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Operation 136 : Cobrapost’s PayTM sting has way too many loopholes to be taken seriously

Cobrapost has published a series of sting operations that aim to project how the media has sold itself out to the ‘Hindutva’ brigade. The list of media houses that the sting operation covered is large. The ethical issues here, several. However, one video that stands out is the sting video of Cobrapost journalist Pushp Sharma, who was earlier arrested for peddling fake news, with PayTM Vice President Sudhanshu Gupta. It has ended up being the most talked about video and while PayTM has categorically denied any wrongdoing, many have questioned the payment app and their methods.

While social media is abuzz, there are certain issues with the Cobrapost sting operation that must be analysed threadbare and rationally. And when one does, it appears that the video might be craftily hiding much more than it has revealed.

The video begins with a short introduction to the growth and expansion of PayTM. No issues there. Any enterprise diversifies with growth.

Next, we are introduced to Vice President of PayTM, Sudhanshu Gupta. The voice-over says that Gupta cleared his political interest at the very beginning, which I think we can all appreciate. Now, Gupta tells Pushp (the journalist) how promotion on PayTM works. Important to note that we aren’t made aware of what conversation took place up until that point as the audio of the original video had been muted. We are dropped mid-conversation where Gupta is explaining promotion strategies. He asks what kind of content will Pushp Sharma be promoting and he claims that he wishes to promote Shrimad Bhagwat Gita. Gupta before suggesting any options tells Pushp that PayTM is promoting ‘Exam Warriors’ authored by PM Modi by displaying on the homepage. Here, I would like to point out that this is a very standard practice in advertising and sales to display the object of promotion or that which sells better at a prominent space, such as front page of a newspaper in case of ads or put it in a showcase in case of selling goods, nothing problematic there.

Hearing this, Pushp says that he also wants to promote some e-books. Gupta asks what exactly is to be promoted and how they want it done. But the Cobrapost journalist says that all of that they will discuss later and makes a joke about providing a budget to his seniors.

THEN, there is a ‘jump cut’! What was said next? We don’t know. We are pulled out of the conversation then dropped back in at a different point, again mid-sentence.

Let’s call this manoeuvre “pull out and drop” every time it is used.

This time Sudhanshu Gupta is seen explaining another promotion method: Quiz Games. Here again, the voice in the video is muted and ‘voice over’ takes over to explain how viewers should interpret things. Does Cobrapost think that viewers are not intelligent enough to draw their own conclusion? Or is it that the portal doesn’t want us to come to our own conclusion independently?

Anyways, the narrator says that through quizzes any ‘agenda’ can be run without any barriers. Please note the negative tone of the word ‘agenda’. But from Gupta’s perspective, he is being asked to promote the Gita. What is negative about this “agenda”? This sting will go on to insinuate that THIS is some sort of sinister Hindutva “agenda”.

More on that later when this is brought up again, for now, let’s move further in the video. We are “dropped” again where the PayTM Vice President explains the engagement level that is achieved by the Quiz Games. At this moment we are “pulled out” again and the narrator tells us that the meeting ended. How it ended and what was talked about in the end is not in the video. Cobrapost doesn’t think that is relevant information.

Then we’re “dropped” in the next meeting in a Delhi hotel, as told by the narrator. The narrator continues to tell that this meeting is attended by Mr Ajay Shekhar, the Senior Vice President of PayTM and the younger brother of Mr Vijay Shekhar, the owner of PayTM. Even as the narrator is speaking, we are shown footage of both Ajay and Sudhanshu Gupta speaking but the audio is muted due to voice over. Obviously, the viewers once again must not hear what Cobrapost does not want us to hear.

Before being given the privilege of listening to the actual conversation the narrator tells us that Ajay has an affinity for a particular ideology and organisation as if it is something unique and unthinkable that an adult would have a particular ideology. This, in my opinion, is meant as an ad hominem to discredit his capability to make an objective decision.

When the audio is resumed, we hear the Cobrapost journalist claim he is with the Sangh and studied from Shishu Mandir but he doesn’t want the name of the Sangathan to come forward to avoid political controversy and that the work will be done by Shrimad Bhagwat Gita Prachar Samiti (I am not sure if this Samiti is part of the Sangh Parivar umbrella or an independent Hindu organisation). This seems to confuse Ajay as to why the Sangh would hide its involvement (anybody who has worked with them would know that RSS doesn’t hide its involvement in its activities) and he goes on to talk about his association with RSS. Ajay then names a couple of people from the RSS he knows and is close with. Suddenly, we are “pulled out and dropped” yet again. In between this ‘jump cut’ narrator tells us that Ajay told them about his connection with the Sangh. As if we couldn’t hear and comprehend that, but without the narration, perhaps the dramatic negative effect that Cobrapost wanted to create would have been lost on the viewer.

