Few days back we as a nation saw perhaps the biggest sting operation in the history of the country. Mainstream media has completely ignored the whole episode, partly because it was the mainstream media which was exposed in broad day-light by this sting. Investigative news agency, Cobrapost, conducted sting operations across various major media houses in the country, under the name of “Operation 136” (136 was India’s rank for Press Freedom Index in 2017, out of 180 countries). One Cobrapost undercover journalist, Pushp Sharma, under the fake identity of a certain Acharya Atal belonging to “Bhagvad Gita Prachar Samiti” (a fake organisation created for the purpose of the sting), approached senior officials and owners of these media organisations, offering hundreds of crores of rupees in exchange for publishing Hindutva advertisements in the name of ‘news’, beginning with ‘soft Hindutva’ propaganda using Bhagvad Gita, Lord Krishna, etc., and eventually ramping up to radical Hindu communal hate-mongering, while launching personal attacks and character assassinations on the Opposition leaders as a build up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Released in two installments, the videos from Operation 136 exposed media houses such as India TV (owned by Rajat Sharma, known to most in TV for the “Aap ki Adalat” program), Dainik Jagran (one of the leading Hindi dailies in the country), DNA (owned by Zee), The Times of India, The New Indian Express, India Today, Hindusthan Times, Zee News, ABP News, Andhra Jyoti (a leading Telugu daily), and many others. Except for two bengali newspapers, Bartaman patrika and Dainik Sambad, all the others looked more than eager to take up the offers. Not only were these big media tycoons seen discussing the possible ways to carry such hate propaganda in their channels in the garb of “news”, but in fact they also discussed at great lengths, possible ways to route the money in order to avoid IT or any investigating agency attentions. They also laid bare their contacts with big businesses in the country, and how these corporations and their owners could be helpful in the whole agenda. Regarding the sting on Vineet Jain (owner, the Times group) and Sanjeev Shah (Executive President, the Times group), Cobrapost said, “We found them naming some big corporate houses which could help make black money squeaky clean.”
The total list of some 27 news organisations stung by Cobrapost, includes not just print or TV media or online media platforms like Rediff or ScoopWhoop, but also radio channels such as Red FM and Big FM. However, in the middle of all this, one of the corporations that was stung by the expose, was Paytm, which as we know, is not a media organisation. Here is what happened in the meeting between journalist Pushp Sharma, and Paytm Vice-President Sudhanshu Gupta. Mr. Vice President, in the excitement of the overall ‘proposal’, readily starts talking about Paytm’s political affiliations. “You should obviously know our political affiliation. Ye humaari Paytm app hai. Aaj ke din Mr. Modi is right here. Unki ek book aayi hai abhi extra exam warriors. (This is our Paytm app. Mr. Modi is right here today. His book extra exam warriors has just come out.) We are actually promoting this book and it’s like displayed on the homepage,” he said on camera. He also kept suggesting his own ideas as to how to take the project forward. “While you (are) talking I am getting some ideas of that … toh hum kya karte hain na, hum Paytm app pe quiz chalaate hain… Hum Bhagvad Gita ke around quizzes chala denge…. Aap vishwas nahi karenge, daily kuchh toh kam se kam 25-30 hazaar log aa kar ye quiz khelte hain (what we can do is, we can run quizzes on Bhagvad Gita… You won’t believe, daily around 25-30 thousand people play our quizzes)”, he added.
