The cash-for-vote scam was far more complex and sinister than is usually understood. It took in its sleazy embrace not only most political parties, but also powerful business houses, media outfits and foreign powers
Hardnews Bureau Delhi
Despite the seriousness of the charges and their subversive implications on our parliamentary democracy, the cash-for-vote scam was never seriously probed. And there is a reason.
The scandal that shocked the nation saw BJP MPs displaying wads of money on the floor of Parliament during the trust vote on the civilian nuclear deal with the US, claiming that it was meant to buy their loyalty. The case was quietly buried after a parliamentary committee headed by Kishore Chandra Deo failed to find evidence of any transaction of bribe. Their recommendation for further probe by an enforcement agency to establish the source of funds was referred by the then Speaker of Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee, to the Union home ministry, which, surprisingly, handed over the case - not to the CBI - but to Delhi Police, reportedly with tacit instructions that basically meant: Put it in the deep freeze.
If it hadn't been for Wikileaks exposing the cables exchanged by the US embassy in New Delhi with Washington, the murky goings-on during the run-up to the trust vote would have been largely forgotten. Wikileaks provided a glimpse of the exertions power brokers were making through money and muscle to help the UPA alliance cobble together a majority after the withdrawal of support by the Left parties on the nuclear deal with the US.
Expectedly, the leaks raised a big stink with BJP demanding an explanation from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose statement led to a short-term discussion in both Houses of Parliament. The drift of the Wikileaks allegations suggesting pay-offs by Congress to garner support from Ajit Singh's party, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), may be flawed - all his MPs voted against UPA - but it showed how different considerations drove MPs and parties to decide on their support during the trust vote.
The debate in Parliament resurrected the cash-for-vote scandal of 2008 where three BJP MPs - Ashok Argal, Mahaveer Bhagora and Faggan Singh Kulaste - had claimed that they were lured by Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh with a huge amount of cash. Indeed, why did Parliament and the political parties, including BJP (which manifestly had a grievance as its MPs were allegedly being poached by Amar Singh and his men), not demand a follow-up of the probe? And why did BJP allow the vote to continue if it was convinced that the sting operation by CNN-IBN was authentic?
This is despite the fact that the BJP leaders who "masterminded" the "whistle-blowing operation" to expose attempts to buy their MPs, failed to achieve their stated objective of conclusively establishing the bribe trail. The news channel that recorded the sting or whistle-blowing operation backed out at the last moment and refused to telecast the programme.
Why did it back out, blocking the sting, even as LK Advani boasted that a big English TV channel will show it all?
So, if indeed there was substance in Advani's boast, why did a news channel agree to enter into a pact with a political party against an elected government, and thereby chose to violate all journalistic ethics? At whose behest? What were its interests and that of its stakeholders?
Truly, the cash-for-vote scandal was far more complex and sinister than is usually understood. It took in its sleazy embrace not only most of the political parties, but also powerful business houses, media outfits and foreign powers. And contrary to dominant belief, copious funds were available both for saving the UPA regime as well as to topple it. It was a staggeringly huge and scandalously dirty financial project, where the masterminds were different from the BJP flunkies who had to face the heat in the parliamentary committee.
In the public domain, it is transparent that the cash-for-vote sting operation was owned and instigated by BJP. Tehelka, in its recent exposé, goes a step further. It shows that the BJP MPs who claimed to have been bribed by Amar Singh actually put themselves up for sale. Willingly, wilfully, deliberately, as per a shadowy plan put into operation by former scribe and Advani aide Sudheendra Kulkarni.
Tehelka has quoted a reporter of CNN-IBN, Siddharth Gautam, who carried out the sting operation. He claimed that the BJP parliamentarians were frantically calling up all kinds of people to tell them that they were willing to switch their loyalties during the trust vote - for a price. So as to set up a sting operation.
If Gautam's version is correct, then it violates all journalistic ethics. More outrageous is the fact that this 'set-up' sting operation would have been used to topple a legitimately elected government. In other words, push the Indian State, Indian democracy and civil society into instability, chaos and a state of anarchy, with big money and sinister masterminds calling the shots.
Indeed, this is not a one-version, one-dimensional sleaze operation. This is more complex and dangerous. Even a cursory reading of Kishore Chandra Deo's report would amply prove that the BJP leadership was actively involved in this exercise. It was Arun Jaitley who coordinated the sting operation to some extent. Sudheendra Kulkarni, who foolishly claims to be the mastermind of the operation, told the parliamentary committee that it was Arun Jaitley who "informed me that the CNN-IBN had agreed to record and telecast" the "whistle-blowing operation". And that an investigative reporter, Siddharth Gautam, would be getting in touch with him.
There is silence on how Jaitley got an assurance from the channel that they would telecast the sting exactly when currency notes are being displayed in Parliament. As stated above, the planned telecast of the act of bribing was not important only for shaming UPA, there was a bigger game-plan.
During the run-up to the trust vote that saw the Left parties withdrawing support, CPM general secretary had sworn to bring down the UPA government at any cost. Uncannily, he also had a crucial meeting with LK Advani, which was arranged by a reputed 'card-holding' editor of a prominent Chennai-based daily (with a Delhi edition). The purpose of this meeting was for BJP and the Left parties to informally coordinate on the floor of Lok Sabha and ensure that UPA does not really touch the finishing line.
