Cash-for-Votes Scandal: A trap. And a cover-up
The true story of one of the biggest scandals in recent Indian parliamentary history
BY ASHISH KHETAN
This is a story that stands to turn contemporary discourse on its head. It is a dark story of how three mainstream political parties—and sections of the media—have fooled the nation. It is a story of how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) willfully set out to entrap its opponents in the cash-for-votes scandal. This is a story of how the Samajwadi Party voluntarily fell into the trap. This is a story of how the Congress covered it all up. It is also, unfortunately, a story of how sections of the media muddied the truth.
This is how the story goes.
As everyone knows, the two-year-old cash-for-votes scandal is back to haunt the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Parliament has been in uproar over the past few days as outraged Opposition parties, led by the BJP, have demanded that the government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh step down on moral grounds. “A government which survived on such a political sin has no authority to continue even for one minute. We demand this government resign immediately,” thundered Arun Jaitley, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. BJP veteran LK Advani reiterated this position, saying, “We would like the Prime Minister to come to the House and announce that he has decided to resign in the light of the new revelations.”
As everyone knows too, this political storm was triggered by a secret diplomatic cable published by The Hindu, in partnership with WikiLeaks, on 17 March this year. In this cable sent by the United States Embassy in New Delhi to the State Department of the United States on 17 July 2008, the US Charge d'Affaires Steven White wrote that five days before the UPA government was to face a crucial vote on the Indo-US nuclear deal in July 2008, Nachiketa Kapur, an aide to Congress leader Satish Sharma, had showed him two chests containing cash. According to the cable, Kapur told the diplomat the cash was part of a larger fund of Rs 50-60 crore that was lying around Sharma’s house to purchase the support of MPs to clinch the vote.
According to this cable, Kapur also claimed that four MPs belonging to Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) had already been paid Rs 10 crore each to ensure they voted in favour of the UPA on the floor of the Lok Sabha.
There were several inaccuracies in this cable that made it problematic. Kapur was not a formal aide of Sharma but a Congress hanger-on who was sacked from service in the past by former Congress minister Renuka Chowdhury for corruption. The RLD had three MPs at the time, not four. And the Lok Sabha records show that none of them voted in favour of the UPA government.
Sensational as the cable was, there was nothing to prove whether its claims were true and much of it could have been passed off as empty boast by a low-level Congress fixer arrogating more relevance to him than he actually possessed. But, there were several reasons why the story gathered fierce wind.
Sharma, at whose house White allegedly met Kapur, was a close associate of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and is still considered to be a close family friend of Sonia Gandhi. But far more importantly, the WikiLeaks revelation seemed to corroborate something that the Opposition had always alleged.
Back in 2008, there was fevered speculation about horse-trading in the run-up to the nuclear vote. On 14 July, in a shocking assertion, Communist party of India (CPI) General Secretary AB Bardhan had claimed that Rs 25 crore was the going rate for an MP. And on 22 July, the day of the vote, there was the unseemly scandal of three BJP MPs storming into the well of the Lok Sabha, displaying wads of cash that they claimed were paid to them by Congress ally and Samajwadi Party veteran Amar Singh to buy their vote.
As the Congress put up varying defence over the past few days, trashing the cable as unverifiable and inauthentic, the BJP itself has claimed that the real weight of the cash-for-votes scandal lies not just in the WikiLeaks revelation but in the fact that it generically corroborated what had happened in 2008 with their three MPs.
(This seems the wisest stand for the BJP given that The Hindu has also published cables in which US officials claim that BJP leaders Prakash Javadekar and Seshadri Chari had assured them that the BJP opposition to the nuclear deal was not really substantive, more of a posture meant for ‘domestic consumption’.)
At any rate, the focus was back on the only real empirical evidence of wrongdoing: the 2008 CNN-IBN sting operation, undertaken in collaboration with the BJP, on the alleged horse-trading done by the Congress and Samajwadi Party to save the UPA1 government in the nuclear trust vote.
OVER THE PAST WEEK, as the Congress and Opposition parties continued to spar in Parliament and the media has largely focussed on debates around the WikiLeaks cable, Tehelka set out to investigate why the government’s probe into the findings of the sting investigation back in 2008 had faded quietly.
The premise of the story was simple: The WikiLeaks cable was mere conjecture, or at best, indicative. The sting operation was the only substantive evidence of the horse-trading that everyone suspected had gone on. So, why had nothing come of it? Why was no one penalised? Why had everyone got away? Why were the currency wads displayed in Parliament not traced back to source? Why had there been no forensic probe on the fingerprints on the notes? Why were relevant phone records of key characters involved in the sting not analysed? Why were call records not juxtaposed with circumstantial evidence to nail Amar Singh? How had the UPA1 government covered its tracks? How had it protected its ally, the Samajwadi Party? Had the probe been scuttled?
Tehelka set out to nail the UPA government on these counts. But in the course of its investigation, it stumbled upon a shocking truth that has turned the whole story on its head. It is a truth that has not been told before. The government is still guilty of a venal cover-up. But the nature of the crime has shifted drastically. It appears the accuser—the BJP—is itself guilty of immense wrongdoing. In fact, the story of the 2008 cash-for-votes scandal is the story of a trap, a trip, and a cover-up. And none of the political parties involved come out looking good, or justified in assuming high moral ground.
