How Essar Handed Out 195 iPads as Diwali Gifts to Top Politicians, Bureaucrats and Journalists in 2010: List 1

20 July, 2015

On 1 November 2010, Alok Chauhan, a corporate affairs executive at Essar Services India Limited (ESIL) sent an email to Sunil Bajaj, director and head of the corporate relations group at ESIL. Attached to this email was a list, in possession of The Caravan, that contained the names of 222 people, including some of India’s top politicians, bureaucrats and journalists. The list indicates that those mentioned on it had been sent iPads ahead of Diwali—which fell on 5 November that year—by Essar.

This document is the latest in a long string of revelations often termed as the Essar leaks. At the end of last year, a person with access to Essar’s internal communications approached the Delhi-based lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan. This whistle-blower was privy to details of the company’s attempts at managing the government and the media. Bhushan’s team went through hundreds of pages of the whistle-blower’s trove, and found proof that the company provided favours to numerous journalists and political leaders such as Pranab Mukherjee and Nitin Gadkari.

A common sight today, the iPad—a line of tablet computers designed and marketed by Apple—had been launched in worldwide in April 2010, but was available in India only in the grey market, at prices that started from Rs 30, 000. The device was launched in India in January 2011, three months after this list was circulated. The tabulated list also stated the contact information of each person on the list, with a category for the number of iPads that were “issued”, the number that were “delivered” and those that were “returned.” Of the 195 people who received iPads according to the list, only 21 seemed to have returned it at the time that the list was tabulated on 1 November 2010. Over the next three days, The Caravan will be releasing the names of those people who have been mentioned in the list. This piece, the first in the series, contains the names of the journalists mentioned in the list along with their responses.

We contacted the nine journalists who figured in the list. Some confirmed that the iPads had indeed been delivered but that they had returned them, others denied that any such delivery had been made

1. Harish Khare was the media advisor to the prime minister then and is now the editor-in-chief of the Tribune:

“I think around that time the policy was to return any gifts that I received in my office, but if somebody would drop something at my home there was no way to keep track,” Khare told a reporter from The Caravan over the phone. He remembered receiving an iPad but did not appear to be sure about which company had sent it. “I never used it, what I did was to pass it along to, I think the correct word here is, a socially deprived person,” he said. He could not recall who this person was.

2. TN Ninan is the chairman of Business Standard and the only journalist listed in the Essar document as having returned the iPad:

“Something to that effect comes to mind but then we routinely send back anything of real value that comes here,” Ninan told the reporter at The Caravan. He went on to say, “I wish to keep a low profile, but I can’t ask you to not use the information that you have,“ before adding, “But since I haven’t done anything particularly newsworthy here —laughs—[you don’t need to put it up.]”

3. Karan Thapar is a prominent anchor and the head of Infotainment Television (ITV), a production house:

Thapar said that the only iPad he ever received was gifted to him by the King of Bhutan. He added that he is not a gadget-friendly person and has no memory of ever collecting an iPad from Essar. “Now if you have some documents that say so—I am not denying it—but I have no memory whatsoever of ever collecting an iPad from Essar,” he said.

4. Rajdeep Sardesai was the editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN then and is now a consulting editor at the India Today group:

“I was sent one which was promptly returned the very next day,” Sardesai said, and added, “I return all the gifts that I receive except for food.” Sardesai also put the reporter from The Caravan in touch with his secretary Surinder, who, he said, had returned the iPad to “the office of Shivnath Thukral at Essar.” Surinder confirmed that the gadget had been sent back and told the reporter that, “We returned it with the same courier. I think it was Blue Dart. But I do not have the exact dates.”

5. Barkha Dutt was managing editor of New Delhi Television (NDTV) then and is now a consulting editor with the same group:

Dutt replied to The Caravan through a text message on 18 July 2015, stating that, “I don't possess an iPad !!!! Gift or otherwise! 2010 is a long time back but even if it were sent it would have been sent back as I do not accept such gifts from anyone.” The next day, she sent another message saying, “For your information I had my secretary pull out 2010 email records and I have a December email from my assistant confirming that iPad was returned to Sunil Bajaj of Essar. I suggest next time you do your due diligence before sending messages [accusing people].”

6. Shekhar Gupta was the chief executive officer of The Indian Express group then and is now the vice-chairman of the India Today group:

Terming himself a “notorious iPad loser,” Gupta said he has never used an iPad given to him by anyone except his employer Viveck Goenka. He said that his office must have returned it if he ever received it. “Now I hope you won’t run the story saying that ‘Shekhar Gupta denies this’,” he added, with a laugh.

7. MK Razdan is the editor-in-chief of the Press Trust of India:

Razdan responded through a text message, terming the query “utter rubbish that does not even merit a response.”

8. Prannoy Roy is the co-founder and executive co-chairperson of NDTV:

Roy was contacted by The Caravan, but did not respond to any queries.

9. Raghav Bahl is the founder of Quint, a recently launched mobile-first digital news platform. He was the managing director of Network 18 at the time:

During a conversation over the phone with the reporter from The Caravan, Bahl said that, “I know nobody at Essar.” He went on to add that, “I did not [receive an iPad]. That’s the truth. I did not.”

Manish Kedia, the senior vice president of corporate affairs at ESIL, responded to The Caravan's queries regarding this list and said that, " This email is now almost 5 years old and therefore we will have to check our internal records before confirming whether any such email was exchanged and what was the contents of that email. However, what is shocking is that you are claiming to be in possession of an internal email which may have reached you pursuant to a data theft. Admittedly this email according to you is a communication between our employees and therefore remains the property of the Company. We have recently come to know that data has been stolen from our IT system. This is a matter of grave concern to us because a large number of emails may contain confidential information about the Company and its employees. We request you to immediately provide us a copy of that email...If you circulate, publish and or disseminate any such data and or email or the contents therein then we will take appropriate action in accordance with law."