Print edition : March 31, 2001

The revelations and their aftermath shake up entrenched political-bureaucratic networks and conduits in New Delhi that seek to milk the governmental system to their advantage.

FOR an audience reared on the surreal fantasies of the Indian film industry, it was a case of reality following art. As the Tehelka tapes - the outcome of a four-month long expedition into the murky domain of arms deals - were first broadcast over a sate llite television network on the afternoon of March 13, a world of low cunning, high intrigue and casual scruples came vividly to life for many who had believed in its existence but not known its inner dynamics. Every ingredient that the avid movie-goer m ight have expected was there - the boisterous laughter of villainy consummated, the spectacle of scruple being drowned in large infusions of alcohol, of discretion faltering at the merest promise of pecuniary reward and being completely abandoned at the sight of lucre. The journalistic scrutiny of public affairs has tended in recent times to wane in rigour. But when all the unproductive speculation over motive, sponsor and execution has run its course, the Tehelka tapes will be recognised as a watershed in the enshrinement of this principle.

George Fernandes and Jaya Jaitley, who resigned as Defence Minister and Samata Party chief respectively. Fernandes has sought to import a positive gloss to his eviction, while Jaya Jaitley's gratuitous remarks on her party's impeccable democratic cred entials offer only an ironic counterpoint to the sordid revelations.-

Each of the characters featured in the Tehelka tapes represents an important social type. There are the Army officers who initially respond with caution to the overtures of the arms dealer, being careful not to promise anything that goes beyond their jur isdiction. Colonel Anil Sehgal, a middle-level official in the Directorate-General of Ordnance and Supply, Army Headquarters (AHQ), was Tehelka's point of entry into the arms procurement business. And Sehgal began with a modest set of proposals: he could provide information on Army indents for spare parts, the price at which procurements were last made and the possible scheduling of future orders. Although far down in the chain of decision-making powers, Sehgal has access to the invaluable commodity of information.

Tehelka's next calls are higher in the hierarchy. Brigadier Iqbal Singh, Prospective Procurement Officer in AHQ, and Major-General Manjit Singh Ahluwalia, Additional Director-General of Ordnance and Supply, carry greater clout in the decision-making cha in. Although at pains to emphasise that their recommendations are always part of a larger whole and subject to the veto of higher-ranking officers, they are at liberty to exert their influence for a consideration. They also are resourceful enough to appr oach higher officers and coopt them into any possible irregularity.

Tehelka's roving expedition would have rapidly run aground without the impetus that it received at critical junctures from officials on the civilian side of the Defence Ministry. P. Sashi (wrongly identified early on as Sashi Menon) provided the initial clues about the kind of equipment for which an indent existed in AHQ. But H.C. Pant, a Deputy Secretary in the Ministry, was the key intermediary for accessing the higher spheres of the Army establishment. After having spent years in the Defence Ministr y and observed its inner workings from close quarters, Pant was an adept in the ways of the "fixers", the free-floating influence peddlers who are able to point the pushy arms trader towards receptive quarters.

Pant brings the Tehelka team in contact with Raj Kumar Gupta, who introduces himself as a "national trustee" of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh - a fictitious position by the very sound of it, but one that reveals his enormous importance as a fund-raiser for the right-wing political fraternity under the umbrella of the RSS. At a meeting in his residence Gupta repeatedly assures the Tehelka team that their "work" would be done. His confidence won after a few fawning remarks and some libation, Gupta unfol ds a saga of influence- peddling and deal-making, of bitter internecine rivalries that invariably are resolved to his advantage because he supposedly spreads the take more equitably. In this narration, Gupta enjoys an advantage within the RSS fraternity over even the fabled deal-making skills of two intimates of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee - his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra and his foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya.

Gupta is in obvious disdain of BJP president Bangaru Laxman but nevertheless offers an introduction for the modest fee of Rs. 25 lakhs. Pant opens up another conduit to the BJP president through Mohinder Pal Singh Sahni, an arms dealer and honorary con sul-general for Belize. Here again, the fee demanded is well beyond Tehelka's budget. Finally, a direct approach through Laxman's secretary who, needless to say, is appropriately rewarded, does the trick.

