The real scandal of Operation West End was not the findings on tape, but the reaction of the rulers

Like all good Indian stories, Bangaru Laxman’s conviction comes with many open-ended readings.

May 12, 2012 in Columns
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FORMER BJP president Bangaru Laxman was convicted by a trial court last week and sentenced to four years of imprisonment. This should have been a sweet moment for TEHELKA. But it wasn’t. Like all good Indian stories, Laxman’s conviction comes with many open-ended readings. At first glance, it does offer a modicum of satisfaction. Laxman was caught on TEHELKA’s sting camera 11 years ago, stuffing a wad of money into his drawer, a bribe from men who he thought were arms dealers. The image became iconic: a freeze frame of India’s infamously corrupt gene. To that extent, it is fit that he has finally been brought to book. India needs more clear affirmative tales like this: if the corrupt are caught, they will be punished, no matter how powerful.

At an individual level too, Laxman has much to answer for. He was the BJP president. He was the first Dalit to make it to that post. The burden of history was on him: he needed to make good. Petty greed should hardly have been the peel he slipped on.

But that, probably, is as far as Laxman’s individual narrative goes. Over the past week, many well-wishers have congratulated TEHELKA for this apparent victory. But for all of us who lived through that time, victory is not the emotion we feel.

Operation West End — the investigation that caught Laxman — was not aimed at any individual or political party. It was meant to expose systemic corruption in defence procurements and we assert now, as we did then, that if another party had been in power, another cast of characters would have been caught in exactly the same shameful positions.

Laxman’s conviction, therefore, does not bring any sense of personal elation. But it does bring some important vindications. TEHELKA’s sting had been greeted by a great negative storm. The ruling NDA repeatedly questioned TEHELKA’s motives. It screamed that the story was fabricated, doctored, malafide. Eleven years on, it is easy to forget the pulverising ferocity of that charge. But the fact is the government had destroyed both TEHELKA and its angel investor Shankar Sharma. Laxman’s conviction — and the conviction of half-a-dozen army officers over the years — therefore are important vindications of TEHELKA’s investigation. It also ratifies the use of the sting camera in general — when used sparingly and in high public interest. TEHELKA itself has taken many lessons from those years but for all its critics, it’s important to note that Operation West End has withstood 11 years of microscopic and hostile legal scrutiny.

But that’s where this particular reading of the conviction ends. Other readings might lead to other meanings. 2001 seems a more innocent time. Given the scale of crime routinely exposed now, the significance of Laxman’s misdemeanour may even be due for some revision.

For the truth is, his conviction was the easiest end of the game. The real scandal of Operation West End lay elsewhere, and that remains unaddressed. As things panned out, the real scandal was not the findings on the tape, but the reaction of the rulers. Every arm of government was unleashed against TEHELKA. Sharma was jailed without a chargesheet. Dozens of high-ranking officials lied brazenly on sworn affidavits before the courts on the instruction of their political masters. Who will account for their perjury? Who will answer for TEHELKA’s crippling?

Since Laxman’s conviction, the Congress and BJP have taken to trading charges and clawing moral high ground from each other: whose record of corruption is worse? But is that the lesson to be gleaned? It would be far better if all parties returned to moral base camp instead. The Congress has the Emergency to answer for; BJP has TEHELKA. Both have enough corruptions notched up to silence each other for seven generations. If this competition of corruption were to bar the political class from raising a finger at each other, India would be left in an even darker place. Instead, if the vindication of TEHELKA’s story sends out a message that from now on politicians will at least eschew knee-jerk reactions and meet exposure with dignified responses, the dark hours may have been worthwhile.

There are other strands that lie waiting for redemption: Operation West End may have been about a fictitious deal, but it threw up facts about corruption in 13 real defence deals. Those were probed in camera: the findings haven’t been made public. Operation West End was also meant to catalyse systemic checks and balances in defence procurement. Gen VK Singh’s allegation of a bribe is proof none of those were set in motion.

Laxman’s conviction therefore brings no sense of victory. TEHELKA paid a very high price for that story. But that’s a journey that can never fully be told. Except through silence.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.
shoma@tehelka.com

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