SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s dalliance with the blood-stained Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman for the $100 billion “Vision Fund” which lubricates virtually every big Silicon Valley startup, including Uber, has also invited attention.
There has been little or no examination of SoftBank’s India plays even though its Ghaziabad-born president and CEO Nikesh Arora left abruptly in 2016 with charges of “finance impropriety” flying around.
A damning investigation into the less-than-wholesome practices at the SoftBank-backed hotel-aggregator Oyo came in end-2019, not from any of India’s myriad business newspapers, business channels or websites, but from the New York Times.
Sweet sponsorships and chummy partnerships have helped murky players like Google and Facebook to insulate themselves from the media’s evil eyes.
And how can any media organisation examine SoftBank-backed PayTm when it can issue a front-page jacket ad within hours of Narendra Modi announcing #Demonetisation on November 8, 2016, and get off with a sorry?
PayTm has repeatedly found itself in the news for all the wrong reasons.
A Cobrapost sting operation in May 2018 showed PayTm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma‘s brother Ajay Shekhar Sharma admitting on video that the prime minister’s office (PMO) had demanded that PayTm share user data with a political party so as identify stone pelters in Kashmir.
Again in 2018, a former employee of the e-payment platform was named in a CBI chargesheet for allegedly cheating the company by generating employee IDs and passwords.
But nothing shines the mirror on the goings-on at PayTm better than the maha-curious case of Vijay Shekhar Sharma’s former secretary Sonia Dhawan.
On her Twitter handle, Dhawan, 32, describes herself as a “perpetual warrior“.
Dhawan was arrested in October 2018 along with her husband Rupak Jain and another PayTm employee on charges of trying to extort Rs 10 crore from Vijay Shekhar Sharma by “threatening to leak his stolen personal data and confidential information about the company”.
Indian Express reported that Vijay Shekhar’s brother Ajay Shekhar had paid the accused Rs 69 lakh in two tranches of Rs 67 lakh and Rs 2 lakh.
The Times of India, which demonstrated unusual interest in the story at the time, put the extortion demand at Rs 20 crore.
Dhawan, who had previously worked at Times Internet Limited, was suspected to have stolen the data “as she had access to his laptop, phone and office desktop”.
Quoting police sources, ToI also reported that Sonia Dhawan and her accomplices were plotting to start a rival company.
Sonia Dhawan’s family, for its part, contended that she had been framed to cover up what she had discovered about PayTm during an internal investigation that Vijay Shekhar Sharma himself had entrusted her.
Amid the tu-tu-main-main, Sonia Dhawan ended up spending five months in jail.
When she got out, she tweeted this:
As she emerged on bail granted by Allahabad High Court in March 2019, there were rumours she would rejoin PayTm, which the company denied.
In June 2019, she ended up joining “Sheroes”, a company which—surprise, surprise—counts Vijay Shekhar Sharma as one of its “angel investors”.
ToI also reported that Sonia Dhawan was among half-a-dozen employees of PayTm who received employee stock options.
“A total of 35,434 shares have been allotted in the company at an exercise price of Rs 90 a unit,” ToI reports.
According to another report, “Sheroes” founder Sairee Chahal was appointed to the board of PayTm promoted “PayTm Payments Bank” in April 2019, two months Sonia Dhawan joined the company.
But, just six months later, in September 2019, Sonia Dhawan was flying back from Sheroes to PayTm, this time as vice-president at “Gamepind Entertainment”, a joint venture between AGTech Holdings, an Alibaba Group company, and One97 Communications, PayTm’s parent company.
The serial exits and re-entry was a sitting journalistic duck.
Within 10 days of the story of her return to PayTm, The Indian Express had another page one story, in which it quoted Vijay Shekhar Sharma from the chargesheet.
“Sonia Dhawan had access to the company’s internal workings and customer base, she wanted to use this to start a similar company. Had it gone public, the company that we had built could have been destroyed,” Sharma was quoted as saying.
Three months later, in January 2020, Dhawan has now jumped ship to SAIF Partners, a venture capital company that was an investor in PayTm in its initial phase, and which still counts PayTm in its portfolio. Dhawan will be adviser in her new port of call.
On Twitter, Sonia Dhawan had this to say.
For the record: Both Oyo’s Ritesh Agarwal and PayTM’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma were participants alongside Modi at “Davos in the Desert” at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, in October 2019, exactly a year after dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was slaughtered on the table of the Saudi consulate in Turkey.