On February 24, 2012, The Indian Express newspaper front-paged a report that quaked the government, and has reverberated for over six years now. The report, by defence correspondent MANU PUBBY blew open the government and security establishment, with details of how the Italian investigation had even named a former Indian Air Force chief. Earlier this week, in a major — and unusual — development, a key agent Christian Michel, named as the businessman who channeled millions of euros in bribes to Indian entities, was successfully extradited to India from the UAE. Through the last six years, Pubby, now senior editor with the Economic Times has consistently stayed ahead on the story, reporting every twist and turn. Pubby doesn’t really believe that journalists should be the story, but Livefist persuaded him to give us a first ever view of what it took to tell the story of the most infamous defence scandal since Bofors. So for our new series ‘Reporter Behind The Story’, we’re delighted to start with Manu Pubby, who shares details you’ll be reading about for the first time here, including intimidation, attempts at enticement and a whisper campaign that involved other journalists. Read on:
LIVEFIST: You broke the VVIP chopper scam story in 2012. In a country where wheels rarely turn against middlemen, a key accused in the scandal was extradited to India this week. What went through your mind when you heard?
PUBBY: It has been a long journey from 2012. In fact, it was unimaginable that Michel would ever be brought to India, given the way the investigations initially went and the fact that Indian agencies have never been able to extradite a foreign national from Dubai for a white collar crime. Even though it became clear in the past few months that he would be brought back, till the time the plane took off from Dubai, doubts lingered. But the thought that came when I saw his first visuals in Delhi was that there is a still a long road ahead. It will not be easy to conclude this quick and the agencies have a task at hand.
LIVEFIST: When you began legwork for the original newsbreak IN 2012, did you imagine it would cause such a huge political quake?
PUBBY: From the start, I had the feeling that this could be a big one. It had all the right ingredients – an arms scandal, the Italian connection and clear evidence of a money trail. But in the first few months, it wasn’t clear how high it would go. Even the BJP, which was then in opposition, did not raise the issue in 2012 at high pitch, barring Prakash Javadekar who mentioned it in parliament. Those early days were frustrating from the point of view of a reporter – one was within sniffing distance of a big one but it just wasn’t coming through. However, once the MoD got into action in early 2013, cancelling the deal and banning AgustaWestland – basically an admission that things were wrong – I got convinced that this will not die down without a political fallout.
LIVEFIST: Were there dilemmas as a journalist in the reporting of this story, regarding the people involved? How did you resolve those dilemmas?
PUBBY: The scam broke in 2012, at a time when the UPA was firmly in power and the names being talked about were the most powerful within the government and the system. The dilemma was on at what stage should we go ahead and write about the people involved, without facing legal consequences. The way we figured was that we will go strictly by things that we can back with documents and evidence. So, when AP or FAM or even Sonia Gandhi was mentioned in some of the notes we first got access to from the Italian investigations, we went ahead on it.
LIVEFIST: Did your daily routine come under a lot of pressure because of the demands of this rapidly developing story? Did it affect your sleep?
PUBBY: The biggest worry and pressure was – okay, we have broken the first story but how will we remain ahead on developments? This caused some stress but thankfully not much loss of sleep. What really bothered me and got me worked up to the point of frustration was a vicious whisper campaign that was launched against me after the first few stories in the scam. The whispers – always made in a way that they would reach not only me but editorial staff of major newspapers – focused on my motivations for writing the series on Agusta.
Unfortunately, the whispers were carried around partly by fellow journalists to even officials in the government. They were mostly a variation of the following – he has taken money from Sikorsky (Agusta’s main competitor) to write these, the documents he is quoting are fake, he bought a flat worth a million dollars from the payments, the IB is investigating his background etc. So, more than the pressure of getting the story, this campaign to discredit me was something I wasn’t prepared for.
LIVEFIST: Did reporting the VVIP scam change you as a journalist? How so?
PUBBY: It totally did that. For one, handing a story that spread across nations – from Italy to Switzerland, UK, Tunusia, Dubai, Mauritius and India – gave me an amazing amount of exposure. Secondly, it taught me how to handle the big one – a story in which big names, big money is involved. So, from connecting the dots to ensuring that the article is watertight, it gave the confidence to chase investigations doggedly.
LIVEFIST: When you look back on the reporting of the VVIP chopper scam, did the rest of the media follow up well, or did it feel like the burden was largely on you?
PUBBY: The first year was very lonely. From February 2012, when the first story come, there was hardly any mainstream coverage of the scam. In fact, the big newspapers more or less blanked it out – other than the statements or counters that the MoD or air-force was putting out to some of my stories. In a sense, that made it slightly easier for me – I knew no one else is chasing the story, which gave me the luxury of time to go deep in. On the other hand, there was always the thought at the back of the mind – what if this is all going to fizzle out.
It was post 2013, when the CBI finally registered a case into the deal that the rest of the media took it up full time. That acceleration, when the news channels really got into questioning mode, was missing the first year.
LIVEFIST: Have you faced intimidation or threats in the course of reporting this story over 6 years? How did you deal with them?
PUBBY: The threats were there – more in the nature of the whisper campaign that was designed to bring in, I think, even an element of doubt to my editors. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to have a great team at the Indian Express that backed me on this. Intimidation was more subtle – like a gentle hint here and there from `well wishers’ that my phone was being tapped. Frankly, it was not anything I cared about nor was it at a level that I saw it as an actual threat. I remember a conversation I had with my father on it (a seasoned journalist himself) who gave me the simple basic advice– bash on regardless. That worked.
LIVEFIST: Very powerful entities are involved in defence deals. Were there ever any attempts to entice you or buy your silence in the reporting of this story?
PUBBY: Not at the initial stages. But once things got a bit hot to handle in 2013 for the company, a reach out was made to understand what I `wanted’. The back-off was quick when I asked them for the full inside story.
LIVEFIST: How did your family deal over the last few years? They must have been worried about your safety as you reported the story.
PUBBY: They were actually pretty cool about it. Even if they were worried, they wouldn’t tell me about it – perhaps understanding that it could impact my work. We all believed I think that given the democracy India is, freedom and safety wasn’t a factor particularly to be worried about.