To understand the full significance of Tehelka’s finding, it is important to go back to the beginning and recall events as they had panned out in 2008. To recall what was floating in the public domain and shaping public perception for two years.
On 22 July 2008, when the three BJP MPs—Ashok Argal, Faggan Singh Kulaste and Mahavir Bhagora—stormed into the well of the House in front of a stunned nation, waving cash they claimed Amar Singh had paid them, there was no way of verifying the truth of their claim. After the initial furore had died down, therefore, the vote was cast and the UPA won. At this point, Advani had come out of Parliament and told the press that a ‘respected English channel’ had done a sting operation, which would prove the MPs claim and he was surprised that they had not telecast the sting yet. It is only after this that CNN-IBN began to run a ticker saying it had the tapes and channel head Rajdeep Sardesai clarified that they were not ready to run the story because it needed further corroboration and fact-checking.
From that evening, a catfight of sorts broke out over the story. A livid BJP claimed the channel had evidence against influential Congress leader and Sonia Gandhi’s key political secretary Ahmed Patel as well as Amar Singh who were trading votes for money. The BJP claimed that the channel was suppressing the story, while the channel claimed its sting was ‘inconclusive’ and steadfastly refused to run whatever footage it did have.
The speculation around the story grew by the hour. For three weeks, political parties traded hot accusations. No one could quite understand what really had happened. Then, on 11 August 2008, three weeks after the event, CNN-IBN finally decided to air the tapes. There was great anticipation that it would be the definitive account.
Usually, sting operations are the most conclusive form of investigative journalism. The audio-video evidence of wrongdoings leaves little scope of denial or contestation. But, strangely, the cash-for-votes sting continued to be mired in controversies and dubious claims and counterclaims long after it was aired.
Perhaps one reason for this is that the sting was not an independent journalistic exercise and was done in collaboration with a political party. But, there are many other questions that neither the channel nor the contesting political parties—the BJP, the Congress and the SP—have satisfactorily answered till date.
At any rate, this is the narrative the CNN-IBN broadcast gave to the nation. CNN-IBN had first decided to investigate the rumours of horse-trading after Bardhan’s shocking assertion that the going rate for MPs was Rs 25 crore. The investigation cut across party lines, but no leads showed up. Then, on 21 July 2008, a day before the trust vote, BJP sources alerted CNN-IBN that the ruling alliance had approached three BJP MPs to swing their vote for money. The BJP had turned these MPS into whistleblowers and wanted CNN-IBN to participate in a sting to expose horse-trading.
The channel head said this seemed an issue of national interest, so he went along. The channel then proceeded to explain why the sting was not broadcast on 22 July. They said the BJP had jumped the gun by flashing currency bundles in Parliament and thus denied the channel an opportunity to complete its investigation. They said telecasting the programme at that stage would have meant telecasting an incomplete investigation, which would have been journalistically unsound and unethical. They said they had decided to air the sting now because they had finished deposing before a seven-member Parliamentary Committee, headed by Congress MP Kishore Chandra Deo, that was set up to probe the cash-for-votes scandal, and the channel now wished to take the nation into confidence.
Finally, when the channel showed the sting, the footage showed senior SP leader Reoti Raman Singh coming to Argal’s house on the night of 21 July and asking the three BJP MPs to go to Amar Singh’s house the next day. The footage then showed a white Maruti Zen entering Amar Singh’s house on the morning of 22 July. It showed a small-time BJP party worker and fixer Suhail Hindustani getting out of the car and entering Singh’s house. Moments later the white Zen then drove into Amar Singh’s house. A little later, Sanjeev Saxena, an alleged Amar Singh aide, is seen entering Argal’s house and emptying cash on to the table, which was captured on camera. To an ordinary viewer, at least circumstantially, this seemed to nail Amar Singh and the SP’s involvement in the bribe.
The BJP’s claim was that both Amar Singh and Ahmed Patel had spoken to their whistleblower MPs and offered them the money to vote for the UPA. However, CNN-IBN continued to maintain that that its sting was ‘inconclusive’ and it could not arrive at a conclusion over who was the guilty party in the alleged attempt to bribe the BJP MPs. The channel failed to produce an iota of evidence, either direct or indirect, about Ahmed Patel or other Congressmen. But, surprisingly, it also failed to nail Amar Singh in its broadcast. On the contrary, the channel narrated the chain of events in a way that gave Singh an easy escape route.
The man at the heart of the sting investigation was a young CNN-IBN reporter, Siddharth Gautam. On air, addressing the question of Amar Singh’s culpability, the channel head asked Gautam: “Did you actually see the members of Parliament in that white Zen entering Amar Singh’s house?”
“No,” Gautam replied. “At no point had we seen these MPs sitting inside the car. As is very visible from the visuals we have just shown, the windows of the car are tinted so there is no way we could see who were sitting on the back seat. But yes, we saw Suhail Hindustani, who was a mediator between Amar Singh and these MPs, sitting on the front seat. Also, we saw the mediator getting down from the front seat of the car and entering the house of Amar Singh.”
