Tehelka lessons

Mid-day 21-3-2001

THERE are important lessons to be learnt from the Tehelka expose. Not all of them are new, of course, but they need to be reiterated. The most obvious lesson is that we have now reached a stage in our politics where corruption is so all-pervasive that there is no shame in being caught with your hand in the cookie jar. Apart from one person, who had the dignity to confess to his crime and apologise, the rest of the blackguards are still trying to brazen it out. It does not shame them that they were caught red-handed, selling out the security of India. That they openly took cash from people who identified themselves as foreign arms dealers.

To now claim that they took it. for their party coffers does not absolve them of the crime. Just as it is no excuse pointing a finger at Tehelka and saying that their sting violated every principle of honest journalism. Of course it did. But so did they violate every principle of decent politics when they took cash from unknown people. Whether they actually offered them deals in return is not the question. 

What matters is that we have people in power and authority who so easily succumb to the temptation of accepting bribes. To now claim that they were unfairly tempted is a joke. This has nothing to do with journalistic ethics. We can look at that separately another time, on another occasion. But what Tehelka has proved, without the slightest shadow of doubt, is that the corrupt and the criminal rule New Delhi today, and, even as you read this column, they are strutting around with their chests puffed out. 

They are not in the least embarrassed by what has happened. They are still negotiating murky deals and talking about commissions and kickbacks. They are still boasting about who they can influence, who they can buy. For what the political and media establishment describe as power, pelf, influence and reach, is, today, not much different from what you and I would describe as crime, corruption, compromise and skulduggery.


Those whom we admire as the rich and the famous, who adorn page three of our newspapers, are mostly the scum of the earth. Crooks, criminals, carpetbaggers who survive only because we do not swat them hard enough. Instead, we look upon them admiringly as role models and encourage others to follow in their path.


Mind you, India does not agree with you and me. The man on the street knows exactly what is right and what is wrong. He knows who is honest and who is not. That is why, despite their best efforts, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has not been able to blunt the outrage, the terrible sense of disenchantment. It has hit them hard, very hard. Bangaru Laxman may keep trying to explain his position. Jaya Jaitiy may keep insisting her innocence. George Fernandes can go on saying that there is no evidence against him. But India has already judged them. The verdict is out. Maybe more heads need to roll. That is a political decision and the Prime Minister has to take the call.


But what concerns me is this  -  why do we wait till it is too late to take action against crimes that we know perfectly well are being committed every day, in almost every ministry? Is it because we have come to finally accept the fact that there is an entirely separate set of moral norms for the rich and the influential?


Perhaps that is why there is so much speculation over Tehelka's motives. What can the motives of any journalist be? Glory? Fame? Success? These are motives that drive journalists everywhere. But the gossip press in the capital is readying to crucify Tehelka. The antecedents of the journalists are being investigated. One of them is being linked to an important Congressman. Another, to an investment banker. A third, to a television channel. But who cares?


Maybe Tehelka does have a Congress connection. Maybe its investors did know about the sting and sold off stocks in advance. Maybe a television channel did use their investigations to boost its dwindling viewership. Maybe the sting was deliberately designed to put the BJP government in a spot.


But how does that alter the facts in any way? Does it mean Bangaru Laxman did not take the money? Does it mean the army officers were all clean? That Jaya Jaitly demonstrated high moral principles when she asked them to leave the cash with her flunkey? So why are we bending backwards to commiserate with the guilty? I can understand some people feeling bad for the prime minister. They see him as a weak but decent guy who was taken on a ride by his party president and cabinet colleagues.


But then, it is the job of a prime minister to be strong and firm, to know what is happening around him. You cannot turn a Nelson's eye to every crime in the name of coalition politics. You cannot compromise the security of the nation just because you want a strong political ally to combat Laloo in Bihar. What is even worse is when you start blaming journalists and attributing motives to them. Anyone can have motives. But as long as the outcome of that motivation is the cleansing of India, what is wrong with it?


What matters in the end are two things. One, how well was the investigation done? Two, did it reveal the truth? On both counts, Tehelka scores. And nothing that the government does now can change that simple fact. The political careers of Fernandes, Jaitly and Laxman are dead. Stone dead. And the demand for the scalps of Brajesh Mishra and Nandu Singh will only get shriller and shriller. For the people of India believe that they do not deserve to stay where they are. In the prime minister's office.