Aniruddha Bahal: Red SpiderMan
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.
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.