If it was unclear whether the BJP MPs were in the car, how could anyone prove it was really Amar Singh who had paid them off? With this statement, in effect, CNN-IBN neutralised its own investigation and let everyone off the hook. The channel concluded the programme by saying that since their sting was inconclusive it was up to the investigating agencies to probe the matter further.
However, the seven-member KC Deo Committee gave a clean chit to both Ahmed Patel and Amar Singh in November 2008, with a dissenting note from BJP MP Vijay Kumar Malhotra and CPM MP Mohammed Salim. There was also an FIR registered with the Delhi Police on the basis of the panel’s report. But the Delhi Police, which comes under the control of the union home ministry, did not carry out an investigation worth mentioning. Till date, there has been no chargesheet or arrest.
In fact, the testimonies of all the players in front of the parliament committee are full of half-truths and contradictions. Ironically, even the BJP and the CNN-IBN, which had collaborated closely on the investigation, have given contradictory accounts to the panel. But more on that later.
Eventually, the whole episode—and all its inconsistencies and unanswered questions—died down and faded from memory. Until the WikiLeaks cable rammed it back centrestage.
No one thought of asking Gautam—the reporter at the heart of the story—for his version of events. For a detailed account of what had really happened on the field. For the full truth. No one thought of going through the testimonies of Sudheendra Kulkarni and Sohail Hindustani, which were part of the panel report. No one investigated the conflicting accounts narrated by CNN-IBN and the BJP before the panel.
AS OPPOSITION PARTIES HAVE LASHED OUT at the government for the ‘immoral and corrupt’ way in which it pushed the nuclear vote through, here is the startling question no one could have expected it was even necessary to ask: Was the 2008 cash-for-votes sting operation really an indictment of the Congress party? Is it true that it was Congress or Samajwadi Party leaders—or their representatives—who first approached the three BJP MPs with a bribe offer? Is it true that the three MPs decided to turn whistleblowers only after they were approached by the ruling alliance? Or was it vice-versa? Were the BJP MPs whistleblowers or cynical entrappers?
Here is what Gautam told Tehelka.
Gautam was indeed asked by his seniors at CNN-IBN to probe the allegation leveled by Bardhan. But, when he met leaders from the Left parties, they failed to give him a concrete lead. He was told that their allegation was based on market rumours and they didn’t have specific information. Gautam informed his immediate supervisor about this.
On the afternoon of 21 July, however, the channel told Gautam to standby on alert. Gautam accordingly made the necessary preparations—he kept a camera unit ready and charged his spycam batteries. However, he says, he received no further instruction till 8.30 pm.
“Between 8.30 pm and 9 pm, the channel head called me and gave me a mobile number, which I was to call for further instructions. The number turned out to be Arun Jaitley’s. Jaitley then asked me to call on another mobile number, which was of Sudheendra Kulkarni. Kulkarni asked us to rush to his house at Balwant Rai Mehta Lane,” Gautam told Tehelka.
Along with two camerapersons and one producer, Gautam got into a Tavera car, which was provided by the channel, and drove to Kulkarni’s residence. Besides open cameras, the CNN-IBN team was carrying two button-size spy cameras, which could be fixed inside a shirt.
Kulkarni met the CNN-IBN team at his residence and took them to a small lawn where two men were already seated on chairs. According to Gautam, he had no idea what the plan of action was at this stage, or even Kulkarni’s position in the BJP. (Then an ideologue of the party, Kulkarni was to quit the BJP in August 2009 over ‘ideological differences’.)
Kulkarni introduced the two men who were waiting in the lawn as BJP MPs—Ashok Argal and Faggan Singh Kulaste. Soon after, middleman Suhail Hindustani reached Kulkarni’s house.
“He (Hindustani) was wearing a T-shirt and looked like a typical dalal (broker). Somebody who would take money to get odd jobs done. He was not well-dressed or well-spoken. He then started boasting about his connections,” recalls Gautam.
Gautam then asked Kulkarni and Hindustani about the plan for the sting. “Hindustani told me we had to now go to Le Meridien Hotel where Ahmed Patel would buy the BJP MPs and the money would be handed over to them. He said the on-going horse trading would get exposed that night itself.” Apparently, Hindustani also told Gautam that Buta Singh’s son was waiting with Patel at the hotel and they needed to hurry.
It was decided that the BJP MPs would be wired up. The button spy cameras were fitted onto Argal and Kulaste. “The third MP, Mahavir Bhagora, was not too keen to participate in the sting and refused to accompany the team to the hotel,” said Gautam.
Barring Bhagora, the rest left in two cars. Argal, Kulaste and Hindustani went ahead in one car. The CNN-IBN team and Kulkarni followed in the latter’s car. It was around 10.30 pm. But, the so-called meeting with Congress leaders never took place.
Both in public and before the parliament committee, the BJP had claimed that a meeting did take place between certain Congress leaders and its two MPs—Argal and Kulaste—at the Le Meridien Hotel around 11 pm on 21 July. However, the BJP has never specified who these Congress leaders were.
The BJP also claims that Ahmed Patel was supposed to attend this meeting and personally interact with its MPs but for some reasons he did not turn up. CNN-IBN also agrees that it was told by the BJP that Patel was supposed to attend this meeting.
