The Man Who Knew Too Much

Santanu Saikia had managed to perfect and profit from the practice of hacking into the physical network of government files that is the warp and weft of Delhi journalism.

ByTR Vivek
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The Man Who Knew Too Much
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When news filtered out of a former journalist, who hadn’t yet been named publicly, being involved in smuggling documents from the oil ministry, Santanu Saikia’s face flashed instantly in my mind. I called up a mutual journalist friend in Delhi to confirm my hunch. He couldn’t, but we both agreed that Santanu was perhaps too smart a geezer to get involved in a hashtagged corporate espionage racket that was playing out on national television.

When it turned out that Santanu was indeed one of the persons arrested in the case, I wasn’t exactly surprised but was taken aback when news channels very soon began portraying him as a “document” mafia don of Delhi. Surely, this was uninformed spin, I thought to myself. A day later, on February 21, I watched TV news in utter disbelief when a haggard Santanu while being taken into the crime branch office in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri yelled at journalists, hands waving that this was a “Rs 10,000-crore scam” and he was trying to “cover” it all up. Really? Was he employing his trademark sarcasm, or was it the mental toll that custodial interrogation can take on those who are not hardened criminals?

Meantime, I gathered from social media commentary that Santanu was among other things an anti-India Greenpeace activist, an Aam Aadmi Party member (the two charges that somehow proved his criminality in the eyes of many!), a Reliance spy, missionary mole and dynasty hack. All rolled into one. Further investigations by social media Sherlocks could well reveal that his preferred form of entertainment was killing kittens.

The CV of his late wife Sabina Sehgal Saikia is being exhumed to offer circumstantial evidence. According to armchair investigators on social media, she was a food and lifestyle writer in the employ of Times Group for most part of her working life is somehow incontrovertible evidence of her corruptness. Her death, at the hands of Pakistani terrorists during the 26/11 attack while she was a guest at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel, is being crassly spun on social media as comeuppance for a career made by serving corporate interests In sum, the insta-analysis on social media has it that the Saikias were a typical Delhi power couple who embodied the #SabMileHueHain culture of the capital.

I can’t claim to know Santanu very well, but was somewhat acquainted with his business model. His was a mezzanine office in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat village, which variously smelled of diesel smoke from the constantly humming generators, rajma masala from the dhabas a few yards away, and fish and garlic sauce from Santanu’s carefully arranged wicker tiffin basket.

Among journalist friends, Santanu enjoyed the reputation of a can-do reporter who cut his teeth in the profession writing about the Delhi stock exchange. For many years, Santanu was the man to beat when it came to scooping stories from the petroleum ministry. Goaded by an industrialist friend who ran a fertiliser firm, he decided to use that expertise for his own venture. Santanu’s mothership was the poorly designed, yet information laden trade portal called IndianPetro.com, for which businesses, big and small, in the sector were happy to pay good money to access.

IndianPetro was not too dissimilar from the establishments you’d encounter in Gaffar market. Those who’ve been to that heaving district near Karol Bagh in Delhi would know that the wares sold there — from electronics to denim — were excellent value for money even if the sourcing was less than scrupulous.

His business model was firmly located in the grey territory. When viewed charitably it could be termed as a means of democratisation of information wherein he was merely charging carriage fee, or outright theft of material he had no right to be in possession of.

Santanu, a man with a fondness for pointy shoes, crisp linen shirts and interminably long meetings, was deadly keen to get out of the business of government document-based intelligence offerings, which he knew would get him into trouble sooner or later. Instead he wanted to create the Indian version of Platts — the global gold standard of energy and metals related business information service, which is part of the publishing giant McGraw-Hill.

Twice a week, Santanu’s driver or help would deposit on his table a stash of papers — often a foot high — which were mostly documents from economic ministries like petroleum, coal and power.  At the morning and evening “edit” meetings with nearly half a dozen reporters and interns, he would go through the papers and decide on the “spin” for each of the 20 posts IndianPetro would carry every day.

Those who follow the website regularly would tell you that the contents documents range from banal ministerial responses to Parliamentary questions (how much money was allocated to the petroleum university in Rae Bareli) to highly valuable minutes of the meetings chaired by the prime minister, the main man in the Prime Minister’s Office, Pulok Chatterjee, or even the national security advisor. There would be correspondences between the high and mighty on critical policy issues. For instance, the attorney general’s opinion on various energy sector issues; the petroleum ministry’s plan of action on the $1.7 billion arbitration proceedings with Reliance Industries; or letters from the PMO to the environment ministry nudging it to move faster, or slower, in some cases, with respect to clearances. Surely, you get the drift.

A team of lowly paid typists sitting in a small airless methane chamber would type out the contents of the government documents verbatim to be uploaded on the website, behind the paywall. (Putting up the scanned versions of the papers with evidence of government stationary would invite trouble with respect to the Official Secrets Act with which Santanu had a brush in 2009.)

Clearly, Santanu had privileged and clockwork regular access to hugely commercially important information. And so did a clutch of other, newer, copycat competitors operating out of Delhi. To call it the clichéd treasure trove would be an understatement. In utter disbelief, I asked him how the hell did he get his hands on all this stuff. “Journalistic means,” he’d say with a smirk.

For journalists, especially those writing on business and economy, and corporate houses, these government documents are of indescribable value. Almost every major scam unearthed by journalists is on the basis of such documents procured by means fair or foul. Every journalist I can think of would happily give his or her right arm and more to be able to get an uninterrupted supply of it.

Santanu had only managed to perfect and profit “supernormally” from the practice of hacking into the physical network of government files that is the warp and weft of Delhi journalism.

