Times Now ‘exclusive’ is eight years late

The letter to Sonia Gandhi from Shankar Sharma of First Global, Tehelka’s financiers, was first published in my book on Tehelka in 2009. Does it count as an ‘exclusive’ in 2017?

ByMadhu Trehan
Times Now ‘exclusive’ is eight years late
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Last night, it was the usual Times Now versus Republic TV doing “exclusives” that are as usual neither exclusive nor new. The two channels in high-pitched tones were feigning shock with their “exclusive” that Congress chief Sonia Gandhi wrote to UPA finance minister P. Chidambaram in 2004 to resolve cases against Tehelka.com financiers First Global.

On November 6, Times Now ran programmes claiming: “This is a Times Now exclusive”, “2004 letter from Sonia Gandhi leaked letter to then Finance Minister Chidambaram has been accessed by your channel that is a big Times Now exclusive. That was the first time Sonia Gandhi batted for private firm First Global. Mrs Gandhi had also alleged harassment of firm by various agencies, that letter of 2004 that was written by Sonia Gandhi.”

Although Times Now flashed Tarun Tejpal’s image through the evening and said there was a quid pro quo between Tejpal and the Congress party, the letter was not from Tejpal. The letter was from Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra of First Global, Tehelka’s investors, who were sending letters to anyone they could, even one to the President of India and also to the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and others.

Then Navika Kumar says: “That’s right. In my hand, I hold a letter written by Sonia Gandhi to Chidambaram. This letter opens a can of worms really on how the UPA government had begun to function on the various cases that were pending with the income tax authority.” Such cans of worms have been opened and consumed almost a decade ago, and have become manure now where a generation of news platforms devoid of basic journalistic principles are flowering.

In their programmes later in the evening, they also showed letters from Tarun Tejpal to Manmohan Singh, as did Republic TV.

How “exclusive” was the Sonia letter? This letter was published in my book Prism Me a Lie, Tell Me a Truth – Tehelka As Metaphor in 2009. Excerpt:

Clearly, Arun Jaitley and Soli Sorabjee loved and admired George Fernandes, and enjoyed a good personal equation with him. Jaitley and Sorabjee believed Fernandes had been trapped in an unfair noose. The fact that their defence minister had to resign and Parliament could not function appeared to them a gross miscarriage of justice. The slanted editing in removing all reference to George Fernandes’s honesty did no service to Tehelka’s credibility. In my assessment, poor journalistic judgement, rather than any dark political conspiracy. A common habit amongst us journalists: often the angle of the story becomes so powerful, it subconsciously turns into a motive.

The letter that Shankar Sharma had written to Sonia Gandhi, was the same letter that Sharma had written to the President of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and numerous other ministers in the BJP-led coalition government. The difference was that Sonia Gandhi had forwarded the letter to P. Chidambaram, now finance minister, with the following covering letter:

Dear Shri Chidambaram,

I am enclosing a copy of a letter written to me by directors of First Global regarding alleged harassment by some agencies under Finance Ministry.  I have been informed that this matter has already been discussed in a high- level meeting and certain corrective measures have been agreed to. I would like you to look into these issues on priority in order to ensure that no unfair and unjust treatment is meted out to the petitioners.

With good wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Sonia Gandhi

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Sonia Gandhi’s letter is perceived as proof by the BJP that the Congress had a hand in the Tehelka exposé.

The letter is dated 25 September 2004. Two years later, Shankar and Devina still could not travel freely abroad, so earning their livelihood from their companies based abroad had virtually come to a halt. The Congress was in power in early September 2004, when the Income Tax Department attached all their businesses and all their deposits in the BSE. The Enforcement Directorate had not returned their legitimate funds, seized during the raids. They had not even returned their computers. Shankar said,

The ground level remains the same, even though the government has changed. They have to unwind the wrong and for that they have to admit they were wrong. They find it impossible to do that. To revoke their own acts is a problem for them.

The time limit for the assessment order is two years from the search. Although Shankar and Devina received the assessment order on September 25, 2003, that stated: No undisclosed income, no undisclosed assets found, nothing incriminating found. Until the month of November 2005, over a year later, Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra were still fighting numerous income tax cases.