But, it disagrees with the BJP claim that some Congress leaders did meet their MPs at Le Meridien hotel. The BJP’s point has alleged that CNN-IBN deleted the footage of this particular meeting. CNN-IBN on its part has been silent about this.
For the first time, Gautam demystifies what exactly happened at the Le Meridien hotel.
“After reaching Le Meridien, my cameraperson switched on the spycams on the two MPs. Argal, Kulaste and Hindustani went inside. Kulkarni, my cameraperson and I drove to Café Coffee Day at Janpath and had coffee while we were waiting for the BJP MPs to return. After some time Kulkarni received a call on his phone and we all went and parked ourselves near the exit gate of the hotel,” says Gautam.
After some time, the MPs and Hindustani emerged from the hotel. “Argal came and told us that nothing had happened at the hotel. There was nobody inside. I was surprised,” Gautam told Tehelka. “I took the recorders from the two MPs and started reviewing the footage. The footage showed random shots of the hotel lobby. It showed them walking inside the hotel, walking around the lobby and waiting at the coffee shop. But, there was no negotiation or Congress leader on the camera or any kind of meeting. I told them the footage had nothing.”
“Kulkarni got visibly upset at this fiasco,” he continues. “He asked Hindustani what went wrong. Hindustani replied that Patel had waited for them but since they were late reaching the hotel, he left.”
Gautam told Tehelka he had no way of finding out if there was actually a meeting set up between Patel and the BJP men. “I don’t know if Patel had actually come there at all. I found this guy (Hindustani) very suspicious but since he was our only source for the story I had to carry on,” he says.
After the failed attempt to get Patel, Kulkarni, Hindustani and the BJP MPs became desperate. Hindustani assured Kulkarni he would make more phone calls and line up some other buyers. “Hindustani said we would have to go to another place for the sting. I told him if we want to record more footage, this particular footage had to be deleted as there was a shortage of space. Since there was nothing in the footage, we decided to delete it.”
Around 11 pm, the entire group shifted to 4 Feroze Shah Road, which was Argal’s official residence. Until then, the sting operation was being planned and executed from Kulkarni’s official residence at 17 Balwant Rai Mehta Lane. The no-confidence motion was scheduled in a little less than 16 hours. The clock was ticking. It was at this stage that the BJP turned its attention to Amar Singh. Having realised that Ahmed Patel was out of bounds, a desperate and last-ditch effort was now made to entrap Amar Singh, who everyone knew had the reputation of being a powerbroker.
After the Le Meridien episode, Gautam had suggested to Kulkarni that it would be better if spycams were fixed in a room and all the meetings from hereon were held at a fixed place. Kulkarni had said that since no one would come to his place, it was better to shift the scene of the sting to Argal’s official residence instead.
On the way to Argal’s residence, Gautam said Hindustani kept trying to line up buyers. After reaching Argal’s place, the CNN-IBN team fixed the two spycams in the drawing room. While the reporter and camerapersons were bugging the room, Hindustani kept pacing outside, making calls to people in his bid to line up someone who could come and offer the BJP MPs money to defect.
At the other end, Argal too kept trying to find some buyer. He made several phone calls to different people, telling them he and two more MPs were ready to sell themselves for a good price. In all these recorded conversations, Argal can be heard luring people into the trap by announcing that he and two more BJP MPs were ready to sell themselves for a price. Tehelka now has in its possession 10 such telephone conversations that Argal made to unidentified middlemen.
Argal could be heard telling somebody in one telephone call: “Mere paas do MPs aur hai…tum bula ke jitna daam ho utna aa ja….time nahi hai…wok kya hai doosra aadmi aur jagah bhi bhatak rahe hai na. Jitna hai utna le aao tum log”. (I have two more MPs…You call them and tell them how much…there is no time…see, the second man is roaming around. Bring whatever amount you have).
The man at the other end replied that it was too late to act as it was already around midnight.
“Barah baj rahe hai toh aap baat karlo. Main savere nau sade naun baje tak ghar pe rahoonga” (It is midnight, you talk. I will be at home till 9-9.30 tomorrow morning), Argal could be heard replying. He then added, ”Ek Mahavir Bhagora hai aur ek sajjan Faggan Singh Kulaste hai. Yeh Rajasthan ke hai, Udaipur ke aas paas. Adivasi quota ke hai” (One is Mahavir Bhagora and another is Faggan Singh Kulaste. He is from Rajasthan, somewhere near Udaipur. From the tribal quota).
The man at the other end assures that he would come the next morning. At this point, Argal says again: “<Baat kar lo. Bas le aao maal. Anupasthit ho jayenge bas. Tum baat karlo and bus aa jao>.” (Hold talks. Just bring the money. We will just abstain. You just hold the talks and come to us.)
Shockingly, this particular conversation and nine other telephone conversations, which are now in exclusive possession of Tehelka, reveal that, at least in this instance, it was the BJP MPs—supported by no less than men of the stature of Sudheendra Kulkarni and Arun Jaitley—who were actively soliciting a buyer and not the UPA which was hunting for bribe-takers.
