NEW DELHI — Time was when India’s politicians never tired of bragging about their country’s Internet revolution. But what happened the other week must have stopped them in their tracks and got them wondering whether such development was good for their political games and intrigues.
A small dot-com company, Tehelka, sent its journalists, masquerading as arms dealers, to the home of Defense Minister George Fernandes and reportedly clinched a deal by paying a paltry 2 lakhs (200,000 rupees or around $4,280) to his longtime associate and president of the Samata Party, Jaya Jaitly.
This unsavory exchange was secretly videotaped and telecast to a stunned nation. If Fernandes, a senior member of Samata, found his face splattered with mud, the party’s position as a key partner in India’s ruling National Democratic Alliance headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party dragged the government into shame and scandal.
The BJP itself was said to be directly involved, with party President Bangaru Laxman accepting an amount as shockingly low as 1 lakh (100,000 rupees or $2,140). The Tehelka video camera froze the scene for posterity as well.
Although Jaitly and Laxman shouted hoarse that they had taken the money for their respective party funds, there was really no takers for this line.
Everybody, or just about, believed what the reporters had to say: that the 3 lakhs were meant for pushing through defense deals. To substantiate this, Tehelka, went on to show how it had bribed top military officials, who also took another 7 lakhs.
Obviously, India’s prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was left with no choice but to call for the resignation of Fernandes. Laxman and Jaitly also put in their papers.
In a 44-year-old parliamentary career, Vajpayee suffered for the first time the ignominy of being called a thief by the opposition. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh — a sort of mother party to the BJP with many, including Vajpayee, enjoying dual membership — also pointed its finger at Laxman.
The question now is, will the government survive, “caught” as it was on tape accepting graft for buying highly sensitive defense communication equipment. With the masses highly upset over what they feel has been a virtual compromise on the country’s security — especially with a troublesome neighbor like Pakistan breathing fire down its neck — the Vajpayee administration has to play its cards extremely well if it has to come out unscathed.
But Vajpayee’s first steps were not free from fumbling. He ordered a probe by a sitting judge of the country’s Supreme Court. This was turned down by the chief justice, who said that he could not spare one, given the huge backlog of cases. Vajpayee had to then settle for a retired judge.
There was more to the chief justice’s refusal than what met the eye. He was clearly not going to let the judiciary be involved in a political scam where the prime minister and his allies had already given their verdict: that George Fernandes was not guilty, and that the Tehelka mission was, in all likelihood, the opposition Congress-sponsored attempt to bring the government down.
The National Democratic Alliance may well collapse. A partner, Trinamool Congress, has already walked out, and although the government has a 20-strong majority — which it plans to demonstrate during a proposed vote of confidence — its reputation is at an all-time low now.
Even if the administration survives, there are fears that Vajpayee and his ministers may be reduced to a zero status, much like the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi after the Bofors gun scandal rocked his government.
This can translate into terrifying administrative blocks. The government may shy away from taking decisions on large financial transactions, like, for instance, the privatization of 27 public-sector units or defense modernization. Even the current economic reform process, which got a boost in the federal budget presented on Feb. 28, can slow down.
What is equally disturbing is the fact that Fernandes himself had announced a thorough cleansing of defense administration. It was well known that middlemen had often played significant roles in weapons purchases, and Fernandes had wanted this to end.
Was he just blind — even to what was going on in his own drawing room — or was he just hypocritical and corrupt? The Tehelka tapes have not been able to nail him on one count or the other. But this is hardly pertinent.
What is, is that as India’s defense minister, he failed either to prevent currency notes from being exchanged in his own home or to check himself from being lured into a payoff trap. Each is as disgraceful as the other.
And all the more so, because two journalists managed with considerable ease to penetrate the highest echelons of the Defense Ministry.
Certainly, there is no need for an investigation to tell us that there is something horribly wrong with what happened.
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