The benefits of this brand of journalism are many. Once you have a juicy document with the four lions on the letterhead, or the signatures of bureaucrats upwards of joint secretary level, you can afford to simply run with the story without the need for cursory cross-checks. One week’s supply of documents of the kind Santanu received could provide three months worth of Page One productivity and byline sustenance for journalists. The leaked draft of a Comptroller and Auditor General report could ensure regal status in the newsroom for a year, if not more.

Editors and bureau chiefs hardly ever ask reporters the precise sources or means employed to procure the such documents.

There are many ways such documents can be ferreted out. For those not brave enough for direct action, or lacking assets inside the various government bhawans, there are other avenues (very leafy ones in Lutyens’ Delhi out of where which corporate affairs officials of some of India’s megacorps operate).

Gathering sensitive government information and intelligence is a part of the job description of corporate affairs executives, as is leaking them to trusted and byline-hungry journalists (treat a front-page flyer as the equivalent of a five-wicket haul, a cricket-minded boss once told me!).

Then, there are several public relations (PR) firms that specialise in paper purloin as part of the “bouquet” of offerings they provide their clients. The head of that practice in the PR firm becomes an invaluable friend of journalists. But “friendships” and PR honey talk notwithstanding, cold calculations about circulation and TRPs of the outlets play the decisive role in who gets what.

I learnt this the hard way.  If you pay close attention to India’s business press, you’ll realise that by and large it covets three kinds of stories that get front-page space. First, mergers and acquisitions (“Firm X buys Y in a $1 billion cash-and-stock deal”); second, major government policy action (“FM to usher in tax reforms”); and third, large corporate action that involves several billion dollars worth of investments or the entry or exit of multi-national corporations (“US Retail giant to enter India with a $10 billion war chest”).

More than a decade ago, when India was shining, the third category of stories topped the fashion charts. I was driven to despair, sometimes to suicidal extremes, by the almost every day public caning from my editors because reporters on the same beat at a bigger rival paper were filing stories for fun, about one or the other global firm getting the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) approval to start business in India (yes, those were the days!) in excruciating detail.

Taking pity on me, a senior colleague (who had gone through the same meat grinder before, and with great cunning offloading that dreadful beat to me) suggested what he said was the only workable solution. He said I should talk to a gentleman from a particular PR agency who was in the habit of delivering manila folders of FIPB approval documents days in advance of them becoming public to my Voldemorts.

I sought him out. It is perhaps the only recorded instance of an Indian journalist buying a PR person beer. I urged, no literally begged him, to show a modicum of fairness in his document distribution decisions. I suggested to him a 1:4 split ratio for the precious papers in accordance with the circulation differential of my newspaper with that of my adversaries’. The meeting yielded little other than vague assurances of help in other fronts of access. Don’t ask me how I survived the newsroom ordeal. Suffice to say I dug deep for depleting reserves of will to live on and recount the tale.

Santanu understood the financial potential of the skills he acquired working at newspapers and took enormous pride in the fact that the grey market going price of the IndianPetro’s access password was in excess of Rs 20,000. “Every reporter on the oil and gas beat in Delhi nicks stories from my website. Imitation is best form of flattery,” he would often gloat in his singsong Assamese accent.

Perhaps more than the act of entrepreneurship, Santanu was in love with the idea of being an entrepreneur. To him journalism had become pointless, a dour profession for people who sought steady income.  He tried to mask the naturally genteel air about him with an often exuberant display of tight-fists and mean-spiritedness.

He would often encourage some of his senior journalist friends to quit journalism altogether and join him full time with the possibility of profit sharing if they could free him up from day-to-day affairs of content management to focus on business development.

Despite being a single parent, Santanu worked like a dog. Somewhat fittingly, in his room — the only one with the luxury of a window in the office — was a small painting by one of India’s best known and most expensive artists showing his wife Sabina walking on a leash a poodle with Santanu’s moustachioed face and an Assamese jaapi on its head. The tragic death of Sabina seemed to have turned the poodle into a pit bull of entrepreneurship. Besides wanting to build a Platt’s-like business-to-business information empire, he toyed with the idea of getting into general interest news journalism as well with a website called Altgaze.com in partnership with friend and veteran journalist Vrinda Gopinath. He had set himself a deadline of two years to take the revenue of his firm up to Rs 10 crore a year. “There is no bloody point otherwise. If I can’t do it, I’ll retire and go back to my ancestral house in Assam,” he’d say.

I’d lost touch with Santanu sometime in mid-2012. I don’t know if his business goals and motivations have undergone a massive change in these two years for him to become a corporate spy trying to “cover up” a Rs 10,000-crore scam.

I never did get the feeling that he was trying to use the government papers for anything other than for the purposes of his core business. To do otherwise would be akin to killing the goose that lays golden eggs. It’s hard for me to imagine Santanu undertaking the enormous risk of turning a spy for one or a handful of companies, at the cost of losing several hundred loyal subscribers and running his business to the ground.

Santanu is hardly the lone practitioner of this brand of journalism. Journalists, absolute masters in the theory and practice of contextual morality (read: hypocrisy), often justify pilfering government documents with the claim that they are serving the cause of openness in a democratic society and that the government has no business classifying any paperwork as “confidential”. Such claims would remind many of Arun Shourie’s assertion that people like Reliance’s Dhirubhai Ambani, by exceeding the lawful limits of production granted by their licence, not only built world-class companies but also “helped create the case for scrapping these regulations. They helped to make the case for reforms”.

Hopefully, the Santanu case will spark a wider debate about the ethicality of unscrupulous procurement of government files, and set a legally clear precedent about what constitutes public interest and what constitutes plain theft.

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