Laxman initially is thoroughly detached, seemingly uninterested in the propositions advanced by his callers. He remains conspicuously immersed in his paperwork, responding with extreme nonchalance to all the importunities being unfolded before him. A hi nt of animation comes into his manner when Gupta's name is mentioned, but his principal concern seems to be to cut him out of the picture. Obviously intent on securing his own autonomous routes of access to corporate funds, he repeatedly reminds his inte rlocutors that they have approached him directly.

Left activists protesting near Parliament House.-PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI/ REUTERS

In taking leave after their second meeting, the Tehelka investigator brings out a wad of currency notes from his briefcase and offers it to the BJP president. His eyes lighting up, Laxman takes the money in his hand and stuffs it into his table drawer. A larger payoff is promised at the next meeting and in response to a specific query the BJP president indicates that the U.S. dollar, rather than the rupee, is his favoured currency. These moments have been frozen in public consciousness as the most memor able and defining images of the world of the arms trader. But after these first impulses have faded out, future researchers will undoubtedly find much to unravel in the deeper sociological nuances - the first Dalit to ascend to the apex of the Hindutva p arty caught in the act while seeking to build his own constituency by isolating the traditional upper- caste fund-raisers.

Independent overtures to R.K. Jain, the national treasurer of the Samata Party, yield a rich vein of disclosures. Little time seems to have been wasted in unnecessary preliminaries with the garrulous and expansive Jain, who seems ever keen on advertising his proximity to Defence Minister George Fernandes and his close political associate Jaya Jaitley, president of the Samata Party. The transactions that he ranges over in the course of his conversation with the Tehelka investigators constitute a catalogu e of dubious defence deals, each executed with conspicuous disregard for military efficacy and cost.

Jaya Jaitley herself prefers a degree of circumspection, only promising that all valid bids for the supply of equipment to the Indian armed forces will be fairly scrutinised. She assures the Tehelka team that any possible unfairness or arbitrariness in the process would be remedied. Then while receiving the "donation" of Rs. 2 lakhs from the essentially unpractised impersonators who successfully managed to pass themselves off as defence agents, she unburdens herself of a spiel on the party's internal politics. The money, she says, will be used for its National Council meeting, where about 800 delegates would gather in an environment of absolute democratic freedom to elect their president.

Jaya Jaitley's gratuitous remarks on her party's impeccable democratic credentials offer an ironic counterpoint to the rather sordid revelations of the Tehelka tapes. For the common citizen, these lay bare how democratic credentials and leadership can ea sily be purchased through the illicit take from the dispensation of patronage. More chastening has been the realisation that it is quite so simple for two rank amateurs - making up in audacity for their ignorance of defence matters - to enter the portals of the country's most highly secured establishment and work their way up through judiciously placed pecuniary favours. Evidently, even seasoned Army officers are willing to suspend routine processes of scrutiny of firms that seek contracts to supply vit al equipment, if the monetary rewards are adequate.

Two days after the Tehelka tapes were premiered at a media conference in Delhi, George Fernandes shed his obdurate refusal to do the right thing and quit his post as Defence Minister. Although in reality he was forced out of the job by the pressure of hi s coalition partners, he sought all the same to impart a positive gloss to his eviction. With the rot in the system that he presided over exposed to full public view, Fernandes adopted the moral posture of one who had sought to clean up but been thwarted . The Tehelka revelations were, in fact, turned on their head and cast as a sinister attempt to subvert the defence forces.

Congress workers give vent to their fury outside the BJP headquarters.-

Capitalising on the ethical uncertainties of a government that can be held to ransom by just about any political operative with a few seats in Parliament, Fernandes appropriated for himself a privilege that is normally afforded only to the head of state or head of government. Speaking over the national television channel, Fernandes had a simple plaint to offer: he had been energetic in his efforts to run a "clean and transparent" Defence Ministry. But in disrupting Parliament and denying him an opportun ity to explain , the Opposition parties were only endangering national security.

