of expectations, with Rahul Prakash of Total TV thinking the sting op would be an expose on politicians.

Pravanjan Verma from IBN 7 expressed solidarity with Cobrapost and said that it would have made no difference if the sting op had featured Mukesh Ambani. We all applaud him!

Poonam Agarwal of Times Now wasn’t too impressed by the scale of the sting op. How proud Arnab would be of her.

For some reason, the correspondents from the English news channels seemed to be reluctant to speak without their editor’s permission. Too bad the bank managers didn’t exercise similar restraint. Here’s our pick of our best chase sequences with the English press.

The other question is that despite sending their OB vans and camera crews, why did some channels choose to not report on the press conference as it was happening? Could it be that because it wasn’t clear who was the focus of the exposé – corporates or banks – the channels played safe and decided not to report till it was clear that their benefactors weren’t playing starring roles in film? We do know that while IBN 7 covered the press conference for a while as it began, as did Headlines Today, NDTV and CNN IBN decided to start telecasting and reporting on it only after a couple of hours of the press conference starting. Is this a result of the government reprimands and Mukesh Ambani’s notice which had followed them telecasting Arvind Kejriwal’s press conference, which all had shown in real time?

One thing you can be sure of, after this exposé, is that the young men and women at these banks will be pulled up and maybe even sacked for playing starring roles in Bahal’s film. While Kochar/ Parekh/ Sharma will keep getting awards for being the best bank/ best achiever etc at various shows and having various committees named after them. Not that we received a very good reason for why they weren’t caught on camera by Bahal and his team.

So now that the presser is done and dusted, the media has yet another scam to go to town about. And as double service, Bahal has made sure that the RBI will be kept busy and our government has another opportunity to find gainful employment for its economists and ministers by setting up a brand new commission of enquiry.

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  • Liza

    This sense of it being ‘not a big enough story’ stems from the fact that it involves circumstances people face everyday. It is far easier to get excited about a story involving the ‘other’ (politician, big business, media) so we know where to point out fingers and who to go after, but when the finger is pointing party in out own direction we really can’t act horrified and shocked. Because we see it everyday. I think we need more expose’s on this scale – exposing aberrations in daily life that have become so ingrained that it doesn’t have shock value anymore.

  • brij5

    So some media houses is also don’t want to telecast this expose, because some corporate houses have wasted interest in them. Shame on hypocrisy of Big Media houses.
    Really the media is as much stupid as Indian Politicians.
    Hats off to Cobra Post for exposes.

  • A K SAXENA

    The sting operation by the COBRAPOST exposed the executives of three private banks indulging in money-laundering activities.The story does not end here. Not to lag behind, even some public sector banks are allegedly indulging in the luxury of obliging mainstream political parties by receiving huge sums of of cash from them and channelizing the same into investment schemes by creating benami accounts-holders.The RBI’s anti-money-laundering laws are being violated with impunity,both by private and public sector banks. While in govt service, I came across a case of a prominent political party flooding a government bank( two or three times a week) with sacks of unaccounted cash running into hundreds of crores of rupees ( black money in common parlance) for money-laundering.The MOF was apprised of the details with documentary evidences. But, the matter was conveniently suppressed.The evil continues with vengeance, across the board, right under the nose of the RBI. Names of political party and the psu bank, are being withheld for obvious reasons.

    A K Saxena (A retired civil servant)
    http://www.aksaxena.co.in
    blog.aksaxena.co.in

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shovon-Chowdhury/507224224 Shovon Chowdhury

    I’m glad you found this so amusing.

  • kiran

    Since years, Govt very well knows that for availing low cost loans from World Bank etc. India is
    always put on back-foot because of the demographic disparities like High percent of below poverty line, High percent of illiterates, High percent of un-insured / under insured, High percent of cash transactions versus total transaction in
    the economy, High infant mortality rate, High levels and percent of mal-nutrition, Adverse male-female ratio despite so many years of independence. Out of all these, Insurance is only the product being misused by banks and shown to the Govt as action for correction in data. Since 2005, Life insurance product mixed with a desire for quick-easy profits is the most deadly mixture for all revelations of Cobrapost. Political will is lacking and has failed to correct demographic disparities since independence, and now has failed to stop money laundering.

    Let the entire private sector deny the Truth – Selecting over-ambitious staff, Putting undue Sales Pressure on staff, Unnecessarily fighting against Nature’s one fixed parameter i.e. 24 hours in a day, Misusing the basic flaw in one
    mathematical formula i.e. square of any negative integer is equal to square of the same positive integer. Showing result does not reveal whether it is square of negative integer or of positive integer, Misusing Excel for all operational and
    sales purpose. Desired result in a resultant cell is backwardly framed by unethical intelligent calculations and then to hide the same, they use copy and paste values expert technique of Excel. That’s why, one most reputed private bank uses excel based software for its operational activities and check how they get IT excellence awards almost every year.

    IRDA / RBI as a penalty on banks shall withdraw insurance product from banks for the complete next financial year. No bank shall be allowed to have its own independent financial company.

  • Vivek Dutt

    Dear Aniruddha Sir, i am very impressed with your mission, i have few proofs relevant

  • Vivek Dutt

    Pls, contact me, +91 8571867487

  • AAM AADMI

    Peanuts. Bigger scams are in the cooperative sector both farmer coops etc and coop banks because they are directly controlled by politicians and which party has the biggest coop scam going??
    I don’t thing even the brave journalists who have pitted their lives against bank tellers and pvt bank execs will find the bravado to enter that territory. :)