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March 21, 2001

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'Everybody in India collects political donations'
'Everybody in India collects political donations'

India's sharp-witted law minister, Arun Jaitley, quite enjoys jousting with the media. This time, though, the hot seat has been rather uncomfortable; thanks to the Tehelka.com exposť, both his party and his government find their backs to the wall.

What follows is an interview he granted Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt, even as he raced from studio to television studio defending the credibility of his political mentors.

Someone like you was expected to have a different reaction to the Tehelka.com exposť...

Most of the people in my party will not support any kind of compromise with ethics. This is why our stand is completely different from the one taken by the Congress in the past. Whenever there was an allegation against them, the Congress would term its intention mala fide. They would not look at the allegation's merits; instead, they would just accuse the accuser. They would shy away from debate and refuse to hold an inquiry.

No FIR was registered in the Bofors case as long as the Congress was in power. The Congress, as the majority party, constituted a JPC to cover up the whole thing, to say that it was not a bribe but a winding up charge.

On the other hand, we made it clear on the very first day, that the best thing under the circumstances was for the truth to come out. The guilty must be held accountable. We have instituted an inquiry within 72 hours. For the first time after Independence, the ruling party is demanding a debate and an inquiry into accusations against itself. Normally, the opposition seeks a debate and inquiry and the government shies away. Here, the opposition is refusing the debate.

How can an advocate like you defend a party president who has accepted money like this?

If the charge is fair, if the charge is honest, if the charge is established then neither I nor my party will support the concerned person. Today, he has resigned because of what is being said about him. Some fictitious man came and offered him a donation for the party. Since this involves an individual's culpability or innocence, and an inquiry has been announced, it will not be fair to reach a conclusion.

It is very unfortunate that, even after 53 years of Independence, we have not been able to formulate a proper method for political donations. The ideal way to raise it -- both from the public and the industrialists -- is by cheque. It is sad that, though we tried to incorporate this about five-six years ago, we didn't succeed. And, in the absence of a legitimate and transparent method, we have to rely on donations which may come from not-so-ideal sources.

Is the Tehelka.com exposť a landmark event in political and mass communication history?

Certainly. It is a significant event. The Prime Minister has described it as a wake-up call. And, now with the electronic media around, this method of fund collection, etc, is under public scrutiny. Nothing can remain secret any longer, so it becomes even more necessary that political funding in India becomes more transparent and absolutely legitimate.

I'll repeat my earlier question: How can an advocate like you defend the act of accepting cash like this?

To say whether one should defend particular act or not is a matter which has larger ramifications. One can comment on the matter only when all the facts are known. The fact is: Everybody in India collects political donations to run their party. Some people are seen collecting this money, others are not. Those who have been caught collecting it have become questionable, while those who have not been caught condone the act.

What was your reaction when you saw the Tehelka tapes?

I am not against the journalist resorting to technological devices to find out the truth. It's their job to investigate. I don't fault his methods, nor do I attribute motives to him. What we should be concerned with is the substance of what has happened. Tehelka, by its very definition, means sensation! When you sensationalise, you tend to magnify and you magnify what you sensationalise! You play down what is not consistent with what you are magnifying. Therefore, after all this noise and song and dance is over, we should logically analyse the facts.

What are the facts?

I am least concerned if some individuals have compromised themselves. The legal system in this country will take care of that. I am most concerned about two issues. For one, how do you legitimise political donations? It is an uphill task.

As for the second, I don't think Tehelka has been fair with the facts. They posed as touts and entered the defence procurement mechanism, with the intention of proving it was a gutter procurement system. In fact, some of the facts fly in the face of what really happens.

It actually takes more than four to five years to finalise the contract, for which it has has to go through dozens of committees. Dozens of experts, representing various disciplines, give their advice before we begin the price negotiations. Dozens of field trials take place; it is only then that the best of the lot is chosen. The men in uniform play a predominant role in this process.