(For the full chapter on Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra from Tehelka as Metaphor, click here)

Today, 13 years later, Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra have successfully fought and won most of the cases filed against them. It is a matter of record that not a single case was withdrawn to favour them. There are a few still pending in the Department of Company Affairs. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Stock Market Scam, led by Chairman Prakash Mani Tripathi of the BJP, cleared First Global of “deliberate bear hammering” to discredit the government. This was tabled in Parliament on December 19, 2002, when the BJP was in government.

The Congress party had done nothing to help them even though, as can be seen from the letter, Sonia Gandhi intended to. Was there indeed a quid pro quo between the Congress party and Tarun Tejpal? It is possible. Arun Jaitley believed it was the case and said so in an interview. Excerpt:

Jaitley: I felt that in a number of cases, some of the exposés that they brought out probably would serve the public good. I also felt in some cases, they had a definite political agenda. Their subsequent association, the patronage Mrs Sonia Gandhi has given to them and their funding companies, the manner in which they caved in on the Rahul Gandhi interview, the manner in which Mrs Sonia Gandhi has helped them with their funding companies to do away with outstanding tax demands.

In September 2005, Tehelka published an interview with Rahul Gandhi to which the Congress party took strong objection. The Congress stated that Rahul believed he was having a ‘casual’ conversation with a reporter in Amethi. Tehelka initially dismissed that by reiterating that ‘there was nothing casual about it and it was a formal interview’. A few days later, Tehelka strangely backtracked and issued a statement that it was a clear misunderstanding and any errors were inadvertent and regretted.

Tehelka’s gutsy groundbreaking exposé Operation West End on corruption, unfortunately, made other journalistic errors of judgement. Excerpt:

Essential facts were omitted. R.K. Jain’s statements vouching for George Fernandes’s honesty were edited out. Tehelka cut out an encounter they had with an honest bureaucrat in the defence ministry, Mr Doodani. He was furious with Mathew Samuel for offering him money and threatened to call the CBI if he did not leave immediately.

From the unedited West End tapes, Mathew  Samuel  offered  Doodani  a  packet of money:

Doodani: No, no, no, sorry.

Samuel: Awkay, awkay, I am sorry. Sasi told me.

Doodani: Please never do this. Never. No, absolutely not.

Samuel: I am sorry.

Doodani: I will see Sasi.

Samuel: Sasi told me.

Doodani: No, no. no. I am very much against these things.

Samuel: Sasi told me.

Doodani: No, I told Sasi.

Samuel: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m rrrreally sorry. I’m rrrrreally sorry.

Doodani: I’m never for these things. You’ve got a … he just told me that you wanted some advice, I said, “Okay. Friendly advice I can give to him.” But, your this thing, sorry!

Samuel: Sasi told me.

Doodani: I’ll just ring up Sasi.

Samuel: Sasi, I’m calling from Mr Doodani’s home. You told me, “Give the money to Mr Doodani.” I did, one moment.

Doodani: Hello? Sasi? What is this you are doing? What’s this nonsense? No, that day when you spoke to me, I told you very clearly if he wanted friendly advice, okay, welcome. But, then do you think he can bring the money over here and put it before me? Am I that kind of man? No, no, no, no. I don’t want to hear.

Samuel: He told me to give.

Doodani: Yes, I am very disturbed.

Samuel: I am rrreally verrrry sorry.

This was a serious breach of fair journalism. Tehelka said they wanted the public to know about the corrupt system. The public was equally entitled to learn that there are honest officers. In this, senior editors in any organisation play a crucial role. They ask for the other side of the story, ensure all the facts are double-checked and that no journalists push an agenda. Tarun Tejpal was too busy trying to run the website and Aniruddha Bahal was in charge of the investigative cell. Bahal was also the man running Operation West End. There was no objective eye looking at editing decisions. Journalists habitually fall in love with the angle of the story on which they are focusing and any point raised that moves it away from that angle, is dropped. The integrity of George Fernandes and Doodani moved them away from their exposure of corruption. That was a ‘Tipping Point’. It made their report appear biased.

