The crisis is a test for PM
There are dishonest elements in every system, even the very best. This, in itself, does not mean that the system in its entirety is corrupt. However, when its constituents unite to cover up, justify or defend the corrupt in the event of clear disclosures, there is reason to believe that the institution is itself corrupt, and this is the impression the present regime created through its initial responses to the tehelka.com disclosures. Instead of a measured, institutional response, some of the most incoherent and unconvincing representatives were pushed forward to ‘defend’ the government, and the damage they did was substantial, if not irreparable.
The sheer flights of fancy that were invented by persons in high office and a range of political actors at this stage were as incredible as they were ludicrous, and it is clear that spokespersons for the ruling coalition made a sorry mess of the early defense. One Member of Parliament went so far as to suggest that the entire tapes were a fabrication, a ‘natak’ that was specifically staged for the camera, and that the events that we see are actually fiction, no different from the soaps that are broadcast by a multiplicity of video channels each evening! But since the evidence proved good enough for the government to have suspended several bureaucrats and senior Army officers within 48 hours of the disclosures, there was obviously little merit in this line of argument. Yet it still persists, even after the resignation of the Defense Minister.
There is, moreover, a deep distortion in this questioning of the veracity and evidentiary value of the tapes. Tehelka.com is not an investigative or prosecution agency that is required to prove its case according to judicial norms. It is a news organization, which is required to meet entirely different parameters. If there is sufficient prima facie evidence of wrong doing – and anyone who has seen the tapes cannot escape the fact that there is – it is the duty of such a news agency to share this intelligence with the public and demand the more rigorous processes of investigation, that are only possible with the powers available to the government’s enforcement mechanism.
A demand for the arrest of the journalists who participated in the sting operation has also been raised on the grounds that they have compromised ‘national security’ by entering sensitive areas with a secret camera and making unauthorized recordings. This is worse than petty vindictiveness, and is a course that the government will pursue at greater and further risk to its credibility. Nothing in the Tehelka tapes provides any secret or sensitive defense or security related intelligence, other than suggestions regarding the identities of compromised individuals in government and the unimaginable simplicity in accessing these to swing a dishonest deal.
There have also been violent attacks on the ‘ethics’ of secret videotaping – as if such considerations can be of any relevance to the guilt of those who have prostituted the gravest defense interest of the country for personal gain. Others have attached an attitude of relative frankness to the acts of corruption, suggesting that all political parties are guilty of similar wrongdoing, and that the monies were accepted for ‘party funds’ and that such unaccounted receipts were the norm, and did not constitute corrupt practice. Given the murky character of Indian politics, this has, by far, been the most rewarding line of defense, but it cannot escape the fact that the monies were received in the context of questionable defense deals, and that there is significant evidence that very large amounts are being routinely received for the manipulation of defense contracts at very high levels of government. Large amounts of money has been siphoned out of the national exchequer in fodder scams, land scams, saree scams and thousands of other scams, and these are issues of grave significance for the nation’s political well-being. They cannot, however, compare with selling out on India’s defense, even as we exhort our jawans and young officers to lay down their lives nearly every day in an endless war to uphold the honor and integrity of the nation.
But it is not only the ruling coalition’s response that has been lacking in sincerity and sagacity. The attitudes and orientation of the Opposition have been disruptive and non-serious. Instead of focusing on the deep malaise that has afflicted defense purchases for decades – under governments of every dispensation – they have sought to translate the current crisis into an opportunity for political destabilization, and to score meaningless brownie points against political opponents. This has, equally, been the case with at least one of the NDA allies – the Trinamool Congress – whose leaders have adopted a fruitless posture of confrontation only to garner some electoral advantage in the forthcoming elections in West Bengal.
Late last year, I had written in this very column that Prime Minister Vajpayee was said to be a man of vision, and that if he seized his moment in history, there were ample opportunities that could help him translate that vision into reality. To do this, however, he would have to escape the infirmities of his own past, and these included a range of associations, affiliations and habits of thought. The most important of these was the pattern of amoral purchase of conditional political support for the survival of the government at the expense of the fundamental interests of the nation that he has been forced into by the imperatives of a coalition government.
