January 6, 2006

Exposing Corruption in India

An interview with Aniruddha Bahal of, who used hidden cameras to bring down 10 parliament members.

David Goldenberg

With a small team of reporters, Aniruddha Bahal set up a sting operation that exposed corruption in the Indian parliament and led to the dismissal of 10 members of parliament. Under the guise of the fictitious North Indian Small Manufacturers' Association, Bahal's group secretly taped MPs as they accepted bribes ranging from $300 to $2500 in exchange for submitting formal (but often ridiculous) questions to India's House, the Lok Sabha. After portions of the hidden videos were aired on Aaj Tak TV in December, a parliamentary committee recommended the expulsion of the MPs who took bribes.

Aniruddha Bahal
Aniruddha Bahal
Bahal has taken risks to expose corruption in India before. Five years ago, while he was helping to run, he was detained after the website videotaped the defense minister taking bribes from fake arms dealers (Guardian). He has also gained fame for uncovering match-fixing at international cricket events. (And perhaps he is most well-known for, unrelatedly, winning the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for an extract from his novel Bunker 13 (BBC).)

But his most recent sting, published on his new site, may be his most brazen yet. Titled Operation Duryodhan, the project began early last year after Bahal wrote an editorial for the Hindustan Times in which he suggested that Indian television's passion for voyeurism could be put to good use by pursuing an undercover investigation into how questions really get asked in parliament.

It would be reminiscent of the mid-'90s The Sunday Times "Commons-cash-for-questions" sting in the UK. If it were up to me I would float a dummy company and approach MPs across party lines requesting them to ask questions regarding purported and maybe non-existent business rivals and get it all on tape. Apart from the seriousness of the matter it would generate a lot of humour. Imagine the comic spectacle of an MP asking something like: "Why was the Gorilla International Pvt Ltd blacklisted by the Railway Ministry in spite of having bid the lowest for Tsu-tsu diesel engines?"

After the piece was published, Bahal received notice from the Lok Sabha that they were thinking about investigating him for publishing false accusations against the parliament. Though Bahal wrote back that he was simply proposing an idea, he decided to undertake the investigation to cover himself in case the MPs decided to take action.

So he set up the North Indian Small Manufacturers' Association and sent his operative Suhasini Raj out into the field wearing recording equipment to see if he could get any MPs to bite. (Once the sting advanced to the later stages, Bahal himself would accompany her wearing, as he later described on Cobrapost, "a ludicrous wig and even more ludicrous glasses."

The site behind the sting.
Almost all of the MPs the Cobrapost team solicited took bribes in exchange for questions, though not without some unsolicited sexual advances to Raj and some scary moments when the team thought they were going to be found out. (You can read more here.) But 25 questions eventually made it into the parliamentary record, including these gems:

Whether the Government has given sanction for the seed trial of Salinger Cotton of Monsanto? If so, has a report been prepared on Catch 22 cotton so far

Is it true that while NRI firms such as India Uncut of USA, Sepia Mutiny of Britain and AnarCap Lib of Netherlands have been allowed to invest in Indian SSIs, the reputed German investment firm Desipundit has been denied permission? If so, the reasons thereof? Is the Union Government of India planning to make automatic the long procedure of permission for SSIs to import new technologies such as Trackbacks, Pingbacks, Blogrolls, Splogs and Hitcounters? (India Uncut, Sepia Mutiny, AnarCapLib, and DesiPundit are all prominent Indian blogs.)

Gelf interviewed Bahal over email. Here's our exchange, edited for clarity:

Gelf Magazine: Do you think India's government is more corrupt than others? If so, why?
Aniruddha Bahal: They don't set examples of officials-politicians caught in acts of corruption. There is very little accountability. Unless the punishment is severe and swift there is very little deterrent.

GM: What does it mean to get questions submitted to parliament? At least in the US, the congressional record means very little. Why would real companies be willing to bribe officials to get the questions submitted?
AB: It's a tool of harassment. Business rivals have been known to put questions against each other. Also, the right to information act came into operation only this year. Before this, parliamentary questions were your only tool for extricating information from the government.

GM: How did you go about assembling your team?
AB: There were just three of us. Kumar Baadal, a former colleague and Suhasini Raj. Suhasini is a researcher with me.

GM: You mention several times in the investigation when you were almost outed (inadvertently). What was the plan if the MPs figured out what was going on mid-sting?
AB: There can't be plans for those eventualities. Just extricate the reporter from any immediate physical threat and hope that the breach remained in that particular section and didn't spread.

GM: Suhasini Raj must be a brave lady. How did your team determine that she would be the one meeting with all of the officials?
AB: She is brave and quick-witted. She has a background as a former insurance salesperson so that helped her.

GM: How did you decide which ridiculous questions to be submitted? Was there any fear that you would be found out simply for being too ridiculous?
AB: I have a literary bent of mind. Not really. I don't think any of the MPs we met had ever heard of Heller, Yossarian, Salinger, or Hemingway...

GM: In a few of your most recent interviews, you've noted that the backlash has not been too strong. Have you heard from any of the MPs caught in the sting since they were exposed? What about the middlemen?
AB: MPs have tried to get in touch with us. Well, so far the backlash has been limited but with politicians you never know. Maybe it's because you are in the halo period right now and they are marking their time. Having said that I must say that some politicians have already started their propaganda about our motives. You see in stories like this since the evidence is too strong, they don't tackle the story directly but tangentially by raising the red herring of motives...

GM: How did you fund the bribes? How does Cobrapost get funded?
AB: Right now through my own savings.

GM: Some other journalists have questioned your methods. What is the line you draw in deciding what methods are appropriate in uncovering corruption?
AB: I have always maintained that hidden cameras are intrusive and their use cannot be justified unless there is a big quotient of public interest inherent in the story. Public interest is the defining factor for me.

GM: Some people might say that Cobrapost looks a lot like the Drudge Report. Are they similar?
AB: Well, in look and feel maybe they have a point. But we do investigations and also make documentaries. And Cobrapost is not a blog but a website. But I always thought that for Drudgereport to be in the top 10 news sites in terms of traffic was very commendable. Unfortunately the low web penetration in India doesn't give us that kind of boost.

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