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But was there a quid pro quo between the Congress party and Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra?  I don’t believe so, or they wouldn’t have suffered as they did even after the Congress party was in power. Excerpt:

It was around 10.00 in the morning when Tarun put in a call to his investor in Mumbai, Shankar Sharma of First Global Stockbroking. Tarun told him that Tehelka was about to explode with a Big Breaking Story. He didn’t give any details, only informed Shankar that they were going to show a political defence exposé. Shankar responded by telling him, ‘Don’t do it’. He pointed out to Tarun that they were in the midst of negotiations for funding with Subhash Chandra of Zee Telefilms and it would be bad timing.

Shankar: Look boss, doing anything controversial right now, anything  that has political overtones is going to just blow your financing plans away.

Tarun: I can’t stop this because it’s become very dangerous. There’s a real risk we are running now. If they get hold of this, we’re going to be in trouble. I can’t stop it. It’s way too big now.

Shankar: If you can’t stop it, then you can’t stop it.

In Shankar’s Rashomon, all business decisions should be based on whether they will make a profit. As he heard Tarun talk about the story he was about to break, Shankar did not share his enthusiasm. He only saw losing future funding. Shankar lived in a different surround. Mumbai’s financial fundamentalism is a planet removed from Delhi’s twisted politics and journalism. The twain shall never meet. Shankar too had no idea how his own life would be transformed.

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After Tehelka broke the Operation West End exposé, this is what happened to Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra. Excerpt:

Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra made a pilot’s error when they invested in Tehelka. One small step of an investment led to a giant leap into a downward spiral of police raids, interrogations, endless litigation, courts, and yes, even jail. This was no moonwalk. Sharma’s and Devina Mehra’s lives turned on them. All their branch offices closed down, their properties were attached, their home and offices were raided 26 times, their computer hard disks and servers were seized. They were banned from trading on the stock exchange, which was their livelihood, their bank accounts were frozen. They were physically detained three times, Shankar went to jail for nine weeks without bail under a law that had been repealed a year and a half earlier by Parliament, and within the year, they received over 300 summons for personal appearances from various departments and agencies of the government. The Income Tax Department, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Excise Department, the Department of Company Affairs, and the Reserve Bank of India all investigated Shankar and Devina. The Income Tax Department raided them 15 times. Twenty-two cases were filed against them under the Companies Act, plus one FERA case and five FERA civil proceedings. Shankar’s passport was confiscated and it took him a year to retrieve it. Devina got a stay order against her passport being impounded, which required yet more appearances in court.

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On March 13, 2001, Tehelka exploded the Operation West End story. The Tehelka team had used three cameras hidden in a briefcase, a handbag, and a tie, had bribed to obtain sensitive information, classified documents, and introductions to people involved in arms deals for the Indian Army. The reporters had filmed army officers with sex workers they had supplied. The journalistic sting was called Operation West End, after the fictitious company Tehelka created to uncover corruption in the government, army, and defence ministry. Sixteen individuals allegedly accepted money from the purported representatives of West End. The journalists portrayed themselves as arms dealers who wanted to supply non-existent hand-held thermal cameras. Tehelka taped them for four months, starting September 2000. Bangaru Laxman, then the President of the BJP, and Jaya Jaitly, then President of the Samata Party in coalition with the BJP in power, were also caught on camera.

It was daring journalism and controversial because some news organisations called it entrapment. It was explosive and Tehelka journalists expected the government to fall. Not only did that not happen, the tables were turned on them. Unfortunately, Tehelka’s groundbreaking journalism at that time is now undermined and discredited because of the rape charge Tarun Tejpal is facing.

We as viewers and citizens must ask: why is this very old story, from 13 years ago, being regurgitated now? Of course, it’s only a mere coincidence that all these stories carry documents and recordings that incriminate opposition parties. Who has access to these recordings? And documents? All these are leaked and planted stories. We should ask who is leaking them and what is the motive? Living in the reality of false news, we have to be astute in how to process the news that is served to us. Why do three channels suddenly recycle old stories such as Bofors (Gandhi family), the fodder scam (Laloo Prasad Yadav), Sunanda Tharoor’s death, Arvind Kejriwal corruption? Are there no new cans of worms?

“People are sheep. TV is the shepherd.”

– Jess C. Scott

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