The Defence Minister's deposition before the Venkataswami Commission does not quite aid his bid to clear himself of the Tehelka taint. Meanwhile, the coffin purchase scandal intensifies.
AT the end of Defence Minister George Fernandes' long-awaited deposition before the Venkataswami Commission of Inquiry on May 8, there were several beaming faces in the camp of the news portal tehelka.com. Tehelka claimed that what Fernandes said had vindicated its stand that the tapes had not been doctored.
The most serious charge against Fernandes was that he allowed the use of his official residence as a rendezvous for Samata Party president Jaya Jaitley and Tehelka reporters who posed as arms dealers. In cross-examining Fernandes, Tehelka's objective was two-fold. First, to prove that the tapes were not doctored and, second, to strengthen the case against others who stand accused in the bribes-for-arms-purchase scandal set off by the Tehelka tapes. In an affidavit filed before the Commission on September 10, 2001, Fernandes had said that "the tapes are fake, they are doctored".
Fernandes was cross-examined by counsel for Tehelka Siddharth Luthra and also by counsel for the Commission. Although his name did not figure in the first list of those who were to be summoned that was prepared by the Commission and he was not issued a notice under Section 8-B by the Commission, which saw no prima facie evidence against him, he had come before the Commission voluntarily.
According to sources close to Fernandes, he chose to take the step for two reasons. First, to seek to clear his name. Secondly, he argued that in the four and a half hours of tape shown by Tehelka at a press conference on March 13, 2001, and telecast later, all positive references to him had been deliberately deleted. He realised the importance of a deposition to put on record the fact that he had played no role in the transactions that were stage-managed by tehelka.com.
The substance in Fernandes' argument before the Commission was not different from what he had said until then. However, there were instances in which he contradicted or failed to make himself clear.
In August 2001, when the use of commercial sex workers by the portal in the course of pursuing the story was revealed, Fernandes had said that Tehelka had demoralised the Army and even the whole of the country. He had said: "There cannot be any doubt that a crime against the country has been committed." Deposing before the Commission, Fernandes again hit out at the news portal, calling it a "sham" and accusing it of "mala fide". He again charged Tehelka with helping Pakistan. He said that although he did not know the portal's journalists Tarun Tejpal, Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel personally, "their motive was far beyond me, the basis of which needs to be probed". When Luthra asked him on what basis he was making this statement, Fernandes replied: "My own understanding."
Explaining his stand, Fernandes said that if the motive of the portal was to expose corruption, the journalists should have got back to him. Fernandes said: "If they had no faith in me, they should have gone to the Prime Minister. But since they allege that even I was involved, they should have gone to the Supreme Commander, the President of India. The end result of the Tehelka expose is that it helped Tehelka and our enemy, Pakistan. It demoralised the defence forces."
If Fernandes' intention was to clear the name of Jaya Jaitley, he was not completely successful in that bad. Fernandes said that he knew Jaitley for more than 25 years. "She is one of the finest political activists in the country; her role in human rights is second to none. She is one of the finest authorities on handicrafts and worked more than anyone else during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. She is a trusted worker. I am proud of her." When Luthra asked him if he could vouch for the fact that Jaya Jaitley did not take money from Tehelka's reporters, he confined himself to saying: "The question is best addressed to her."
Fernandes was dismissive of R.K. Jain, former treasurer of his party, and said that the conversation between Jain and Tehelka reporters posing as arms dealers was "one conman meeting conmen". He said that he did not remember who recommended Jain for the post of treasurer or who introduced Jain to him. A treasurer's post, he said, was not an important post at all. When Luthra asked which were the important posts, he admitted that the post of party president was the most important one. R.K. Jain was also president of the Delhi unit of the Samata Party. Fernandes said that he resigned after the Tehelka expose. However, when Luthra asked him if Jain was still a member of the party, Fernandes replied that he was not sure. When Luthra asked him if Jain had approached him about the arms purchases, Fernandes replied: "He better not."
Talking to Frontline, Luthra said: "The argument that the tapes have been tampered with has failed after Fernandes' deposition. Although the Defence Minister has not denied the arguments of R.K. Jain, there could be no greater argument than the admission that the tapes depicted what happened. Hence they are not doctored. His statements in the affidavit, though said to be based on his personal knowledge, were made without seeing the tapes or reading the complete transcript. In other words, they were based on hearsay."
With the depositions by Fernandes and former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party Bangaru Laxman over, the Venkataswami Commission of Inquiry has come closer to releasing its report. Fernandes' deposition will be followed by that of another key witness, Jaya Jaitley. This will clear the field for the depositions of the Tehelka reporters.
If Fernandes' deposition was keenly heard at the Commission, he found no takers for his explanations in Parliament. This was when questions were raised in Parliament on his role in the Kargil coffin purchase affair. Congress(I) members demanded to know how coffins were purchased for $2,500 apiece by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) when the Defence Supplies Centre, the defence procurement agency of the United States, had bought the same type of coffins for $1,200 each. The question posed by Congress(I) member Suresh Pachouri was whether the government had explored the possibility of buying the caskets at that price. Fernandes remained standing for almost half an hour before he was shouted down.
These questions came after news reports had revealed that DSC, the Pentagon's material procurers in Philadelphia, had not only purchased the same caskets as the MoD for half the price but also from different suppliers. Fernandes had earlier said that there was only one supplier of caskets and hence there was no question of getting them cheaper from elsewhere. This was stated in a pamphlet that was published in January and circulated among Members of Parliament along with two letters - one written by U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill and the other by Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Lalit Mansingh - as annexures. Both letters said that the MoD had agreed to pay only the correct amount for the caskets.
In Parliament, members alleged that while DSC paid between $1,159 and $1,328, the MoD agreed to pay $2,500 a casket (with another $500 each for transport) for 500 caskets. During the Kargil War, the MoD had approved the purchase of aluminium caskets to transport bodies of Army personnel who were killed in action. On July 28, 1999, the price negotiating committee, which comprised L.M. Mehta and Maj.-Gen. S.P. Murgai (whose name figured prominently in the Tehelka expose), awarded the contract at an inflated price. The first consignment of 150 caskets reached India on March 6, 2000, but was rejected because the caskets were "too heavy". Subsequently, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) indicted the MoD for paying an inflated price for the caskets and not seeking quotations from other suppliers. Fernandes had publicly attacked the CAG on this issue. Now, with fresh evidence emerging that the MoD chose to pay an inflated price, Fernandes seems to be in the dock again.