Audio resumes once again and Ajay says he is also close to ‘Organiser’ editor Prafulla Ketkar but he never heard about what Pushp Sharma wants him to do. Now, Pushp tries to make up an excuse that it is actually the Samiti’s work and the Samiti doesn’t want to be known. Ajay asks if even Arun Kumar, a senior person in RSS, would not come to know of it. Mr Pushp claims RSS people need not know about it. A somewhat surprised Ajay says it’s strange that RSS is not being kept in the loop about its own activity as RSS is a big factor in BJP victories. Before his next sentence is uttered unsurprisingly we are “pulled out” and we are not allowed to hear the actual conversation. At this point, I think this is a deliberate attempt to mischaracterize what transpired in these meetings and portray a sensational misrepresentation that insinuates illegality or unethical practice of some sort.

Before we are “dropped”, the narrator comes up once more and says that Ajay claims to have done a lot of work for the particular organisation (probably referring to RSS) but knows nothing about this plan, this ‘Hindutva agenda’ (which to remind you, is promoting Gita. How sinister!) and that it surprised him that he did not come to know of such an important task.

Audio resumes, and we see Ajay and Pushp go back and forth about how it was never discussed with him when it is supposed to be him who has to contribute towards this promotion of Gita when he has been involved in many other important things.

Another jump cut here and we are “pulled out and dropped” into a conversation where Ajay helps out Sangh magazines ‘Organiser’ and ‘Paanchjanya’ by advertising PayTM in them. During this manoeuvre, the narrator mentions the sinister ‘Hindutva agenda’. Ajay at this point says that he will talk to Praffula Ketkar how RSS wants to do the Gita promotion or as Cobrapost has been calling it pursuing Hindutva agenda and that there was no need for being so vague about it.

So, far I don’t see any allegations against Paytm hold up. Being associated with RSS and BJP is not wrong in any way. Advertising in magazines published by RSS is perfectly fine. What I have seen, however, that when approached by somebody claiming to be from RSS, and when asked to do something in a roundabout manner, instead of readily doing it without asking questions, as a co-opted person would, Ajay decided to confirm from Sarsanghchalak Dr Bhagwat. But even this due diligence by PayTM is called as bending to its political masters.

The way Cobrapost claims promotion of Bhagwat Gita, which was its cover to do this sting, is some sinister agenda which we need to be wary of, seems extremely disgusting and deeply offensive. Selling e-books of Narendra Modi authored ‘Exam Warriors’ is not illegal, running quizzes about Gita is not illegal. So perhaps PayTM or the liberal coterie should explain what the charge against PayTM is.

At this point, I am tired of writing about the repeated jump cuts over and over, but the most important part still needs to be addressed and so, I will address it without line by line description of the video. Readers can count for themselves how many times in the last two minutes alone “pull out and drop” is craftily done. But at one point Mr Ajay says that during the cash crunch when stone pelting had stopped (due to lack of funding) he had received a call personally from the PMO that there may be PayTM users (among pelters). And hence, he was asked to share data with them (PMO).

As is the case with any statement in this entire video, Cobrapost does not show what was said before or after this statement. We have no context. But Cobrapost and media houses reporting this “sting” are adamant that this is an admission of misuse of personal information. However, what is more likely, and in my opinion actually the case, is that merely transaction data and not personal data was asked for in order to cooperate with the security agencies just as when banks are asked to make transaction data available when a fraud is being investigated. At a time when there was no cash to pay to stone-pelters, it was important for security agencies to track transactions and investigate any suspicious activity.

Ajay Shekhar of PayTM clearly has a political ideology, and has been affiliated with the Sangh all his life and admittedly attended Shakhas as a kid. So what? Is it illegal to have a political ideology? Is it illegal to join a legal volunteer organisation that is involved in social work? India is a free country and there is nothing illegal or unethical about anything that was said in the video. Hence his involvement with the Sangh and the various organisations under the Parivar is completely irrelevant.

What I find the most strange, nonetheless, is that parts of the conversation are muted and there is voice-over narration. What is the need for a narration? Does Cobrapost think that viewers are incapable of following a conversation and understanding what’s happening? And why the frequent jump cuts? Why is raw footage not released? To the rational viewer, it seems like Cobrapost deliberately wants people unaware of the context. Why is anything said by Pushp not heard most of the time? Why is it edited out? We don’t know most of what the Cobrapost journalist said to Mr Ajay and Mr Gupta in the two meetings.

The most pertinent query here also is how reliable are these operations when they are being performed by a journalist who himself had been arrested for fake news? However, it has been my attempt to evaluate the video regardless of the shoddy history of the journalist in question, or Cobrapost as a portal, and even then, the sting operation doesn’t pass the test.

If Cobrapost wants to maintain that the sting operation is authentic, it must release the raw footage and explain what “Hindutva agenda” was peddled other than something as inane was promoting the Bhagwad Gita. It must also explain what the impropriety on the part of PayTM was because, in a democracy, every individual is free to advocate their political ideology unless the affiliation is with an illegal or banned outfit.

Or is it that Cobrapost thinks that mere association or support for BJP and/or the Sangh qualifies as impropriety and illegality? And if so, Cobrapost seems to merely be peddling a very veiled, shoddily hidden agenda themselves.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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