GEORGE FERNANDES AND THE RULES OF THE GAME

By: Tarun Tejpal

The rituals of swearing in had barely been completed that our phones began to ring. Our colleagues from the media wanted quick sound bites. What did we have to say about the re-induction of George Fernandes into the cabinet - once again as defence minister, the post he had resigned from following the revelations of Operation West-End, carried out by Tehelka.com’s investigative reporters. I suppose we were expected to fulminate; and perhaps that was the right thing to do. But that was not what we did. What could we say? It just seemed futile.

Already this is a story that has clung on to us way beyond its tenure. As journalists we had done whatever could possibly be expected of us. We had scented a story, followed it, and broken it - against all odds, running every gauntlet. On March 13, the day we broke the story, we made it clear that as far as we were concerned our role was over. The story was now in the public domain. Other institutions - police, judiciary, executive - had to now kick in and take it to its logical conclusion. But a lesson in dubious reality awaited us. We had set out to expose the leech that drains the public white; a shockingly brazen establishment turned around and shamelessly stuck it on us, reckoning it would quickly suck us off our energy and resources.

To begin with, Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel spent eight extremely tense months doing a very difficult and dangerous story; and now we have spent the last seven months defending it. We at Tehelka have been pressured, harassed, extended, as the government floats blatant cock-and-bull theories against us, and actually presents them on sworn affidavits at the Venkataswami Commision of Inquiry (that the government itself instituted). So instead of pursuing journalism, we spend our scarce time, money and energy confabulating with lawyers and engaging with the commission. The whole thing is a disgrace; and I completely agree with A.G. Noorani who has written that this commission, with one of its four terms of reference (term d) being to investigate the journalists, is the most dangerous of precedents that could have been set by any government. It strikes at the very roots of liberal democracy and the freedom of the press. Now each time a government faces a story of corruption, it will go for the media rather than addressing the findings of the story.

In Noorani’s own words (written before Venkataswami had accepted the brief to head the commission): “Never in the half century of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, was the body ever asked to probe into the credentials of those who had made the charges. The focus was on the message, never the messenger. If this move is allowed to pass muster, the press will be effectively muzzled. Any time it publishes an expose, the government will retaliate by setting up inquiries not only into the truth of the charges, but also into the motives, finances and sources of the journal which published them. The widely worded remit - d (of the Venkataswami Commission, dealing with Tehelka) includes everything except the kitchen sink.”

What it means in practise is that tehelka’s nearly hundred hours of investigative tapes, shot under the most trying circumstances, are being subjected to a legal scrutiny that has no parallel in India. Every word is being controverted and fought over. A film shot in a studio, under controlled conditions, would have struggled under such vicious scrutiny. But rest assured tehelka’s story will survive this, its integrity intact. Because misplaced punctuation, bad chapter headings, and even poor printing, do not change the intent or message of a story. And tehelka’s story is about one and only one thing, and that is rampant and endemic corruption in governance.

As we have been saying repeatedly since March 13, our story is not for or against any party or individual. And at the end of the day individuals are inter-changeable - and the cynics tell us uniformly corrupt - and it does not matter who gets indicted and who doesn’t. What would matter, what would make the exertions of the story worthwhile - and this too we have said repeatedly - is if two important things resulted from Operation West-End. One, the arms procurement system is overhauled and made completely transparent - and here it seems a welcome move is afoot to legalise agents and monitor them. Two, and more importantly, a serious move is initiated to reform the funding of political parties - an issue that lies somewhere at the heart of the Tehelka tapes.

None of us personally knows George, Jaya, Bangaru or any of the other dramatis personae, and have absolutely nothing personally against them. They may well be much less venal than other politicians (as some suggest). The point is they have been caught out, and they have to walk. Being Tendulkar doesn’t allow you to flout the rules of the game; it puts a greater burden on you to play fair. And one would imagine it is a burden Atal Behari Vajpayee would shoulder gamely. It is the death of yet some more rules - in an increasingly anarchic game - that we have to worry about. The defiant rehabilitations we are seeing are, thus, not mine or tehelka’s problem alone. I think this is something everyone has to look, react to, and act upon. What we are simply witnessing is an incredibly cynical exercise of power. A complete disregard of all public or political proprieties.

If this is the way this country has to be governed then why not rehabilitate the army officers too?
End this farce of honesty, integrity, cleanness, justice. Why continue with the Venkataswami Commission at all?? Wind it up. I think the powers-that-be had hoped the judge would give out a reasonably ambiguous signal so that they could take refuge under its smokescreen to re-instate themselves. But the judge, and the commission’s stellar counsel - bless them both - have declared categorically that Tehelka’s tapes are genuine and undoctored. So it seems the government has
decided to just ignore the commission and carry on with what it wants to do. If that is the case, then shut the commission down. Why insult the judge, and waste all our time. As for the people, they will,
in their own way, make their reckoning. Sooner or late

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