Sample this: In another conversation with a middleman (it’s not clear whether it’s the same middleman as in previous conversations or another one), Argal could be heard saying this: “Aadmi koi jimmedar hai ki aisi hi hai. (Is there somebody responsible who is going to negotiate?)” The voice at the other end is not clear. Argal replies: “Nahi to fir kya jawab do main (So what should I tell them?).” A few seconds later Argal says: “Aap baat kar lo pahle. Unko main bata do ki kitna.. sansad badnaam to bahut ho rahe hai aapko maloom hi hai.(You first consult with them. What should I tell them (referring to two other BJP MPs) that how much…You know the bad name that MPs are earning)”
In yet another conversation Argal could he heard saying: “Token to poocho kitna hai. Kya unka man hai? To main bata doo unko. (Just find out what’s the amount of token. What’s on their mind? So I could tell them (the other two MPs).”
In another conversation Argal is saying, “Koi jimmedaar ho to humko leke chale aur koi jimmedar aadmi se baat kara de. (If there is somebody responsible who could take us to another responsible man so we could negotiate.)”
Later in another conversation he says, “To hum kaha pe jaaye..koi humko bataye hum kaha pea a jaaye. Koi aadmi bharose ka ho to to hum jaaye (So where should we come? Somebody should tell us where we should come. If there is somebody responsible we will come).”
In another clip Argal says: “Agar Kapil Sibal jaisa koi jimmedar aadmi ho to hum baat kar sakte hai. Hamare saath koi chota mota aadmi thodi na hai, purva mantra raha hai. (If there is somebody as big as Kapil Sibal we are ready to come. I also have with me a former minister (referring to a BJP MP who was being offered for sale).’
It is clear from this conversation that Argal was trying to send a message out to different middlemen that he and two more MPs were on sale. Gautam has told Tehelka that this was exactly what was happening—a last ditch effort was made to find buyers.
Clearly, there was a desperate plan to destabilise the government with proof of horse-trading—to be acquired at any cost. “There were two simultaneous efforts being made to entrap somebody,” says Gautam. “One effort was being made by Argal. Another parallel attempt was being made by Hindustani who was making frantic calls outside in the lawn.”
Finally, it was Hindustani who succeeded in getting bait.
“A little after midnight, Hindustani entered the room in a state of excitement. He said that Reoti Raman Singh was coming and asked us to set things in order,” said Gautam.
Around 12.30 am on 22 July, then, a meeting took place between senior SP leader Reoti Raman Singh and the three BJP MPs at Argal’s official residence. Captured on camera, Reoti Raman could be seen urging the three MPs to come with him to Amar Singh’s residence for talks. However, he does not mention a figure nor did he bring money with him.
At one point, when one of the three MPs mentioned the word ‘amount’, Reoti Raman said that the MPs could discuss the ‘amount’ with Amar Singh across the table.
This is the transcript of the conversation between Reoti Raman Singh and the three MPs:
Bhagora: If we go there, in front of everyone…
Reoti Raman: There won’t be anyone else there…
Bhagora: We will be exposed in front of everyone.
Reoti Raman: There is no question of being exposed. It’s as safe as your home and I’ll be there with you.
Bhagora: That’s okay. But they are big people. I don’t know who is going to be there at his residence.
Reoti Raman: My friend, I am there, first come with me, I am there with you.
Faggan Singh: Have you communicated with sahib?
Reoti Raman: Yes, it has been done. Please come with me, I will hold the talks in front of you. Or else the whole night will be spent in convincing you to come and talk. I’ve spoken to him that’s why I’m here.
Bhagora: There is something else.
Reoti Raman: What is that? Tell me.
Bhagora: Amount ki toh baat nahi huyi hogi (you would not have talked about the amount).
Reoti Raman: Amount ka toh humne baat nahin kiya hai, amount ki toh aapke saamne baat hogi. Aapke saamne baat hogi agar aapko baat karna ho jayegi. Agar aapko karna hoga toh kariyega, nahi toh aap apne ghar jao... amount ka toh... baat karenge hum kaise karle... hum kya jaane aap... (The amount will be decided only in your presence.)
Faggan Singh: One has to think the matter politically, and about the party. The responsibility is such that…you know how it is.
Reoti Raman: Isliye toh keh raha hoon chaliye aamne saamne baat ho jayegi agar aapka hoga tub theek hai nahi toh mat kijiyega. Koi zabardasti thodi na hai. (That’s why I am telling you, let’s talk face-to-face. If you like it, it will be done. Nobody is forcing you).
Faggan Singh: No. That’s not what I’m saying.
Reoti Raman: Look. I will be frank. If you trust me, then come along. Or else you can just say no, I don’t want to come. If you don’t want to go then the matter is finished.
Faggan Singh: For a better idea, one needs to talk.
Reoti Raman: The talk has to happen, face-to-face. Not behind one’s back. If you like the discussion then it’s okay. What is there to get so hassled about? I’ve come to your place.
Faggan Singh: No. It’s nothing like that.
Reoti Raman: If it was something like that, then why I’d come. I listened to what you said. What’s your wish?
