|HOME | NEWS | COLUMNISTS | T V R SHENOY|
|March 19, 2001||
T V R Shenoy
Better sorry than safe
Distance gives perspective. And from the perspective of the ancient university town of Oxford, I must say the Bharatiya Janata Party -- in fact the National Democratic Alliance as a whole -- has been wounded by the tehelka.com expose. There is no point in spokesmen proclaiming the contrary; if anything it is counterproductive because it gives the impression that the parties involved are not contrite.
That is the nub: are they sorry? I did not see George Fernandes giving his explanation on television after he quit as defence minister. It is possible, therefore, that I missed some fine nuance of intonation. But reading what he said in cold print, my immediate reaction was that he had missed the point. Fernandes offered a seemingly detailed rebuttal of some allegations but they were never the central issue.
Nobody, up to this point, has taxed Fernandes with making a few crores on the sly by abusing his office. The accusation is that he allowed his party colleagues to cut deals from his official residence. That is negligence, not corruption, but can you live with a negligent man as the defence minister of a nuclear power? That is the core of the case against Fernandes.
How about Bangaru Laxman and Jaya Jaitly? If you go by the strict letter of the law I am not sure if they can be brought to book. There is nothing in the tapes to show they pulled off a scam. However, this is completely irrelevant.
We are not discussing the intricacies of the law, but the effect on public opinion. The Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies came into office vowing to present a 'different' government, a cleaner administration. Fernandes himself had vowed to cut out middlemen from all defence procurement. Those words ring hollow today.
The best Bangaru Laxman can say is that every party accepts donations in cash. This is probably correct, but so what? If the Bharatiya Janata Party is not 'a party with a difference', if it cannot break free of the "business as usual" mentality, then it has betrayed the people who voted for it. The anger, even the disgust, of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is nothing but a reflection of this.
(One report had it that a section of the Bharatiya Janata Party felt that the impact of the Tehelka tapes wouldn't be felt since Doordarshan hadn't aired them, and 65 pc of India still has no access to anything else. Leaving aside what this says about Doordarshan, this is a mind-blowing argument. There was no cable television thirteen years ago, but people still got to hear all about Bofors -- enough to bring down the Rajiv Gandhi regime two years later!)
I do not think there is any immediate danger of the government falling. Even Mamta Bannerjee would guard against that, if only because any alternative would see her Marxist foes in the saddle in Delhi. Nor would, say, the Telugu Desam or the Shiv Sena want to see the Congress rule the roost. But that should not breed any complacence in the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Begin by apologising to the people of India for the hurt caused to the nation's image. I hear foreigners snigger that Indians turn Judas for the sake of a few thousand pounds, and I have no answer.
Next, clean up the way that business is conducted. When L K Advani was the Bharatiya Janata Party president he instituted a policy that all donations would be taken only by cheque. Some say this was dropped because it was impractical. I ask them: how much damage has been done by being 'practical'?
As for the government itself, it is time (and more) that a large dose of transparency was introduced. A 'Freedom of Information' Bill was promised; has it been introduced? Up to now, nobody outside the Government of India was given precise details of how the defence budget was spent. This never made much sense to me. Most procurement is made from firms outside India; if foreigners knew how much we spent and on what items, why shouldn't Indians share that knowledge? I agree that, say, troop movements or the precise location of India's missiles are matter of national security, but what is so secret about buying, say, snow-shoes or infra-red goggles?
How about the political fall-out? I have already said that the ministry probably won't fall if only because there is no credible alternative. Nor does anyone want a general election a year and a half after the last one. But the charges made by the Opposition need to be answered, countered if possible. And a truculent or self-righteous defiance is definitely not the answer.
If you ask me, I think the prime minister should trust his own political instincts. I have rarely seen him so grim as he was when he addressed the nation. (Yes, it was covered by both the BBC and by CNN.) The Tehelka exposure, he said, was a 'wake-up call' to the political class. That is precisely the attitude to take: accept that something has gone wrong, and then take steps to remedy it.
The Opposition wants a Joint Parliamentary Committee. This is a waste of time. The Joint Parliamentary Committee that looked into the Bofors scandal gave everyone a clean chit; the Joint Parliamentary Committee which investigated the Securities Scam uncovered nothing. Why spend more time on fruitless endeavours, which end with everyone voting on strict party lines? A time-bound judicial commission recommending specific actions would be more useful.
However, there is no need for the government to wait so long. We know defence deals are murky. We know there is a dangerous blurring of the line between party and government. Admitting these flaws and trying to rectify them are matters that should be taken in hand immediately. If, that is, the National Democratic Alliance is serious about tackling corruption.
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