FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

Four weeks after we broke our expose, Operation West-End, on March 13, 2001, and changed our lives forever, I heard a most revealing and remarkable story. It came to me from a cameraman, an Indian who visited our office with an American crew. After the last question had been asked and answered - no different from a hundred other last questions and answers - and the interviewer was switching to a loose and chatty mode, the cameraman, winding up his wires, said tentatively, “Sir I want to tell you a story before we go. It’ll take only two minutes.”

The cameraman had just come back from eastern Uttar Pradesh, after visiting his village in Jaunpur. There, as in the cities, the chaupal conversations had revolved around the Tehelka findings. But there was an interesting difference. There, in the crevices of eastern UP, the villagers had no understanding of the medium the expose had taken place in. They had seen it on TV; they’d read it up in the papers; and they knew there was a new kind of entity that was responsible for the story. But beyond that they were clueless. Clueless about the .com, clueless about the world wide web.

There was absolutely nothing in their experience or their imagination that could help them make any sense of a website or the internet. So they had conjured up a construct. Tehelka, for them, was a device in which “subka bhrashtachar nanga ho jaata hai”. A kind of x-ray machine which exposed naked anyone’s corruptions the moment they passed in front of it. The talk there, said the cameraman from Jaunpur, was that this, the threat of the corruption-exposing machine, was the reason the prime minister had not appeared in public for the first few days after the scam broke.

Nothing had prepared us for the avalanche of energies that were triggered off by Operation West End. For months we had known that we had chanced upon a story of great gravity and impact. For months our dread had grown steadily as it became increasingly clear that this was not a story that stopped at a given point and offered itself up for analysis, criticism and policing. It was a story that went all the way to the top, and by doing so left little scope for face-saving manoeuvres: we couldn’t get one part of the governmental hierarchy to police another, inferior, part of it: by indicting everyone we were risking taking on everyone. The entire system, all of government. My standard line to Aniruddha Bahal, who masterminded the investigation used to be, “We’ll blow the whistle, but who’s going to police this?”

One and a half year later every worst fear has come to pass; every moment of dread that assailed us during those eight months has proven well-founded. In many ways the establishment’s conduct in the aftermath of Operation West-End has been as great a scandal as the expose itself; in many ways our efforts at defending the story have been as - if not more - labyrinthine and exhausting as the actual doing of the story.

To understand the importance, context and relevance of Operation West End, you have to study not just the expose but what happened after the expose, to those who made the expose.

It is difficult to tell how we would have proceeded had we foreseen the avalanche of persecution, lies, and deceit that would follow. In retrospect our conscious decision to refrain from attempting to foretell the fall-out was a sound one. Worrying about the future would have certainly impaired our ability to finish the story. It is just as well that we stuck to some fundamentals. We decided to keep our eyes close to the ground. To maintain a narrow frame of reference, purely journalistic. To not worry about who would gain and lose, and other consequences. To stay with the story, just the story. And to deliver it the moment it was done.

So there were two reasons we were not prepared for the scale of the fall-out. One, we deliberately kept ourselves from thinking about it. And, two, like the residents of Jaunpur, there was nothing in our experience that could have helped us anticipate it.

OPERATION WEST END BEGAN like most stories in a quiet, humble way. In the August of 2000, Aniruddha Bahal, coming off the disappointment of a major scoop he had been working on the for the last three months (it had seen him disappear for weeks in pursuit of the story), floated the idea of an investigation into the dubious nature of defence purchases, and the general porousness of even a ministry as sensitive as defence.

Bahal has the two traits that distinguish outstanding reporters: moral and physical courage, and a preternatural nose for the rot. When Indian journos were writing impossibly florid accounts of the wondrous deeds of our cricketers, it was Bahal who first smelt the stench of match-fixing. When the establishment was trying to cordon off defence as a holy cow, it was Bahal who intuited that it was no more sacred than the average Indian shrine where the pandas, the keepers of idol, rip the devotees of their last few rupees, swiftly and seamlessly converting devotional piety into personal profit.

Bahal firmed up the story idea of Operation West End in the context of several things. The most recent provocation was the fire at the Bharatpur ammunition depot that had trashed crores worth of equipment. The rumour mills suggested it was basically a set-up to destroy inferior purchases. The other things on our mind were the nagging questions that continued to trail the end of the Kargil war.

Both Bahal and I had been at Outlook during the Kargil war. He had covered the last bits of it as a reporter; and as the magazine’s managing editor I had had some role to play in Outlook’s editorial policy on the conflict. Our position had been very clear. During the course of the war we kept our nationalism within the journalistic frame: we were careful to avoid stories and pictures that could demoralize our troops or the war effort.

