Peeping Shankar | PNB Scam: The untold conspiracy

Neither Peeping Shankar nor his team received the kudos they richly deserved for what must be the expose of the year     

By nature, we super sleuths are loners who don’t fancy hunting in packs. But then, every once in a while, along comes a major assignment which demands nothing less than a collective response. That’s when we are left with no choice but to forsake our egos and pool in our resources for the greater national good. Last week was one such occasion when I was ordered to head a team of four specialists on a top priority mission.

Code named “Jewel Thief” (after the 1967 Dev Anand starrer of the same name) we were initially kept in the dark about the task ahead. It was only after a meeting in a secluded corner of Delhi’s verdant Deer Park that our assignment was finally revealed in a file marked ‘Top Secret’ which we read and promptly shredded for stray cattle to feed upon. Suddenly, the symbolism of the code name and the operative password –Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara (a Kishore Kumar hit from Jewel Thief) became apparent.

Mission Impossible

Our deceptively simple mission was to unearth within 48 hours credible (or even incredible) links between Congress/Opposition leaders and the billionaire diamond dealer Nirav Modi aka Chotta Modi. For those not in the know, he and his dubious uncle Mehul Choksi are the alleged conspirators in the Rs 11,300 crore Punjab National Bank (PNB) scam which has not only grabbed headlines but also embarrassed the government no end. Our job was to take the wind out of the sails of the Opposition which was suggesting that no less a person than our honourable Prime Minister was in league with the fraudsters.

Anyway, that aside, before launching our operations, we assembled at the IB headquarters for a final strategy meeting with our boss man. I briefed him about the preparedness of my team which, I assured him, would give its best for the success of the mission. However, I pointed out there was an operational problem relating to the password which was bothering us. Admittedly, employing the opening line of an old Bollywood song was ingenious as identity authentications go, but we felt it may prove impractical in actual use. While humming the tune in a person to person contact among team members was easy, it would be tedious identifying oneself while sending smoke signals – the new messaging system that we were instructed to use in lieu of emails, mobile calls and text messages.

But the boss brushed aside our concerns. “We have thought this through carefully and I don’t see any problem. Remember, a smoke signal has a major plus in that it cannot be hacked or compromised. As for the password, it has the approval of Amit Shah who loves that song.” He also seemed unimpressed when one of us pointed out that there could be no smoke without fire and a longish password would involve some huffing and puffing. Moreover, the Red Indians – the original creators of the signalling system – hadn’t factored Bollywood music in their limited vocabulary.

“It’s not our fault if they didn’t listen to Kishore Kumar. It only exposes their limited understanding of world culture,” the boss said dismissively as he whistled our password. “Anyway gentlemen, let’s not waste time over such petty details. There’s a job to be done and we have only 48 hours,” with that he stomped out of the Operations Room leaving us to our own devices – dried leaves, match boxes, a set of giant brass circlets of various diameters (developed by DRDO) to send up smoke rings, pencils and art paper to draw sketches and perhaps strategies.

Team of Four

After the boss man left, the four of us – yours truly, Shankar representing the South, Bose from the East, Shah from the West and Yadav from the North – decided that for a start we must take stock of what others had done thus far to ensure we don’t waste time treading the same ground.

We knew that the tax authorities were the first off the block. They claimed they had zeroed in on a hitherto unused laptop which suddenly displayed several entries including one of a Congress leader’s wife having purchased jewellery worth Rs 6 crore from a Nirav Modi store. However, this startling discovery received scant media attention since it was argued that even if the computer had in a good mood spontaneously (minus any coercion) generated sales data, the Rs 6 crore represented no more than 0.0530 % of the total scam value.

Then our own lower rung operatives compiled a list of rest rooms used by Nirav Modi and his infamous uncle at airports and prominent restaurants where Congress and CPI (M) leaders were spotted. But their effort went in vain since CCTV footage revealed that the wash room facilities were used by the fraudsters several weeks before the politicians and hence no monies could have possibly changed hands.

As we sized up the situation we suddenly became aware of the mission impossible on our hands. To boost our morale and to seek strength from each other we did what cricket teams the world over do before a big match. We went into a huddle to pump ourselves up. Also, for good luck, we sang Honey Singh’s latest party anthem – Chote Chote Peg from the film Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety – at the top of our voices. Then, saying a silent prayer, we set off on our mission.

Reasonable Success

Did we succeed? As team leader I am proud to report that we made reasonable headway given the complexity of the task. Burly Bose, the most muscular and innovative among us, was the first to strike pay dirt. In a midnight swoop on upmarket retail outlets and jewellery boutiques run by Nirav Modi and his uncle in Delhi and Mumbai, he arrested 19 mannequins and later took them away for questioning to a secret location.

His intensive ten-hour interrogation proved two things: (1) Burly was a man of immense patience and (2) when subjected to third degree its not just JNU students and canaries who sing but even mannequins. In fact, all 19 gave separate signed statements (with fake Aadhar and PAN cards attached) testifying that they had seen senior Congress and other Opposition party leaders repeatedly cart suitcase loads of diamonds and jewellery between 2010-2014. Among the leaders identified by the witnesses were Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Sitaram Yechury, Biju Patnaik, Kanimozhi and Akhilesh Yadav. The testimonies were simply sensational and damning.

Indeed, we had planned to silence and humiliate the Opposition by pressuring the eye witnesses to speak out on prime time. However, plastic surgeons attending on the mannequins advised us against it since the bruises and injuries they suffered doing the brutal interrogation would take weeks and months to heal. Injured and abused witnesses, we were warned, could well turn hostile and do us more harm than good.

The Conspiracy Theory

So that was Burly’s story. What about the rest of us in the team? Well, the three of us put to test some unconventional interrogation methods we picked up years ago from a visiting shaman (medicine man) of the Shipibo tribe in Peru who had perfected the art of conversing with inanimate objects. Employing his special technique which involves speaking in a deep drone while standing on one’s head, we questioned the furniture (shelves, cupboards, safes, chairs, sofas and tables) at the Brady House Branch of PNB in Mumbai where the mega scam took place.

Seventeen hours of interrogation later, we came up with some remarkable findings. The so-called scam, we learnt from reliable furniture sources, was exposed by disgruntled bank employees at the behest of the Congress party to shame the government. In fact, a swivel chair in one of the manager’s cabin even went so far as to record a statement that Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi had every intention of squaring the accounts since they did not wish PNB to suffer any losses on their count. But the latest controversy had put them out of business and hence paying back the money was now ruled out.

So, was the “scam prematurely exposed and blown out of proportion” by vested interests to embarrass the government? The evidence our team collected clearly points towards that. Also, the testimonies of the mannequins proved that Opposition parties were sourcing funds from the two diamond traders when the UPA government was in power.

Perhaps, those who once extorted money from Nirav Modi and Choksi were now wreaking vengeance against them because they were refusing to cough up more funds. At the same time, the scam was seen as a convenient handle to target the government.

I am convinced that as conspiracy theories go, ours would have impressed even the CIA. In fact, thinking that we had done a commendable job I dashed off a detailed smoke signal which consumed at least a hundred kilos of dried leaves and twigs. Unfortunately, the feedback from my boss was not only terse but uncharitable. “Good work. But I’m afraid we won’t be able to use it unless you get better sources.”

Such indifference, a reporter friend tells me, is not uncommon in journalism where the best stories are rejected on the flimsiest of grounds. Well, we all live and learn….

(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)

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