THE Samata Party was crucial to the formation of the first NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998. (Vajpayee's earlier stint in 1996 had lasted only 13 days because only the Akali Dal was prepared to join the government.) Perhaps not realising what Indian politics was all about, Sonia Gandhi had clearly over-committed with her statement outside Rashtrapati Bhavan stating that the Congress had 272 members supporting them with 'more coming'. When George Fernandes and I had gone to visit I.K. Gujral in 2008 to invite him to a big event in Bangalore, we had a heart-to-heart chat over tea. He told us that Sonia Gandhi had visited him at that time and naively blurted out, 'I want to become the prime minister. How do I do it?' Gujral told us he was highly amused and gently explained to her that things didn't happen that way and that she had to approach the matter in a completely different manner.
In his autobiography Matters of Discretion (2011), he speaks of the same occasion and reveals that he told her that she should not trust Harkishen Singh Surjeet of the CPM who was ultimately keen on backing Jyoti Basu. This little titbit was never known nor spoken of publicly, and subsequently her 'sacrifice' and 'renunciation' of the prime ministerial post in 2004 were extolled across the world. This enabled people to forget the ambitiousness of the hasty '272' claim.
All I came to know from documents shared by officials, press reports and facts that emerged during questioning in the Justice Venkataswami/Phukan Inquiry Commission at that time, is that Tehelka was heavily funded through the hawala funds from abroad. I know that the Congress Party constantly took an undue interest in the matter and chief honcho of the Enforcement Directorate had a signed confession of a hawala operator in Chennai, who said he received funds from Brussels and had sent them to First Global in Mauritius. This was the company belonging to Shankar Sharma that heavily funded Tehelka for Operation West End.
Later, in early March 2001, First Global discovered it was under investigation by SEBI (the Securities and Exchange Board of India) for playing the stock market with hawala funds. This was just a week before the incomplete and factually incorrect Tehelka story of defence deals broke. When First Global went to the high court in Mumbai accusing the government of mala fide intent in taking action against them, the court was shown the SEBI orders on the files. They threw out its petition without allowing any further arguments. Tehelka claimed, in the media, on their website and at the commission of inquiry, that they had been compelled to break the story, incomplete and with vast inaccuracies, with no documents or evidence because they had been spotted by someone they had been filming. In the end, Operation West End merely turned out to be a shoddily created tale of how Indian politicians and defence officials could possibly be corrupted if offered money, by pretending it was a genuine business deal, being presented with a fake problem claiming an injustice needing redressal, or call girls forced upon unsuspecting army officers, or plied with enough alcohol to make them boast that they were influential enough to swing any deal in the sin city of Delhi. Just like with their cricket sting, Tehelka journalists neither managed to expose genuine corruption in cricket nor did they even touch the surface of the real scams that came tumbling out of the closet later. They obviously targeted the ethical and honest people to destroy them rather than truly go after crooks. I surmised that Congress was an obvious beneficiary of the Tehelka defence corruption story, hoping to wipe out public memory of its own Bofors corruption.
By now it was June 2004, and the UPA government had come to power. We did not think it would change things at the Commission since Justice Phukan was powering along at a regular pace.
The tapes had been examined and the expert, Matthew J. Cass, who had done so was brought by the government to depose, as is legally required. When Cass took the stand to speak on 23 June 2004, Justice Phukan announced something we had not expected. It was a communication (of which we were given copies), received from the forensic agency to which Cass belonged in the UK which said:
[W]e have been contacted by Tehelka.com by email requesting an interview with Mr Cass, we have not responded to this. We were also contacted by the India correspondent of the Guardian Newspaper yesterday again asking questions[, t]o which we again provided no comment answers. However, from what they said it would appear that a Min[i]ster has pre-empted Mr. Cass' evidence to the Commission and we have found reference to this on at least one news website. Obviously we felt we should inform you of these issues.
Such an astonishing matter was taken lightly by everyone, including our party, and the BJP, which was now in opposition. On 28 May 2004, Kapil Sibal, a minister in the new government and the champion of Tehelka causes, had already announced to the public that the tapes had been found to be genuine. We wondered whether this was telepathy or prescience since no formal document or report had come to the Commission. Tejpal also announced the same news, claiming his source was an army officer, which was highly far-fetched.
This time the new government's counsel tried to cut short the deposition of the British forensic expert by objecting to him being crossed-examined by all of us. Luckily, he was overruled and it tumbled out that in fact, the tapes which were originals were not untampered since there were cuts in conversations within them, switches 'on' and 'off' in certain places, sound drops, and other unresolved areas where the expert could not understand the Hindi dialogue in the tapes.’
Justice Phukan was a man in a hurry but the government counsels kept asking for more time since they were unfamiliar with the contents of the mound of documents. They obtained relief from their government when on 1 October 2004, the Ministry of Finance ordered the Commission not to inquire into Tehelka's journalistic motives or the financial aspects of the entire matter. These were precisely the areas in which Tehelka would have been caught out because they had already admitted in the Commission that they had sold the tapes to Zee TV for a hefty sum, making it a commercial rather than a journalistic venture. Also, by September, when the Commission was still at work, Sonia Gandhi, as head of the UPA and the National Advisory Council, wrote an official letter to finance minister P. Chidambaram, dated 25/27 September 2004-a copy of which was provided to me by a highly placed source in the Opposition-asking him to ensure that First Global, Tehelka's financiers, are not meted out 'unjust or unfair treatment'. She was, in fact, saying the very same thing I was trying to explain to the Tehelka person asking me a favour for the purpose of entrapment. Here again, irony was visiting.
(Excerpted with permission from Rupa Publications)