Pushp Sharma then met with and taped Ajay Shekhar, Senior Vice-President of Paytm, and younger brother of the owner of Paytm, Vijay Shekhar. Ajay Shekhar harped throughout his deep “blood ties” with the RSS. He was in fact surprised as to why such a proposal of marketing the Sangh’s agenda through Paytm had to reach him through some third person or organisation, instead of from the Sangh directly. “Mai Sangh se bahut juda hua hun. Arun Kumar ji se mere bade achchhe matlab, mere bahut achchhe sambandh hai unse. Krishna Gopal ji wo mere bade close hain. … Shivraj ji toh matlab mere ko naam se jaante hain. … SK Misra ji se hi padhta hai humare kaam aur kya bolu (I am closely connected with the Sangh. I have very good relations with Arun Kumar ji. Krishna Gopal ji is very close to me. Shivraj ji in fact knows me by my name. I get regular assignments with SK Misra ji, what else can I say),” Ajay Shekhar kept rattling out names of senior BJP-RSS leaders and politicians. Ajay Shekhar here might be referring to Arun Kumar, ‘Akhil Bharatiya Prachaar Pramukh’ of the RSS, Krishna Gopal, RSS joint general secretary, SK Misra, BJP member, and Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Madhya Pradesh CM and RSS member, though we can not say for sure.
He goes on to add, “Itna bada kaam kar rahe hain. Aur hum toh aapko kya bataye hum kya kya kaam kar rahe hote hain. Kuchh hum bhi nahi bata sakte aapko. Matlab kuchh aise kaam humse karwaye sangh ne mai aapko bata nahi sakta… Matlab agar RSS kahega toh matlab meri samajh me toh wo humse direct hi keh dete. Itna ghumane ki meri samajh me nahi aaya… meri samajh me nahi aa raha ki humse kyon nahi keh rahe wo… RSS toh humari blood me hai… matlab aapko kya bataye, humne shakha attend kii huyi hai bachpan se (We are in the middle of such a huge agenda. I can’t even tell you all that we are or have been part of. I mean I can’t even tell you about some of the things that the Sangh has gotten done through us. So my understanding is, if anything, RSS could have directly told us about this. I don’t understand why this is happening in such a roundabout way, why they haven’t directly told us. RSS is in my blood. What can I even tell you, I have attended RSS unit from my childhood days.)”.
In fact he then goes on to describe one such “unsayable tasks” that he was part of. “Wahaan par JK me bandh hua tha na .. patthar .. toh humse personally PMO se phone aaya tha, kahaa gaya tha ki data de do, ho sakta hai ki Paytm ke user ho, samajh rahe ho (Remember the J&K strike.. stone peltings… we got a call in person from the Prime Minister’s Office, asking us to share the data we have on Paytm customers among them).” According to Cobrapost, Paytm then went on to share its Kashmiri customers’ details with the PMO.
Demonetization was announced on 8 November 2016, sending shockwaves through the nation and it’s economy. From midnight of 8 November 2016, Rs. 500 and Rs.1000 ceased to be legal tender. “These notes are just papers from tomorrow,” the prime minister had announced. Between November 10 and December 20 of 2016, Paytm added over 20 crore new users, taking its total user base to 170 crores, which means way more than 12% of Indians are now customers of Paytm. According to a report by the Business Insider, within 12 days of the announcement of Demonetization by Narendra Modi, Paytm saw over 7 million transactions, worth Rs. 120 crores per day. While the total worth of goods (and services) sold by Paytm was around 3 billion dollars in the previous financial year, by the middle of November 2016, the company had already made more than 5 billion dollars, overshooting it’s yearly target, four months ahead of time. Riding on the wave post-demonetization, Sudhanshu Gupta had said, “The company is currently doing more transactions than the combined average daily usage of credit and debit cards in India”.
Paytm spent Rs. 250 crores in advertisements in the demonetization month alone, while it’s usual monthly ad budget is around 50 crores, according to Vijay Shekhar. Some of the ads it came up with were outright mockery and insult of the crores of working people in the country, whose backs were broken by demonetization.
With our strong belief in financial inclusion for every Indian, here is our upgraded ad. pic.twitter.com/DiUbNuERGK
— Paytm (@Paytm) November 14, 2016
Their ads also included full-blown images of PM Narendra Modi, drawing criticisms from various quarters. These ads were in fact published the very next morning, after demonetization was announced. “As Paytm, we sort of applauded our PM for an act which will benefit all fintech start-ups. While this is a great opportunity from the perspective of black money and so on, I believe that the PM has kicked off the golden age for fintech companies. That is what we did. We got to work as soon as the announcement was made, printing of newspapers got delayed…We managed to get ad only in three papers”, Vijay Shekhar told The Hindu in an interview.