The strategy was to stop UPA from proving its majority at all costs and the sting operation was to play a very important role in this. The plan was that the BJP MPs would show the money on the floor of the House, which would simultaneously accompanied by the telecast of the sting operation on CNN-IBN, which would be followed by pandemonium as the opposition would claim the vote to be tainted, thus forcing adjournment. Hence, hypothetically, if due to the consequent chaos, the confidence vote had not taken place, then CPM and BJP had hoped to meet the President, with their constitutional experts in tow, to prove that the government had failed to go through a trust vote and should be sacked.
Ironically, these well-laid plans fell flat, when, mysteriously, CNN-IBN did yet another U-turn. It refused to telecast the recording of the bribery operation. Many journalists still recall a desperate LK Advani frequently asking the Jaitley about timing of the TV telecast.
Why did the channel back out from telecasting the sting?
CNN-IBN Editor Rajdeep Sardesai had told the parliamentary committee that they did not telecast on the day of the vote as they "...felt that we needed to cross-check and verify all the information that was there. Over the last couple of weeks, we have done that."
No one is really convinced with this reply.
Look at what happened when the telecast was not aired. Advani was crestfallen by this development. Seemingly, it also meant a loss of face in the eyes of new comrade and tacit ally Prakash Karat. Although BJP and CPM did try to theoretically prevent the confidence vote from taking place, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee returned to the house after his afternoon siesta and quickly set in motion the process of holding a trust vote. Surprisingly, reportedly after a meeting at the Speaker's chamber, where he questioned Advani as to how cash was allowed inside the premises of the august House, the BJP leader, without a whimper of protest, seemed to have accepted his fate and that of his party.
Indeed, once Congress won the vote, it became clear that someone had sold a lemon to BJP.
And who could that be except a close friend of well-connected, media-savvy BJP leader like Arun Jaitley, and an extremely dubious and wily Amar Singh - who, it appears, was playing for all sides. During that phase, with powerful friends like Anil Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan for company, Singh had positioned himself as the 'fixer' who could save or sink the UPA government. Enjoying control over 39 Samajwadi Party MPs, he furiously negotiated with the Congress leadership for relief for his leader Mulayam Singh Yadav from corruption cases, and other benefits for his powerful businessmen friends.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to suggest that his exertions - when the government was desperate for survival - could also have been aimed at helping some of his friends in the 2G spectrum sale and navigating through its tricky aftermath. It is only now in 2011 that we realise the full implications of the 2G scam, but still remain in the dark about the compromises the Manmohan Singh government was compelled to make for reasons of pure survival.
Master of brinkmanship, Amar Singh was aware that he could bring UPA to its heels only if it were kept in grave doubt about which way his party would go. Knowing Singh's ability to work very closely with BJP leaders, Congress could not trust him entirely. The big question that remained unanswered in the parliamentary committee was who gave Jaitley the commitment that the sting would be telecast - was it Rajdeep Sardesai or someone else, for instance, Amar Singh?
On repeated questioning by the parliamentary panel, Sardesai denied that he had given any assurance. It is possible that he neither gave any assurance nor backed off from airing the bribe feed. Those decisions could have been taken at a different level by those who have a substantial stake in this channel.
Muhammad Salim, CPM MP in the parliamentary panel, asked Kulkarni a very pertinent question: "You told that on 21st by afternoon or evening you got the information from Mr Arun Jaitley that CNN-IBN is willing to take part in and collaborate with this... Do you not know that CNN-IBN from the start is having an investment of a business house, which is very close to Amar Singh? If something comes, which goes against the interest of Mr Amar Singh, the CNN-IBN may not be able to show it. This is what has happened." (Anil Ambani's group has a sizeable stake in the holding company of CNN-IBN.) Kulkarni's reply was surprisingly as tame as that of other BJP leaders.
Tehelka's recent article seems to corroborate Salim's assertion. It accuses the channel of not giving the entire footage of the sting operation, which would have completed the loop of the three BJP MPs visiting Amar Singh's residence after leaving their house. Obviously, the attempt is to save Singh from any wrong-doing and prevent any kind of probe putting him under the scanner. The fact is, during the cash-for-vote scandal and after that, he was enjoying inordinate powers even over the intelligence agencies. This was proved when a reporter from a daily newspaper, who got a list of phone numbers active during the cash-for-vote scam and began to make random calls, was then told by the editor to lay off the story.
There are wheels within wheels in this scam. Only one crore was given to the MPs, but reportedly, the cash bundles were put together in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh. Congress sources have alleged that substantial funds were brought into the national capital from BJP-ruled states to buy support. The Kishore Chandra Deo committee's recommendations were never followed up, but had the money trail been pursued, it could have left many red faces in BJP.
On the flip side, one positive outcome of the cash-for-vote debate in Parliament has been that Delhi Police has been compelled to investigate this scandal that could have rocked the government and Indian democracy. It remains to be seen how seriously they go about it.