Tehelka, as the name suggests, has shaken the entire country. The cause for this was the sickening spectacle of repeatedly seeing on our TV screens, the chief of the ruling party accepting bribes. The givers were a website’s journalists, posing as defense equipment manufacturers. After the chief, came the transcripts of government officials, even serving generals, literally selling themselves for trifling sums of money, amounts so small that they somehow represented the deplorably low moral standards of the Indian establishment. What the episode did was bring to light the corruption of a section of the Indian elite, a phenomenon most people knew about but had not quite seen.
Disgust was probably the overwhelming emotion for the whole country. The president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, Mr. Bangaru Laxman grabbing money and stashing it away was a sorry spectacle. He defended his act by saying that it was normal to collect party funds in this fashion. However, his resignation was followed by the resignation of the Defense Minister George Fernandes. Amid emotional scenes Mr. Fernandes announced his resignation who is also the convener of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He was preceded by his long time companion Jaya Jaitly who stepped down as president of the Samata party over the impropriety of inviting arms dealers into the official residence of the Defense Minister and overseeing a Rs. 2lakh donation to her party. By the end of the week, the scandal has touched the prime minister’s office as the principal secretary, Mr. Brajesh Mishra’s name also cropped up in the Tehelka transcripts.
Not since the publication of the Jain Commission report, which led to the fall of the I.K Gujral government in 1997, has Indian journalism extracted such a heavy price from the political establishment. West End International may have been mere letter-head and the deal for the sale of binoculars to the Indian Army may have been entirely hypothetical, but the recordings of a spy camera were enough to demolish political reputations. The high-level politicians stood thoroughly exposed and discredited before the whole country. With an investment of merely Rs.21 lakh, an enterprising defending land and sea frontiers and fighting externally sponsored proxy wars, to battling floods and providing emergency relief to earthquake victims, the defense services play a role that makes them India’s most vital institution. Yet this very institution has come under stress. A mere amount of Rs.11 lakh in case exposed the sordid goings on in India’s mighty defense establishment. The country watched in shock as Major General P.S.K. Chaudhary, who held the key post of additional director-general of the weapons Equipment directorate, nonchalantly accepted Rs.1 lakh from the Tehelka team in return for inside information. Brigadier Iqbal Singh, Prospective procurement Officer, Ordinance accepted Rs.50, 000 and Colonel Anil Sehgal received Rs.40, 000 in helping Tehelka meet other senior officers.
The novelty of Tehelka’s spycam scoop was its simplicity. To get to the bottom of the truth, the journalist from Tehelka. Com had posed as dealer in defence equipment. In the words of the Tehelka editor, “Operation west End’s purpose was not to entertain or engross, it was to bare open the truth”. In the past exposed politicians had a simple trick- they just denied anything inconvenient if it appeared in the print media. But the times have changed and mere denials are no longer of much value where the audio-visual medium is concerned. Ever since the Tehelka.com expose, there have been attempts on various fronts to cast doubts on what has been revealed. The government suspected a political conspiracy and links between the opposition big wigs and the dotcom company were hinted at. Later it was said that the tapes might have been ‘doctored’. To top it all is the claim that even if money was accepted, it was for the party. Mr. Laxman now says that he is being targeted because he is a dalit is the worse excuse. It is an insult to India’s Dalits, many of whom struggle to find two square meals a day while the likes of Mr. Laxman sit and count their pay offs. The whole purpose behind such attempts to denigrate the sting operation is to suggest that questionable methods were employed to trap innocent people whose only objective in life is to serve the country.
However, this is a pround moment for Indian Journalism. The basic purpose of journalism has done. They have provide actual evidence (whether the court accepts is as such is a different matter). They have shown that greed has faces and more importantly grubby hands. One should hope that something would be served if these ‘expose’ leads to people thinking twice about accepting bribes. The other side of it is a case of investigative journalism resorting to unethical tactics. By using spy cams and fake credentials, Tehelka has effectively ensured that no one will ever trust a pencil or a microphone; he will be seen not as an excavator of facts, but as a booby-trapped member of a hit squad.
There is no doubt Mr. Vajpayee’ government is in deep trouble. Mr. Vajpayee’s best hope lies in getting tough. He should show that he is totally in control. The bribery scandal has exposed only a teeny aspect of political corruption. Ironically, economic liberalization has fostered big-bucks conniption. That policies can be influenced by big money interests has never been more apparent than today. There can be no national security in such a setting. Any clean-up has to start from the very top. As Greek proverb says, “A fish rots head downwards”