Faggan Singh: We have not spoken like this before. Because of certain situations…
Reoti Raman: That’s why I am saying just come with me. The discussion will happen in front of you. If you like it fine. Or else don’t go into it, nobody’s forcing you. If you want I can end this right now. Do it if you like it. Or else you go to your home, I’ll go to mine.
Bhagora: Did you have some discussions?
Reoti Raman: No. I told him that I would get them and then talks would happen face-to-face.
Bhagora: So you are saying we should go there.
Hindustani: You can discuss this on the phone once.
Reoti Raman: No, not on the phone. The talks will happen face-to- face. All together, so that everybody’s satisfied. Nobody is going to catch you there.
Reoti Raman: I am not going to talk anymore. If you want to come, say it. Or else I’ll go home. I am not going to talk any more.
Hindustani: You have seen how I’ve been trying.
Reoti Raman: Come along with me if you don’t like the deal, then just refuse. Why get so hassled? No one is forcing anything on you. I have come to your house.
Hindustani: No, no.
Reoti Raman: Just come and sit for 10 minutes. In 10 minutes the talks will be over, the matter will be closed. What can we talk about on the phone? The talk will happen face-to-face. If you have any doubts and you don’t want to come then just say so.
Hindustani: Sir, if you could just come with me for one minute…
Reoti Raman: You will speak to them?
Bhagora: If we have inconvenienced you…
Reoti Raman: Do let me know.
Reoti Raman Singh then left Argal’s house.
THE NEXT MORNING AROUND 10 AM THE TWO BJP MPS—Argal and Kulaste—and Hindustani went to Amar Singh’s house. The third MP Bhagora did not go for the meeting. The two MPs and Hindustani have given conflicting versions of what happened at the meeting. No recording—audio or video—was done at this meeting.
Within half an hour of the meeting though, Sanjeev Saxena, an aide of Amar Singh, drove to Argal’s residence. But before Saxena could enter the house, Hindustani, who was outside in the lawn had a hush-hush conversation with him and turned him back.
At this point, an argument broke out between reporter Gautam and Hindustani. Gautam told Hindustani that if there were editorial calls to be taken, it had to be through him. Kulkarni too scolded Hindustani. Hindustani explained that Amar Singh’s aide Saxena had come with only Rs 20-25 lakh. He told Saxena to return with at least Rs 1 crore.
Staggeringly, Saxena was back in no time with Rs 1 crore. He came inside with an attendant and spread the money on the table. He then made the BJP MPs speak to Amar Singh on the phone. The two MPs spoke to Singh on the phone but it was not very coherent. Within minutes, Saxena left the place.
At this point, Kulkarni who was sitting in the adjoining room, came in and hugged the BJP MPs and the CNN-IBN team. After some time Jaitley drove to Argal’s residence and got a full briefing from Gautam after which he congratulated him for the successful sting operation. Jaitley then called up Advani and told him that the operation had been successful. He also made Gautam speak to Advani on the phone who congratulated the young reporter for a job well done.
Strangely, when CNN-IBN ran the story later and also when their team deposed before the probe panel, they suppressed the extent of Kulkarni’s involvement. They misled the panel about several crucial events during the sting operation and gave a false chain of events in their bid to downplay the role of Kulkarni, Advani and Jaitley. They also seem to have obfuscated a crucial link which could have closed the circle of circumstantial evidence linking the money with Amar Singh.
Disturbingly, Gautam told Tehelka that not only was he tutored by his superiors to blunt the impact of his own story when it was broadcast, by claiming that he did not know whether the men sitting in the tinted car were the BJP MPs, but that the channel also tutored his responses to the parliamentary panel and held back a key fragment of footage which showed the journey of BJP MPs from Argal’s Feroze Shah residence to Lodhi Estate where Amar Singh used to stay.
This footage would have nailed Amar Singh, who was given an escape clause when Gautam said that he could not see if the BJP MPs had indeed been sitting in the white Zen.
(Incidentally, a key Delhi Police officer told Tehelka, off the record, that he too suspected that the channel tutored the reporter to put out only parts of the story.)
How, then, is one to read this strange chain of events? Not only did the media outfit tasked to tell the truth about this sordid episode muddy the trail, clearly, the Congress too has been disproportionately maligned for a crime it does not seem to have committed—at least in this case.
After the alleged meeting set up with Ahmed Patel at the Le Meridien failed, there were no calls from the Congress camp to make contact or close a deal that had fallen through because the meeting had failed to happen. Simple logic says that if the Congress was desperately shopping for MPs before the vote, they would have been making frantic midnight calls. Not the BJP. Also if they wanted to buy these three MPs, one of their middlemen should have been doing the rounds of the premises of BJP MPs. But, a BJP middleman, Suhail Hindustani, was making phone calls, trying to get in touch with Congress leaders.
The first-hand account of Gautam and the phone records in Tehelka’s possession indicate that the shoe was on the other foot. It was the BJP MPs and Hindustani who were scanning the market for buyers that night to somehow pull off their sting operation before the vote on the nuclear issue. How is one to read a respected opposition party willfully setting out to destabilise a sitting government, not through the bonafide exposure of voluntary corruption on the government’s part, but hectically engineering such a situation?
Clearly the BJP has suppressed several crucial and self-damning facts in all its shrill public posturing.