The present crisis is a test of the Prime Minister’s vision and sagacity as a leader, and his responses will define his place in history. The survival of a BJP-led government and the probabilities of its return to power in the event of elections, are now linked directly to the probity and transparency of its response to the obvious scandal – and not to the decibel levels of its denials or the implausible fantasies that have been woven to confuse issues. A detailed, quick, honest and transparent assessment of the tapes, and of the magnitude of the dishonesty in defense deals is now essential. But the government must go far beyond the tapes. The main players in government – politicians, bureaucrats, and the military – the multiplying numbers of ‘middle men’, and the tainted companies who have been using them to further their interests, must all be identified and clearly booked, prosecuted and blacklisted, as the case may require. The old nostrums of inquiries by a JPC, a judge, or the CBI will not work, because their credibility is at a rock bottom as a result of their performance in past investigations on issues that had significant political ramifications. Moreover, the institutional structures for defense purchases must be re-assessed so that privileged access is denied to the corrupt, even as ease of access to legitimate defense suppliers is enhanced and made very much more transparent.
These factors must now be investigated with relentless rigor. The government and the nation will be ill served by facile arguments, smooth alibis, and formal legalistic interpretations intended to protect a few tainted individuals in high places. The only way that confidence can be restored in the ruling coalition – and more importantly, in the integrity of the Army leadership – is to root out the guilty, however high they may be, and let the nation know that justice will, in fact, be manifestly done, and that the interests of national security will be held clearly and visibly above the interests of particular political parties, or of regime survival. A short-term perspective, at this juncture, will prove suicidal for the ruling coalition – and particularly for its major constituent party.
It is crucial to remember that it takes decades to build up a party, but a very short time to destroy it. The current plight of the Congress-I should be a lesson to every political actor who seeks to intervene effectively in the destiny of the nation. We must recall that Rajiv Gandhi’s three-quarters majority in Parliament – the largest in India’s history – was wiped out by allegations of corruption in the Bofors deal in which the public evidence was far more tenuous than the damning tehelka.com tapes. And Bofors was a molehill compared to the veritable mountains of corruption that appear to be coming to light at present. The short-term gains of regime survival, or the protection of a few tainted individuals in high office, are not substantive goals to which the future of the entire party should be sacrificed – especially in the case of a cadre-based party that has been gradually built up. The exposure and prosecution of every compromised individual in the defense deals is not only a moral, but more significantly, also a practical and political imperative.
And those who are tempted to gamble with the notorious shortness of public memory will be well advised to remember Bofors. And to remember that the evidence for the payoffs in that case was hidden behind layers and layers of generally incomprehensible financial transactions that even the experts are yet to unravel. And to remember: Bofors still refuses to go away and leave its inheritors in the Congress-I at peace.
What hope can there be for those who have been captured on videotape as they negotiate the sale of India’s defence and security?
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There still appears to be a misplaced confidence in the ruling coalition that they will somehow manage to ride through the present storm on dissimulation and aggressive denial. This reflects both poor political wisdom and a very brief historical memory.
The defense advanced in the present campaign of obfuscation, moreover, has strong similarities to the arguments that were floated in the wake of the Bofors disclosures, and it will be equally unsuccessful.
The major partner in the ruling coalition must understand clearly that it takes decades to build up a party, but a very short time to destroy it. The current plight of the Congress party should be a lesson to every political actor who seeks to intervene effectively in the destiny of the nation. The short-term gains of regime survival, or the protection of a few tainted individuals in high office, are not substantive goals to which the future of the entire party should be sacrificed – especially in the case of a cadre-based party that has been gradually built up.
He must ponder his priorities and decide whether the temporary survival of a government compromised by a scandal of the present proportion will serve the national and his party’s interests. Or will it divest him of all public confidence and moral authority, and leave him in power, but impotent to fulfill any substantive role in history?
As for those who think they can shout their way out of the present crisis, it is time they understood that these tapes will not go away. They will be played out, again and again, endlessly, day after day, year after year, on channel upon channel. And every time they are seen by the people – the wishful thinking of the ruling coalition notwithstanding – popular support will inexorably decline, the people will turn away in disgust, and abandon every tainted player and party to the political wilderness. Remember Bofors. Remember that the evidence for the payoffs in that case was hidden behind layers and layers of generally incomprehensible financial transactions that even the experts are still to unravel. And remember: Bofors still refuses to go away and leave its inheritors in the Congress-I at peace.
What hope can they be for those who have been captured on videotape as they negotiate the sale of India’s defense and security?
(Published in The Pioneer, March 17, 2001)