DID Fernandes have advance warnings of the tattered system of defence procurement that the Tehelka tapes have exposed? Did he at any stage seek corrective action? The alibi he offers is that one of his first official decisions was to provide secure boxes at various locations within the Defence Ministry to receive public complaints on corruption. In his resignation speech he asserted that each such complaint was followed up, though several of them came from unidentifiable sources. Moreover, he claimed, w hen Parliament itself took up the issue, he had little hesitation in ordering an inquiry by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India into all defence deals concluded since 1985. The CVC's initial report on t he questions that had been referred to it was received as far back as October, and it has lain in mothballs since.

It would also be revealing to go into the sequence of events that led Fernandes to order a sweeping probe into defence deals. Suspicions that defence procurement was a domain of rampant irregularities had been considerably aggravated by the events follow ing the precipitate dismissal of the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, in December 1998. Since then there has been a flurry of correspondence at the highest levels and much media attention on the propriety of various defence purchase plan s. Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda's intervention in the debate over the acquisition of the T-90 battle tank and Fernandes' retaliatory effort casting aspersions on the probity of the Sukhoi Su-30 deal kept these issues in public focus.

Away from the glare of publicity, Jayant Malhoutra, then an independent member of the Rajya Sabha and a businessman who is by all accounts not disinterested in the arms business, began peppering Fernandes with letters. In March 1999, he placed on record a number of reservations about the proposal to buy the T-90 battle tank. To Fernandes' protestations that the "ongoing controversy" was misplaced since a decision was yet to be taken, Malhoutra responded with a broader thrust. In a letter dated April 21, 1999, he went beyond mere allegation: "I am charging that there is no defence deal without the presence of middlemen, agents, traders and middle companies... I would suggest that you ask your senior officials as to the role of the Nandas, the Chaudharys , the Khannas, the Jajodias, the Hindujas and the Mittals etc. (sic) in the procurement of strategic defence equipment."

Interestingly, many of these names, notably of the Nandas (or more specifically, former naval chief Admiral S.M. Nanda and his son Lieutenant Commander Suresh Nanda), recur frequently in the Tehelka tapes. In the Samata Party treasurer's narration, Sure sh Nanda donated Rs. 1 crore to his coffers on two separate occasions - first in order to influence an Army purchase of armoured recovery vehicles and then to induce a decision from the Indian Navy in favour of an Israeli onboard missile system. And if t he Tehelka tapes are to be believed, both these efforts were eminently successful.

The National Democratic Alliance, still united, meeting on March 16 to discuss the Tehelka fallout.-V. SUDERSHAN

Admiral Bhagwat has alleged that the senior Nanda and Fernandes share a long mutual association from the time that the former was Chairman of Mumbai's Mazagon Docks in the 1960s and the latter a trade unionist just establishing his national political pro file. Other naval officers in the know confirm the essential veracity of the factual position, though they demur at drawing the inferences that Bhagwat has.

Yet with all the pressure that Malhoutra was bringing to bear, Fernandes remained resistant to the idea of an inquiry into defence purchases. During a debate in the Rajya Sabha in December 1999, Malhoutra insisted that nothing less than an inquiry by a J oint Parliamentary Committee would serve to assuage public misgivings on the overweening influence of middlemen in the country's defence purchases.

Replying to this and a host of other interventions, Fernandes was little short of blase: "I do not want to contradict all the matters that have been raised by Jayant Malhoutraji. While in my tenure of a year and nine months (in the Defence Ministry), we have not received any firm evidence of middlemen being present in defence purchases, it is not inconceivable that they would be seeking to establish their influence wherever possible. But I can say this much: that in the last one year and nine months, no defence contracts have been concluded through the mediation of middlemen." With this rather cavalier rejoinder, Fernandes turned to describing how he had in the interests of transparency, placed complaint boxes at various strategic locations in the prem ises of the Defence Ministry.