1. They hid the fact that their own party member Hindustani was trying to broker deals around the nuclear vote rather than functionaries of the Congress or the Samajwadi Party who had first tried to approach their MPs.
2. It is unclear whether there ever was a genuine conversation with Ahmed Patel and the BJP MPs over a plan to buy them. However, in the event that there is no proof whatsoever of this, it is clear that the BJP willfully obfuscated the fact that neither Patel nor any other Congress leader had actually turned up for the meeting at the hotel. On the contrary, they have continued to assert that a few Congress leaders were part of the bribery and have alleged that the CNN-IBN deliberately deleted this footage.
3. The BJP also failed to mention that after the failed encounter with the Congress, it is they who aggressively sought Amar Singh on the eve of the nuclear vote.
Gautam’s account, the 10 recorded phone calls between Argal and unknown middlemen, and the conflicting statements by various players in the parliamentary committee report—all of it now in Tehelka’s possession—makes for very dark reading.
IF GAUTAM’S ACCOUNT TO TEHELKA is a damning exposé of all that really went on during the sting operation, cross-hatching that account with the conflicting statements different players involved in the sting operation, including him, recorded with the parliamentary committee tells another murky story.
Take the facts surrounding the meeting at Amar Singh’s house. After Reoti Raman Singh had left Argal’s residence on the intervening night of 21 and 22 July, the CNN-IBN team, Hindustani, Kulkarni and the three MPs had again joined their heads and deliberated over their next move.
Gautam told them that Reoti Raman’s visit had not been conclusive or incriminating as far as the sting went and it was important for them to get Amar Singh on camera—either at Argal’s residence or Singh’s own house. Gautam says he advised the MPs to wear the spy-cam when they went to meet Singh. But none of the MPs were ready to risk that.
Finally, it was decided that the CNN-IBN team would film the MPs entering Singh’s house and exiting it after the meeting. It was decided that the meeting inside Singh’s residence would not be recorded.
The team disbanded and agreed to reassemble at 7.30 the next morning. Hindustani apparently came an hour late and was chided sharply by Kulkarni. However, according to Gautam, he soon confirmed the Amar Singh meeting for 10.30 am.
The two BJP MPs—Argal and Kulaste—along with Hindustani went to meet Singh at his Lodhi Road residence. The third MP, Bhagora, did not go.
Deposing before the panel, both the BJP and the CNN-IBN admitted that there is no recording of this meeting between Amar Singh and the two BJP MPs. But, the BJP has alleged that the channel deliberately did not record this crucial meeting.
“I asked Siddharth Gautam if the two MPs or Suhail (Hindustani) should go to Shri Amar Singh’s house with hidden cameras. He advised against this, saying it was risky since the SP leader was ‘well-versed with sting operations’. He told me he would go ahead with a camera in a separate car to 27 Lodhi Estate, to record the entry and exit of the MPs at Shri Amar Singh’s residence,” Kulkarni told the panel in a written submission.
The BJP also alleged that Gautam had seen their MPs getting into the car that drove them to Amar Singh’s residence and had witnessed and captured the sequence of the car entering and exiting Singh’s residence.
But, toeing the line his channel had tutored him to follow, both in his testimony before the panel and during the broadcast of the sting operation on CNN-IBN, Gautam denied having seen the MPs getting into the car or having seen the MPs inside the tinted car when it entered and exited Singh’s residence.
This proved to be the most crucial gap in the CNN-IBN investigation that allowed Amar Singh to walk free with a clean chit.
The question is: what actually happened that day?
This is what Gautam told Tehelka. “As planned we all (the two BJP MPs, Hindustani, Gautam and his team) came out together. We told them to sit in the white Zen (which belonged to Hindustani), while my team members and I sat in our car. My cameraman was sitting in the front seat. We started following the car in which the MPs were and tailed it till Amar Singh’s house. The car was not out of my sight even for a second.”
He added that the entire sequence of the MPs starting from Ferozeshah Road and then driving to Amar Singh’s place, and entering and exiting his house, was filmed on an open camera by the CNN-IBN team.
But, the panel report mentions that CNN-IBN only provided the following footage related to this episode.
• 27 Lodhi Estate, residence of Amar Singh, appears on the screen
• After a while, a white Zen car bearing registration No. DL 5CC 7218 is seen coming towards the residence and stops at the gate of Amar Singh’s residence. As soon as the car stops in front of the gate, Suhail Hindustani gets out and enters through the gate. After a while, the gate is opened and the car moves inside the bungalow
• Siddharth Gautam, CNN-IBN reporter, could be seen on the screen talking to someone on the mobile along with other mediapersons and a few other persons. Saif Kidwai, producer, CNN-IBN, could also be seen
• A few minutes later, the white Zen is seen coming out of the gate. The driver is putting a handkerchief on his face and Hindustani is sitting besides him on the front seat. It is not properly visible as to who is sitting in the rear seat; only a silhouette of a person is seen. Since the windows of the car were tinted, the faces of the persons on the rear seat could not be identified
According to Gautam, the footage showing the MPs getting in and driving to Amar Singh’s house was not shared with the panel or broadcast. Given that the meeting at Amar Singh’s house was not on camera, the concealment of this crucial piece of connecting evidence, if one were to believe Gautam, gave Amar Singh an unwarranted alibi
But, this is not the only conflicting account. Both the BJP MPs and Suhail Hindustani also have widely differing versions of what happened in their meeting with Amar Singh.
