Photograph of Anil Chawla


Author - Anil Chawla

An article that looks at the episode in an objective manner and does not pronounce Bangaru Laxman as guilty.

Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think. Tehelka episode that has rocked India since the afternoon of Tuesday, 13th March, 2001 is a mix of both comedy and tragedy. The glee that one sees on the faces of Congress and other opposition leaders is matched by the morose expressions on the faces of BJP leaders. It is as if the same play is making half the audience in the theater jump with joy and is making the other half of the audience cry with unbearable pain. Is the play a comedy or a tragedy?

Before we look at that, let us have a quick look at some facts. Videotapes prepared and released by feature interviews of fictitious arms dealers with three category of persons. The first category is various officers of defence and other services. The position of these officers is most indefensible. They have committed an offence for which they can be and must be prosecuted and possibly will be punished in near future. However, it will be a mistake to project an image that all defence officers are corrupt. If this was indeed the case, India would never have won any wars. The presumption that the majority is honest and it is only a small minority that is corrupt must not be sacrificed. Because if it was otherwise, India will become an ungovernable country.

The second category of people featuring on the infamous tehelka videotapes are some middlemen and conmen. The difference between middlemen and conmen is indeed thin especially in case of people interviewed by tehelka team. An example will suffice. RK Gupta is well-known as a person behind a large number of failed ventures and is notorious in more ways than one. RK Gupta claims in the said videotapes that he is a "National Trustee" of the RSS. Gupta is not aware that RSS is not a trust and has no trustees. Gupta also claims that he spent Rs. 50 Lakhs in 1967 to build the office of RSS headquarter in Delhi. As per the clarification issued by RSS, the portion of the building of RSS headquarter constructed in 1967 cost only Rs.5 Lakhs. It is obvious that RK Gupta was talking sheer nonsense in the true tradition of expert conmen. The fault is not his but that of the tehelka team which considered operators like him to be worth wasting tape footage.

There are large number of smooth operators like Gupta in Delhi and also in every state capital who can well claim to be able to sell the Tajmahal to a gullible fool. Tourists to India often carry the impression that India is a country of touts and beggars where every person is either wanting to fleece a tourist or willing to extend his hand for a bakhsheesh (tip). Needless to say that such surface impressions made by short-visit tourists are wrong and do not convey the picture of the majority of the country. Unfortunately, tehelka team has done what a short-visit tourist to India does - take surface images and present them as true representatives of the country as a whole.

The third category of people interviewed on the tehelka videotapes include political leaders. Bangaru Laxman, President, Bharatiya Janata Party and Jaya Jaitly, President, Samta Party are shown accepting money from the tehelka team. They are seen discussing the modus operandi of doing business in India. However, if one looks at the tapes very carefully, some facts become very clear:- a) both did not demand any money from the fictitious arms dealers b) tehelka team is taking a lead that seems almost unnatural; in fact, generally the tehelka team seems to be putting words into the mouths of the leaders with the leaders expressing broad agreement c) no quid pro quo arrangement is either arrived at or even seems to have been suggested d) money given by tehelka team was said to be a donation to the party. Based on these facts one can easily conclude that the money given by tehelka was a political donation and was not a bribe.

The dividing line between political donation and bribe is very thin, as has been shown recently in the controversies surrounding some actions of Bill Clinton during his last days in office. However, if one can lay down the general principles in this regard, the following key points emerge:

  1. Bribe involves a direct quid pro quo while a political donation involves no such immediate return of favour.

  2. Bribe is accepted by a person holding a position in Government while a political donation is accepted either by a party functionary or by someone who is contesting an election.

  3. Proceeds of bribe go towards personal wealth while a political donation involves giving funds to a party or a specified political activity.

If one applies the above three litmus tests, we find that the money accepted by Bangaru Laxman and Jaya Jaitly was not a bribe but a political donation. No democratic nation can do without political donations. Moral indignation that is being shown about the acceptance of money by political leaders is not justified by any standards of morality.

If the issue is examined legally, both Bangaru Laxman and Jaya are not "public servants" as defined under Prevention of Corruption Act and hence there can be no legal case filed against either of them. Both are private persons who can accept any amount of money in cash or cheque from any other person without involving any legal offence. If at all they can be accused, it can be of fraud but only if they are accused of having dishonestly and fraudulently promised to do some act in return for the money. As far as it seems, no fraud is alleged by tehelka team, who alone can allege a fraud since they are the aggrieved party. For an allegation of fraud, the onus is on the aggrieved party to file a First Information Report with a police station and if no FIR is filed, one can presume that there has been no fraud.

In the absence of a tenable allegation of either bribe or fraud or corruption, it is clear that the attempt is to create a sensation and gain political mileage. This lends credence to the claims of BJP that Congress is backing the tehelka endeavour and it is a frame-up intended to discredit their Government. Possibly, if BJP had stuck to a logical position and defended its President with full strength, the claims of BJP would have been more credible. Surprisingly, BJP adopted a strategy of "attack is the best form of defense" and refused to defend its President. The speed with which BJP dumped its President convinced the people that he was guilty. RSS, the mother organization of BJP, added to the mess by calling Bangaru Laxman "failed swayamsevak". The situation was summed up by a chess player who said that BJP willingly threw away its King at the first check and still hopes to win.

The inexplicable behaviour of BJP has been ascribed by some to the internal power equations within BJP. It is difficult to ascertain the truth behind these talks that are taking place in the drawing rooms and tea/pan shops across the country. Yet, no one can deny the fact that a few years ago when serious allegations were levelled against LK Advani in Hawala scam, he did not resign as party president.

Accepting the argument that the issue of how BJP treats Bangaru Laxman is its internal matter, one still wonders over the strategy adopted by BJP. If A accuses B's wife of being a prostitute, it really does not help if B shouts back that A's wife is a dirty old whore. Such a shouting back amounts to B admitting that the accusation made by A is correct. This naturally makes the onlookers detest both A and B. Unfortunately, by deciding not to defend Bangaru Laxman, BJP has made put itself into the position of B. BJP is trying to remind people that Congress has been responsible for a number of scams from Jeep scandal of the Nehruvian era to the Bofors of Rajiv Gandhi and JMM of Narasimha Rao. BJP is forgetting that it promised to be a party with a difference and had aroused hopes among Indians across the world. Its attempts to return mud with more mud may get it some brownie points on TV debates but people expected it to come clean and show that it is a party with a difference.

The tragedy of the tehelka episode is in the extinguishing of the great hope that people had with BJP. The tragedy is serious because this signals the end of hope that Indians had in the political system as a whole. The average Indian used to talk of Congressmen with contempt but now he treats every political person and party in the same manner. This is bad omen for democracy in India.

BJP could have used tehelka episode as a challenge to emerge stronger and expose tehelka dot com as a comedy, just as tehelka was shown to be in the match fixing case where the prime accuser Manoj Prabhakar was found to be guilty and the accused Kapil Dev was declared innocent. Instead, BJP has enacted a tragedy of errors that will cause immense damage to not just BJP but to the democratic polity of India.


22 March, 2001

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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