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Tuesday, March 20, 2001

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Operation West End

THE REVELATION of the defence scandal involving Mr. Bangaru Laxman, Ms. Jaya Jaitly and others by Tehelka.com bore the unmistakable stamp of those who helped to fix the fixers of cricket. The question to be answered, though, is if the current revelations comprising irrefutable evidence will have on the political and bureaucratic wheeler-dealers the sort of impact it had on the cricket establishment. In this country the sins of the powerful are rarely punished. When the custodians of the nation themselves turn into its predators, who is there to ensure that the guilty are punished? Given the democratic creed of collective responsibility, to allow the truth in this case to take its due course is to risk its spillover on to those who really matter.

The nightmarish fact is that a fictitious arms company could buy outright 34 individuals in high places, including the president of the pre- eminent national party, for a paltry sum of 11 lakhs. We all knew that corruption was rampant among politicians and, thanks to Mr. Vittal, bureaucrats. But we didn't have a clue that it had come to such a sorry pass. Small wonder, Mr. Venkaiah Naidu felt it necessary some time ago to warn the CVC that he should not cross the Lakshman Rekha in battling corruption in high places.

Kudos to Tehelka.com for the imaginative way they went about this business. Only think of their merchandise, and no further argument will be needed. The items on their sale list were: hand- held thermal cameras and night-vision binoculars! The field trial of these fourth generation defence gadgets has been taking place over the last 7 months in the corridors of corruption, and the products have more than proved their efficacy. Those who held these non-existent thermal cameras would readily testify how hot they are and how, in fact, they have burned their hands with them. The heat of it may now reach the government, and it could sorely try the adroitness of its famed fire fighters. There is a little duplicity, though, pertaining to the second item: the night vision binoculars. The indication is that they were being used by the Tehelka.com team to have a clearer vision on the nights of Messrs Bangaru Laxman, Jaya Jaitly, Gupta, Jain, Alhuwalia, and so on, as they were trying out the hand-held thermal cameras in the interest of the nation.

A systematic game

Here are the significant revelations from the tapes. (1) Corruption is a systematic game. There are fixed percentages that each player is entitled to. According to Ms. Jaya Jaitly, her party expects 3 per cent of the deals that Mr. George Fernandes okays. (2) Mr. R. K. Jain, the Samata Party treasurer, admits to his own involvement for a commission in several high-cost deals, netting Rs. 50 crores for his party. He is known to the arms mafia as George's briefcase man. (3) Mr. Jain thinks that the PM received money out of the Sukhoi deal. (4) According to Mr. R. K. Gupta, the super trustee of the RSS, the Russians pay only half the commission they agree to (12-15 per cent of the total value of every deal); they keep the other half. If this is true, our defence establishment has been a party to letting the Russians rob the country.

The significant fact that emerges from the Tehelka tapes is the systematic institutionalisation of corruption in high places. Consider the brash approach of every player in this sordid drama. Consider the words of Maj. Gen. Murgai on a fictitious company and its non-existent products: ``This company is making quality products... now they are going in a big way for commercial selling.''

Every institution develops its own styles and codes of communication. The Tehelka tapes give us a taste of it. Consider the words of Maj-Gen. Manjit Singh Ahluwalia (Director-General of Ordnance and Supplies): ``If you are talking about a deal which is 20 crores here, 60 crores there, make a profit of five crores; saala if you come to my house to meet me on Diwali you can't talk without bringing Blue Label.'' In his inimitable style, he continues: ``It's a massive bloody system, there is no place for friends. There is no place for singleton. It requires very deep pockets. Nobody talks small. This is not the language we can understand. Even Jaya seems to have mastered this kickback-speak. I will not have any direct this thing. I would only request Sahib's office that somebody is not being considered even.'' As is to be expected, Mr. Gupta, the RSS veteran, takes the cake with this quotable quote: ``First take the order and get them under your thumb. Then first you give more, then you give less.''

Besides its distinctive lingo, an institution has its own creed. The creed in this instance is that it is perfectly right and moral to accept kickbacks for the sake of the party. So Mr. Bangaru Laxman, caught red-handed could say, ``My conscience is clear.'' In this he was doing a Sharad Yadav of hawala fame. Mr. Sharad Yadav claimed he was being honest by admitting that he had taken the money to fight elections, as all politicians do, and indeed must do.

Lamentable consequences

The truth that emerges from all these is that defence deals are not necessarily driven by considerations of national security, but by the greed of the political and bureaucratic sharks who have no qualms in poisoning the vitals of our nation for filthy lucre. Its tragic outcome is that the defence establishment comes under a compulsion to keep conflicts smouldering, without which inflating defence outlays cannot be justified. This has several lamentable consequences. First, innocent lives are routinely sacrificed in the process.

Second, the scarce resources of the nation are diverted into unproductive channels, crippling the nation's development and people's welfare. The Sukhoi deal, for example, envisages an expenditure of over Rs. 22,000 crores over a period of time. That kind of money can take us a long way towards wiping out illiteracy from India or providing safe water to rural India, avoiding the untimely death of thousands of children each day.

Third, the economic costs of futile wars are passed on to the people, both directly and indirectly. In every way the politicians gain and the people lose.

The Tehelka tapes authenticate the preference of politicians to be paid in dollars. It is a widely known secret that the sleaze money is stashed away overseas. The wealth that has thus been taken out of this country could well exceed our country's total external debt which now stands perilously close to the hundred billion dollar mark. We should be in no doubt as to who has led this country into the debt trap and, in effect, seriously compromised our economic and political freedom. It is the corruption and profligacy of the ruling elite in this country that caused us to collapse before the march of globalisation, which has already made a mockery of the sovereignty and the socialistic vision of our country.

The government owes it to the people of India to come clean on these serious revelations. They are no longer mere allegations. Not only the security, even the future of India is at stake in this matter. People are losing their faith in governance. This, more than the threat of external enemies, will debilitate and disable us as a nation. Corruption in public life is similar to cancer in the human body. Nothing less than radical surgery will do. Let us not prove again and again that we are too sick to be healed. The people of this country look up to the Prime Minister to handle this situation with exemplary moral courage. This includes even laying down office, if the references to him and his office made in the tapes carry any substance.

VALSON THAMPU

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