In a joint letter dated 25 July 2008 addressed to the Speaker, the three MPs gave the following account of the 22 July meeting with Amar Singh.
“We met Amar Singh at his residence. He boasted that although he had already ‘managed’ the requisite number, since Reoti Raman Singh had met us and arranged the meeting, he would pay Rs 3 crore each for abstaining from the voting on 22 July. We mentioned that we have one more MP willing to abstain. He agreed to pay the same amount to the third MP. Thereafter, he spoke to Ahmed Patel on the phone and said, ‘I have three more kamals (lotuses) here’. He also made us speak to Ahmed Patel, who gave his consent to the arrangement.
“Amar Singh offered to pay us an initial token amount of Rs 1 crore and asked us to carry it with us. We declined, saying it was unsafe with journalists standing outside his house. Singh promised to send the amount with his assistant, Sanjeev Saxena, within 15 minutes.”
The MPs reiterated this story before the parliamentary committee. (Interestingly, the third BJP MP Bhagora withdrew and never appeared before the panel, nor did he sign any of the submissions made by the other two). But, when the panel asked if they recognised Patel’s voice, Argal replied, “Amar Singh got it confirmed (about the money) from Patel. He got us connected to Patel. As we had never spoken to Patel earlier we can’t say we recognised his voice. Amar Singh only gave us the phone and said ‘talk to Patel’. It was a landline phone only.”
(Soon after the sting and the allegations that had flown around, Ahmed Patel had told reporters, “I am ready to quit public life and face punishment if someone can prove that I bribed the MPs.”)
But, Hindustani’s account is the most colourful. In a written submission to the Speaker dated 12 August 2008, he provided the following account.
“Amar Singhji welcomed the three of us warmly and treated us to dates and dry grapes. He was wearing a white pyjama and a kurta of sky-blue colour. Thanking me for bringing the two MPs to meet him, he claimed that he had already ‘managed’ the support needed to ensure the survival of the UPA government. Nevertheless, since Reoti Raman Singhji had arranged the meeting, he would pay Rs 3 crore to each MP. At this point, Argalji and Kulasteji mentioned that they had one more MP willing to abstain. Amar Singhji told them he would pay the same amount to Bhagoraji.
“After this, Amar Singhji spoke to somebody and informed that person that three more BJP MPs had agreed to abstain from voting. Once the conversation was over, he told us, ‘Aap ke baare mein, maine PM ko bata diya hai” (I have informed the PM about you)."
The two MPs had not mentioned any call—or even a reference—made by Amar Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But, Hindustani went a step further and threw even the Prime Minister into the mix. Later, in another seeming flight of fancy, he says Amar Singh told him his own share of the loot was lying at Golf Course and he should pick it up from there. Apart from this, Hindustani’s account is much the same as the two MPs. He says Singh called up Ahmed Patel and offered the MPs a token Rs 1 crore. The remaining Rs 8 crore would be paid after the vote.
The question is, if Singh and the MPs had reached an arrangement that Rs 1 crore was to be paid as an advance through Saxena, why did Hindustani later tell Gautam that he had turned Saxena back from Argal’s house for coming with only Rs 20-25 lakh. It seems apparent that knowing their meeting with Singh was not on camera, both Hindustani and the MPs happily gave an exaggerated account of it.
Tehelka sent a detailed questionnaire to CNN-IBN, asking specific and pointed questions. But, till the time of going to press, the channel had not responded.
IT IS undeniable that the nuclear trust vote was cast in an atmosphere of intense acrimony, speculation and rumours. The UPA1 won the trust vote by 19 votes. Many MPs from the ruling coalition as well as Opposition parties defied their party whips. Six MPs from the Samajwadi Party, which had issued a whip to its MPs to support the UPA, voted against it. A then Congress MP, Kuldeep Bishnoi, also voted against the government.
On the other hand, five BJP MPs voted for the government. One BJP MP abstained, while two others simply didn’t turn up for the vote. Two MPs from the Janata Dal (United) and one from the Biju Janata Dal also defied their party whips.
In the absence of more definitive evidence, perhaps one can never know how much money changed hands and how. But, at a time when a spate of political scandals and scams are driving the country towards the precipice of Constitutional chaos, it is important to right-size the public discourse and bring a degree of sobriety back into it. It is important that political debate is not hijacked by exaggerated facts, innuendoes or blatant falsehoods.
The country can ill-afford scams and State malfeasance, but combating that cannot devolve into mere political mudslinging. It is important that a sense of proportion is restored to every issue of public interest so that the guilty are held accountable and finally it is the public interest—and not political or personal agenda—that prevails.
If this story can push the government to pursue the investigation into the scandal with earnestness and bring those guilty of horse-trading to book, it might send out a proportionate but timely message that a proud democracy like India cannot be reduced to merely a cynical game of numbers.
Ashish Khetan is Editor, Investigations, with Tehelka.