But the moment the conflict was over, we switched to the critical, questioning stance we construe as good journalism and began to ask all the uncomfortable questions that were jumping out at all of us. For us the sum total of the picture was: the troops did a great job, but the leadership, military and civilian, tripped up seriously. Of course in no time at all the establishment’s stormtroopers were in action trying to obfuscate the questions in a web of denials, counter-charges and so on. Yet the questions stuck, and most people were left with the lingering feeling that all was not well with our defence establishment.

The third factor prompting the story was an old one. The fifteen-year old Bofors-fuelled controversy about kickbacks in defence deals. This was a controversy that had ravaged Indian public life for years, and had led in 1989 to a ban on defence middlemen. Since then on different occasions, different defence ministers, including George Fernandes two years ago, had asserted that their inquiries revealed there were no more defence middlemen operating in India.

But the truth that everyone of the chattering power elite of Delhi knows is that the city crawls with defence middlemen; that the best farmhouses that gird the city are owned by defence middlemen; the most expensive cars are driven by defence middlemen; the most lavish parties thrown by them. They may work under different guises and label themselves other things, but then no crook nails a plaque on his door saying “crook”.

IT WAS IN THE BACKDROP of all this - Kargil, Bharatpur, the middlemen controversy - that Bahal and his Falstaffian sidekick, Samuel Mathew, an investigative reporter of extraordinary grit and resourcefulness, began their story. Over the course of the first few weeks they did some background sleuthing and chanced upon a defence product that was in queue for purchase. It was something called a hand held thermal camera.

Neither of them knew anything about the product. They downloaded information on it from the net, and with the help of Tehelka’s design department created a brochure for it. Designed it in-house, printed it in-house. They also formed a dummy company, and named it West End International. This entire phase of the operation was full of literary allusions, that have escaped unnoticed in the furore that has followed.

The thermal camera was christened Lepak by Bahal, a reference to the Lepak gun,, which can glue together formations of fighter planes in the sky, that Yossarian waxes about in Catch-22. The logo of West End International was taken from a book-jacket that the design department had made as a dummy presentation for one of V.S. Naipaul’s books.

Armed with this rudimentary paraphernalia, Bahal and Mathew sailed into one of the most audacious journalistic stings ever. They started at the bottom of the food chain, with their first contact being a section officer in the ministry of defence, who earned Rs 2000 off them. And then before they knew it they were sucked into a web of graft and dealmakers. Over the next few months the soul of the system bared itself open to them. It was an ugly sight, based only on the principle of greed.

Everyone, from army officers, bureaucrats, defence dealers and politicians were willing to help push anything as long as there was a kickback in the offing. The avarice was naked, completely transparent: percentages and commissions were openly discussed; help of all kinds in circumventing the system was generously offered; in a spirit of camaraderie, secrets of other dubious deals were served up; credentials were established by flaunting rosters of personal corruption.

There was no trace of shame, no intrusions of conscience.

Tyros in matters of defence hardware, totally ignorant of the subtleties of financial skullduggery, Bahal and Mathew - particularly Mathew - made enough gaffes to render some moments into pure slapstick. In one meeting, asked about West End’s bank, Mathew replied Thomas Cook. On another occasion he said the head office of the company was based in Manchester United. My own favourite is his answer to a question about the range of the thermal binocular. “Unlimited, “ says Mathew cheerily. “Unlimited?” goggles the interlocutor. “Well, it blurs after a point,” admits Mathew. Arundhati Roy’s favourite moment is Mathew’s description of the product range of his company as including “typical type of bombs”.

To my mind, there are only two explanations for this incredible lack of all discernment on the part of those who manned the defence gravy train. The first is that the greed was so blinding that they could see nothing else. The second is that deals of this kind were so quotidian, so everyday that there was no reason for anyone to suspect anything. But it would be a big mistake to conclude that the entire operation was a vaudeville affair, starring a couple of bumbling reporters.

The truth is that Bahal and Mathew planned each sting with meticulous care (in fact neither took a single day off for six months). Bahal would give thorough briefings to Mathew, who then carried out most of the stings. The devices would be checked and re-checked - in the knowledge that they could land one set of confessions, or capture the transaction of a deal, only once. The venues would be recce’d in advance. They would tick off detailed checklists (which grew more elaborate as the cast of characters increased and with it the possibilities of an unintentional gaffe). And having done all that both of them would turn to God. Before every operation, Mathew would visit the church, and Bahal would nip into a temple.

