By Shreya Maskara
Independent investigative website Cobrapost released a set of incendiary videos and blog posts titled “Operation 136 II” whereby a senior vice president at e-wallet company PayTm admits to receiving a call from the Prime Minister’s office asking for user data. Additionally, in response to the allegations against Times Group, Vineet Jain, the owner and managing director of the company said in an email to The Wire, the company was, in fact, conducting a “reverse sting” on the Cobrapost reporter.
Last week, Cobrapost also released a set of videos exposing Indian corporate media’s complicity in running pro-Hindutva advertisements, in a roster that features 25 leading media organisations, including the Times Group, India Today, Zee Media, ABP News, Dainik Jagran, Network 18, Hindustan Times, OPEN Magazine and DNA, amongst several others.
What did the Times Group say?
In response to the Cobrapost video whereby Jain can be seen accepting an offer of black money from an undercover reporter, the media house said the video has been “doctored” to show this, and in fact, Jain knew about the sting and attempted to to “reel” the reporter in by playing along.
“We were aware that the reporter in question was a dubious character and our senior functionaries played along with his activities to reel-him in to discover his true intent and backing and to find out which business house or political parties were behind him,” Mritunjay Kataria, general manager corporate-legal, wrote in an email to The Wire on May 26.
Additionally, as a response to the written proposal sent by Sanjeev Shah, executive director of Bennet Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL), on February 2 to the undercover reporter, Kataria said it was “only an activity to trap [the] cobrapost.com representative and to bring him out as an imposter, no actual business dealing was done and no money was exchanged in any form whatsoever.”
What were the allegations against PayTm?
On May 25, Cobrapost released videos and a blog post titled ‘Operation 136’ Part II, which states that Ajay Shekhar Sharma, senior vice president of PayTm and brother of founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, said the company received calls from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to ask for user data to help identify stone-pelters when turbulence in the Jammu and Kashmir valley had reached a peak. However, none of the Paytm officials were recorded saying whether or not they responded to the PMO’s demands.
In the investigation released through a set of transcripts and videos on its Facebook and YouTube channel, investigative journalist Pushp Sharma, undercover as the representative of a fictitious organisation Shrimad Bhagvad Gita Prachar Samiti, met PayTm officials including Sharma and Vice President Sudhanshu Gupta. Sharma said he wanted help during the upcoming elections to help bolster the NGO and that it was affiliated with the RSS.
Gupta states that PayTm promoted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book Exam Warriors and made it visible on the homepage to attract user attention. In the video, Ajay Shekhar Sharma can be heard boasting about his relationship with Union Minister for Rural Development Narendra Singh Tomar and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, stating they know him by name and recognise his face.
“I am friends with the editor of the Sangh magazine Panchjanya, Praful Kelkar. If you pick up the magazine, you will see Paytm ads in it. I have advertised there on his directions… I will directly talk to him about your proposal,” Sharma says in the video. “If it is related to the RSS, then I don’t understand why I am being approached in such a roundabout manner.”
Sharma can also be heard saying, “We will do it once the RSS tells us, because the RSS is in our blood,” as a response to Gupta’s proposal.
What was PayTm’s response?
PayTm has denied all allegations of wrongdoing and published a blog post in response to the accusations.
There is absolutely NO TRUTH in the sensational headlines of a video doing rounds on social media. Our users' data is 100% secure and has never been shared with anyone except law enforcement agencies on request. Thank you for your continued support.
— Paytm (@Paytm) May 25, 2018
“There is a video going around on social media and it falsely claims that we shared some data with 3rd parties. Nothing can be further from the truth,” reads the statement. “We never share your data with anyone: any company/ any government or any country. At Paytm, your data is yours. Not ours, or of a third party, or of the government.”
Opposition leader and Congress President Rahul Gandhi responded to the allegations by tweeting, “PayTM=PayToPM.”
Here is proof that we were absolutely correct about demonetisation.
PayTM= PayToPM pic.twitter.com/i6jk8m1SGc
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) May 25, 2018
What does this mean?
The Cobrapost expose’s in the past few days have shaken up the very foundations of the freedom of the press and modern-day democracy. Media shapes public opinion and regardless of whether or not PayTm officials released user data, the nature of the conversation with a senior official, and his revelations about his close association with the party in power, paint a concerning picture about the political state of the nation.
Modi’s policy of demonetisation had a direct impact on e-wallet companies such as PayTm, and it managed to double its user base and is on track to have 500 million customers by 2020. Before demonetisation, PayTm users amounted to around 125 million and after November 2017, there were over 280 million users.
Additionally, Kataria’s response to media sources indicates that the Times Group has evidence of the counter-sting they carried out on Cobrapost, and have been asked to give access to materials regarding the same. If Kataria is unable to provide such evidence, it will be clear that not only did the country’s largest media conglomerate accept black money to promote the Hindutva agenda and promote the polarization of voters, but also attempted to cover this up, using what can only be called an outrageous explanation.
Shreya Maskara is a senior copy editor at Qrius.