Outside South Block and at the approach to Defence Headquarters. Access control and security warnings would seem to take on a hollow ring in the wake of the latest revelations.-R.V. MOORTHY

CONSIDERING the cocky self-assurance with which he had seemingly beaten back the challenge in Parliament, it was rather curious that Fernandes should have in the space of just over a month ordered a sweeping probe into all defence purchases undertaken si nce 1985. The decisive intervening development was a writ petition filed in the Delhi High Court by Rear Admiral Suhas Purohit, pleading that his long-delayed promotion to the rank of Vice-Admiral be granted.

Purohit was cleared for appointment to the post of Controller of Logistics (CoL) in Naval Headquarters (NHQ) with the rank of Vice-Admiral as far back as October 1997. He was to assume the post on February 1, 1998, on the retirement of the incumbent, Vic e-Admiral Verghese Koithara. But for reasons that are shrouded in a welter of mutually contradictory statements from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), his promotion has been held in abeyance for over three years. Following his petition in the Delhi High Cou rt, the Defence Ministry in April 2000 gave an undertaking that it would not appoint any officer to the post until the matter was decided.

In public the MoD has taken the position that Purohit's promotion was not considered since he has colluded with defence contractors to cause enormous losses to the public exchequer in naval procurement decisions. Curiously, this information has never bee n passed on to NHQ. In September 1999, in response to the fifth one of Purohit's statutory representations on his delayed promotion, Chief of Personnel in NHQ, Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash, informed him that "all issues of relevance" had been forwarded to t he MoD for clarification. Despite repeated reminders though, "no written response has been received from MoD to date".

Admiral Bhagwat has stated on record that Purohit is being denied his promotion because of pressure from a cartel of arms dealers. The substance of Purohit's petition in the Delhi High Court makes out a similar case. Far from being in league with defenc e contractors, the aggrieved officer has said, he has in fact been instrumental in limiting their influence over the Indian Navy's procurement operations.

In April 1999, at the height of the political crisis following his reckless decision to dismiss a serving service chief, Fernandes circulated a briefing paper to Members of Parliament, drawing attention to certain damaging findings arrived at by the Cent ral Bureau of Investigation (CBI) after a process of "secret verifications". The paper said: "Requisitions/orders placed on suppliers in Russia by Naval Headquarters are conveyed in advance to the above mentioned firms to enable these firms to manipulate their prices to the disadvantage of the Indian Navy ... Sources have also informed that such advance information is passed on by Admiral Purohit from the fax machine installed at his residence or through an officer."

These rather outlandish allegations have been decisively refuted by the wealth of documentation produced by Purohit in support of his writ petition. Implicitly, the counter-affidavit filed by the MoD after a long and unexplained delay also suggests that the CBI inquiry had failed to uncover any evidence of wrongdoing by the Rear Admiral. Between then and February 1, 2001, the Delhi High Court held at least three hearings of the Purohit matter. At all these, the stated position of the Defence Ministry re mained what it was in August last year: that a Promotion Board meeting in October would review Purohit's case for appointment to the rank of Vice-Admiral. On February 6, the Defence Ministry informed the court that a meeting of the Board had in fact been held as far back as August last, where Purohit's claims to the next higher rank had been dismissed. Missing, however, were the earlier allegations of corruption and collusion with arms dealers. The grounds cited for disqualification were much smaller mi sdemeanours, some of a patently tenuous nature.

Former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. His dismissal in 1999 brought to the fore a round of allegations of irregularities in defence purchases.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Clearly, the pattern of dissimulation that has been witnessed in the Purohit case - which could quite conceivably be taken up as a motion of criminal contempt against the Ministry - raises several questions. Is it the case, as Fernandes has repeatedly al leged, that the Rear Admiral was a willing accomplice of the arms lobby? Or is he perhaps their hapless victim? And what were Fernandes' own motivations in lending the authority of his office to allegations that have since been proven false? The moral bl uster that the former Defence Minister has managed to sustain since leaving office clearly cannot withstand a rigorous process of interrogation on the basis of recorded fact. In this sense, the Tehelka revelations resurrect the questions about Fernandes' record in office that were just barely suppressed after the Bhagwat affair. This time, though, he may not quite manage to pull off the kind of great political escape that he is renowned for.

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