It is not fair to condemn it because some undersecretary or assistant financial controller at the level of the section officer accepts a bribe of Rs 10,000. Or because some conmen, after consuming five drinks, make some preposterous claims. A conman always brags about his influence. That is how he cons people. Circumstantial evidence can easily prove whether what they are saying is indeed true.

Is Gupta, or his son, involved in any such transactions or is he only bragging? Do they have any contacts with the top people? Do they have influence with the defence set-up in the country? We need to know because they have not referred to specifics. Jain, on the other hand, refers to three or four factual incidents.

Tehelka's objective was to create a sensation. And now, I find they are taking a lot of liberty with the truth. Recently, they put up a story claiming I had instituted an inquiry under section 209-A of the Companies Act.

Is it true?

Section 209-A deals with the confiscation of accounts and inspection of account books. It is not a discreet inquiry. You have to pass an order, it has to be notified, you have to send a notice asking for the inspection of their account books. In Tehelka's case, nothing of the sort has happened. Three days ago, they said the Home Ministry had purchased Rs 1300 crores worth of border fencing material -- the commission involved was said to be Rs 325 crores -- from the Israelis. There is no such proposal under consideration.

What about Jain's allegations?

Jain says George overruled Dr Kalam. This is factually wrong. The naval chief first proposed the Barak missiles two years before George became defence minister. Dr Kalam agreed to his proposal in February 1996. And that man, over his fifth drink, claims Baraks are being purchased for INS Vikrant which was laid to rest two years ago. The Tehelka fellow has to remind him it is the Virat.

Then this man claims armoured recovery vehicles were due from Czechoslovakia, but the plant shut down so he got the order cancelled. Then he talks of the Poles. But the facts paint another picture. The defence attache in Prague reported that this company purchases secondhand stuff from its army, updates and then supplies it. So it was given to BHEL and BML. How does Jain come into the picture when the army makes a purchase from two domestic public sector units?

The man even claims he did the Sukhoi deal! India entered into that contract two years before George became the minister. Yet, you create a Tehelka and discredit the entire defence procurement system over one man's vain boast. Instead, if you would have crosschecked this man's claims, you would have realised they were not consistent with the facts. But that does not create a sensation. It is the way he boasts which creates a sensation. I think, in such a crisis, truth should never be a casualty because it is the best defence.

Were the video tapes not evidence?

There are stringent conditions which determine its value as evidence. Who recorded it? Where are the voice comparisons with voice recordings on similar machines? Is there a possibility that voices have been interpolated?

Certain people are of the view that Bangaru Laxman and Jaya Jaitly could have been arrested under section 120-B of the Indian Penal Code and sections 7 and 13 of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

If anybody has committed an offence in this case, the law will take its course. The law is not guided by political claims or grievances.

Others feel that Jaya Jaitly's behaviour has obliterated the barriers between the State, the government and the party.

I don't think so. Jaya's case, in particular, has been blown out of proportion. Everyday people come to us with some request, some work. Sometimes, they are brought to us by politicians, MPs or political workers. Obviously, one can't oblige everyone. You try and politely decline them but, sometimes, they are very persistent. So, even though you don't intend to do anything in the matter, you say you'll look into it and give it fair consideration.

Jaya deals with it by saying, "Normally, I don't interfere in this matter. You are saying you have been treated unfairly, so I will pass on the request." Tehelka should not, in the heat of the moment, lose their sense of perspective. If somebody says I want to donate money to your party and is told to give it to the treasurer, is that a crime?

Vajpayee's authority has been eroded after this exposť.

Considering the facts, it is just a knee-jerk reaction. After all, the media is powerful and the electronic media is more powerful. There are repercussions to what they report. But it also increases the desire for the whole truth rather than mere slogans or impressions.

I am talking about the public's perception of the PM's moral authority.

Perceptions have to be corrected with the truth. I've been working with him for the last year and a half and I've seen how strong his ethical and moral base is. He will never encourage anything of this sort.

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