Even with god on their side, Bahal and Mathew had to display exceptional courage. People keep asking me about the cameras the team used. All that is idiot stuff, not rocket science. The cameras are just low-end devices which can be purchased or put together at any electronics outlet. The key is the gumption of those who used it. Had they been discovered at any point the consequences could have been very serious. You have to only imagine what could have happened if Mathew had been caught out at the defence minister’s house, all wired up. They would have doubtless taken him to the cleaners.

THE FACT IS THERE was continual tension, and it mounted with every passing month as the final contours of the story began to reveal itself. By the time Bahal and Mathew nailed Bangaru Laxman, and walked out of his room with a demand of US $ 30,000 ringing in their ears, it was January 2001, and the story had pretty much played itself out. To proceed any further we needed two things: more money, and the actual product, the thermal hand held camera. And since we had neither, the curtains were pulled down on the fieldwork by the middle of January, and the tedious task of transcribing, scripting and editing the evidence began.

Two large rooms in our office were cordoned off, their windows blacked out with opaque cardboard. Till now a mere half dozen of us in the office had known of the investigation; now fifteen staffers were handpicked from different departments - television, investigations team, and Tehelka - and conscripted for transcribing the almost ninety hours of tape. This entire team worked around the clock, in shifts, in total secrecy - with Bahal administering the omerta every day. No sooner did the thick bound transcripts begin to emerge that Bahal began to script the story. When edited, the first cut clocked in at over seven hours. Bahal then took another go at it, and ruthlessly hacked it down to a little over four hours.

The general consensus was that even this was too long for anyone to sit through. With song, dance, hero, heroine, villain, a Hindi film can become tedious at under three hours. Our earlier investigation, Fallen Heroes, into matchfixing in cricket, had been just an hour-and-a-half long and had the attraction of starring famous players, and a subject everyone was crazy about. In the case of Operation West End the dramatis personae consisted largely of unknowns, and the subject matter was far less accessible and exciting. Faced by this we took a decision that strengthened our belief and resolve in what we were doing. We decided the story was way too serious, and went beyond the normal issues of mass media: viewer interest, accessibility, attention spans, and so on. We decided we would give the story the space it needed to establish itself. If it needed more than four hours to play out and prove its findings, then so be it.

(That decision was to prove critical. It freed us up. Over the coming weeks as the odds against us mounted, as pressures of investments, funding, friends, foes, ethics, motives, legal notices, threats, phone tapping, surveillance, et al grew, we took refuge in the calm certainty of the story. We were journalists and had done a journalistic investigation, and that, in sum, was it. All the other shrapnel
flying around couldn’t damage that core truth.)

The final tape was ready by the afternoon of March 12. In less than 24 hours, on the afternoon of March 13, we broke the story, screening it in the ballroom of the Imperial Hotel in Connaught Place. The screening was scheduled for 1.30 p.m. The editors at Tehelka arrived at nine at the Tehelka office and began to punch the phones. I made a couple of mandatory calls, one each to Amitabh Bachchan and Shankar Sharma, of First Global, our first round investors. Neither was told the details of the story; just that we were breaking a very important story in the afternoon.

We had gotten so far, but we were still very tense. In a display of amazing commitment the twenty odd people who had worked on preparing the tapes had maintained the omerta, but there was always the fear of the last minute slip.

The same morning I also went and personally met half a dozen important people - none of them politicians. We may have been naïve but we were not so foolish as to be unaware of the sheer gravity of what we were doing. We were also not unaware of the entrenched and vested interests our story would end up hurting. I felt the need to make sure that nothing - no envy or doubt - muddied the story once it broke. I also felt the need to rally the good behind us.

But I have to confess that we were on tenterhooks till the screening actually began. About 300-odd people - among them retired generals, bureaucrats, mediapersons, and then as word spread, politicians - showed up for the screening, not quite sure what to expect. And then as the tapes began to roll, as the story of Operation West End began to seep into the public domain, the tension began to flow out of us. Now nothing could pre-empt us, nothing could trip up the story. For better or worse, it would soon cease to be our sole and onerous responsibility. Our duties were done; our work was over. The story was out there, and was now everyone’s duty and responsibility.

IT DIDN’T QUITE TURN out like that. True, the story did dominate the public domain, and ended up being claimed by everybody - politicians, public, media. But, sadly, it did not get quite as detached from us as we had imagined. At the press conference, after screening the investigation, we had made it clear that as far as we were concerned our role was over. We had followed a story, it had turned out to be a good story, we had broken it, and we were now out of it. The politics of it did not concern us.
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