5/ Front page ad by Paytm (digital/mobile payments svc in India) in 2nd largest newspaper "Congratulating Prime Minister Modi" on the move. pic.twitter.com/xxpnDJ01xR
— Ashwin Sinha (@ashwinning) November 11, 2016
7/ Mobile payments and online companies heavily capitalizing on the opportunity. pic.twitter.com/EAqiHiVQ9R
— Ashwin Sinha (@ashwinning) November 12, 2016
This comes on the backdrop of non-functional ATMs (going on till today in many parts of the country) leading to distress for billions of people, and on the unpaid, uncompensated labour of lakhs of bank employees in already under-staffed banks who had to go through months of back-breaking work of counting the money that came back through the move, in addition to their usual job description. While bank employees, and people at large, were literally dying in this country, in January, a video that went viral had Vijay Shekhar Sharma celebrating the success of Paytm at an office concert, shouting expletives and dancing with joy.
However, by June 2017, stagnation was visible — especially in the value and volume of transactions through pre-paid instruments like e-wallets. In what seems to be an effort towards a renewed boost for building the so-called “cashless economy”, on October 11, the Reserve Bank of India came up with a new set of ‘regulations’ for e-wallets. Through the Aadhar-based “Know-Your-Customer (KYC)” process, the RBI paved the way for ‘interoperability’ between Paytm, MobiKwik, etc. Paytm and other such “mobile wallets”, as they are called, armed with RBI on their side, have since been demanding personal informations of customers. RBI also gave licenses and permissions to Paytm to go beyond just being a mobile wallet. Today Paytm is not just a money transfer app – it is a big player in retail e-commerce and movie and travel ticket bookings. In 2015, it got the licence to start a payments bank, which was launched in May 2017. The move was serious enough to pull in even a former executive director of RBI, PV Bhaskar, as one of the directors of the Paytm Payments Bank. The taped conversation between Ajay Shekhar Sharma and journalist Pushp Sharma (alias, “Acharya Atal”) did not go too far on the question of actual payments for the “Bhagvad Gita Prachar Samiti” project, mostly because Mr. Ajay wasn’t convinced why he did not get direct instructions from RSS regarding this. Had it gone into those technicalities of money transfer, as it did in the case of the Times of India, it would have been interesting to see what amount of the money transfer would really be “cashless”, and how much of it would be transferred through Paytm wallets.
Demonetization was a move that was neither decided after consulting any of the crores of people who were it’s innocent victims, nor did it ultimately serve it’s declared purpose of “draining out” black money from the economy. And now these same people at large, who were forced into these e-wallets because of demonetization, are being coerced into divulging their private information to these companies under the so-called “KYC process”. This is the same company which according to it’s own Senior Vice President, gave away their customers’ data to the Prime Minister’s Office, based on just a phone call. Not an official notification, nor any kind of warrant, but just a phone call. Today Kashmiri stone-pelters are “anti-nationals” for the Indian nation, and hence most Indian citizens would perhaps see no problems with Ajay Shekhar’s actions during the J&K bandh. In fact, this might also be seen as “patriotic duty” of a company like Paytm (although, in 2015 Paytm became at least 40% Chinese, when China’s Alibaba Group and their affiliate Ant Financial became the largest shareholders of One97 Communications, the parent of Paytm, by investing $680 million, upping their stakes to 40%). But, the definition of “anti-nationals”, according to the Sangh and it’s affiliates, is broadening on a daily basis, and there is no reason to believe how anyone can be sure that they won’t be called an “anti-national” tomorrow. Paytm’s data peddling won’t look this patriotic then.