If George Fernandes and friends expected the use of "honey traps" by Tehelka's investigators to outrage the political establishment, they were sadly mistaken. The response from the bjp and the other nda allies, with the exception of the Samata Party, has not only been low key but the identity of the network that supplied the call girls to Tehelka has triggered panic. The reason: politicians from virtually every party have sourced 'hostesses' from the same pimp.
According to an Intelligence Bureau official, another reason why the alarm bells are ringing is the suspicion that Tehelka has a 20-minute video recorded in a car plying between the posh Panchsheel Park residential area in south Delhi and a five-star hotel. The tape has the call girl used by Tehelka speaking about her liaisons with top politicians and of parties she has attended in farmhouses in Mehrauli. The girl, who studies in Delhi University's south campus, has also named some politicians. Incidentally, she was paid Rs 35,000 for her services.
Tarun Tejpal, ceo of Tehelka, however, denies that any such tape exists. "We have given all the tapes we had to the army and to the Venkataswami Commission. We have not held back anything," he says.
Meanwhile, another tape, No. 77, shot in an office in the dcm building on Delhi's Barakhamba Road, has footage of women being paraded for the benefit of a Tehelka investigator. Also present were R.K. Jain, the then treasurer of the Samata Party, and Kamaljit, one of the city's notorious pimps. It is his involvement in the Tehelka scandal which has further fuelled the panic. Any investigation, it is feared, would reveal his client list which includes some top politicians and bureaucrats.
IB sources say any investigation into the call girls used by Tehelka is fraught with danger. "We feel that the fair name of people in high places could be tarnished if we look into the case. The question of journalistic ethics should be looked into by some agency like the Press Council. Should the police go into it, there will be more than a few embarrassed faces."
This is probably why after the initial hue and cry in Parliament, Samata leader George Fernandes found himself isolated, with the nda by and large opting to watch the drama from the sidelines. The hands-off, let's-leave-it-to-the-Venkataswami Commission approach was formulated by law minister Arun Jaitley: "There's a commission (to probe the alleged corruption in arms deals revealed by Tehelka). Let it investigate all aspects, including this one." bjp spokesperson Vijay Kumar Malhotra said: "The Supreme Court has ruled that even a habitual graft-taker cannot be lured into accepting a bribe. But the commission is examining the issue and it is not for the government to interfere."
Even the announcement (by parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan) that the home ministry would probe whether Tehelka had committed any illegalities seems to have been made reluctantly, under pressure from the Samata. The mha certainly appeared reluctant to act, and sources close to the home minister have been saying that "the charges have to be investigated first. Even if a person confesses to a murder in the presence of witnesses, he will not be arrested until the police have established that there has been a murder and that he is responsible".
Mahajan's defence of Fernandes also, in the Lok Sabha when Opposition MPs said he was "guilty", was tepid at best.The commission would decide whether Fernandes was guilty or not, he said. "Whoever has done an illegality, whether he is a politician or a journalist, must be prosecuted," observed Union minister for rural development Venkaiah Naidu, steering a middle course.
As a senior bjp MP pointed out, the government had access to the Tehelka tapes for over three months. "It knew exactly what the tapes contained. Why hasn't it taken action so far? Clearly, it did not want to." It was home minister L.K. Advani who decided that the bjp should "maintain a distance" from the entire episode, he pointed out. The Advani camp doesn't particularly want to see Fernandes back in the cabinet, but the main reason for going easy on Tehelka is more practical rather than political.
That Fernandes is unlikely to return to the cabinet in a hurry was evident from party colleague Nitish Kumar's observation to scribes that "cabinet berth George sahib ke liye chhoti baat hai". bjp sources have admitted that the Venkataswami Commission would not be able to complete its activities in the next four months. Given the speed at which it is progressing, the probe could well continue for another two years, a senior cabinet minister remarked.
On August 24 afternoon, senior bjp and Samata leaders had met to discuss a combined strategy. The Samata leaders, taking their cue from Fernandes, said the government ought to file an fir against Tehelka, because procuring and supplying sex workers was an offence under the Immoral Trafficking Act. Jaitley flatly disagreed. To do so would result in the media ganging up in defence of Tehelka. If an fir was to be filed, it should be by an individual MP in his personal capacity, he felt.
A senior bjp leader's name was suggested. He flatly refused, pointing out that calling for the arrest of the Tehelka team was tantamount to playing into the Congress' hands. It would also enable them to demand an fir against former bjp president Bangaru Laxman, Fernandes and Samata leader Jaya Jaitly, for alleged complicity in the arms deals. "They'll accuse us of double standards," he said.
The Samata Party then decided to prevail upon a lightweight bjp Rajya Sabha member, Ravi Shankar Prasad, to file an fir at the Sansad Marg police station. Prasad initially agreed, but later backed out when he found that the move didn't have the support of his own party leadership.
The Samata Party, although it did manage to force an adjournment in the Lok Sabha, hasn't been able to rally support in or outside the House. Party MP Digvijay Singh made strenuous efforts to persuade the tdp to make a statement in support of Fernandes. But tdp leader Yerran Naidu, pleading that he would have to clear any such statement with party boss Chandrababu Naidu, proved a slippery customer. As did Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, although Samata MPs had been confident that once Fernandes reminded her of his efforts to re-induct her into the nda, she would have little option.
The bjp has been equally indifferent, with its ministers maintaining that the government should not interfere in the commission's working. Only the Bihar bjp MPs were inclined to jump to Fernandes' defence. The party's MPs who rallied around Fernandes were the likes of Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Lal Muni Choubey and Ravi Shankar Prasad.
When the Congress virtually accused Fernandes of having abetted the leakage of the tapes, nda MPs remained quiet.cwc member Ghulam Nabi Azad even went to the extent of saying, "There were two sources, the commission and the MoD. The former says it did not leak the tapes. So it's clear where it came from". However, the Congress' demand for a probe into the leakage of tapes also didn't find any takers.
The Opposition, too, preferred to downplay the fresh revelations. Yet after having lionised Tehelka, they have been deeply embarrassed by its methods of investigation. Congress MP Renuka Chowdhury was hopping mad about the use of commercial sex workers: "Such methods are certainly not justifiable." Another woman MP referred to the Tehelka crew as "rogues and rascals" who "ought to be jailed".
Most MPs felt that the issue of journalistic ethics, raised by the Tehelka episode, bears examination. They are particularly upset by the fact that Tehelka saw it fit to tape the encounters between the army officers and the sex workers, though it didn't add any punch to the story and in fact only detracted from it. The fact that the electronic media does not presently fall within the purview of the Press Council should not be a reason to act irresponsibly and even illegally, they pointed out. Congress MP K.P. Singh Deo was concerned about the impact of the Tehelka expose on the morale of the armed forces. While not holding a brief for Fernandes, MPs across the board agree that the "sleaze" aspect of the Tehelka tapes has affected the image of the army.
Tehelka's defence, as spelt out by Tejpal, is that the website did not publicise the tapes with the sexual encounters but that it was leaked to the media. Says Tejpal: "Someone who wanted to shift the focus from the real issue has obviously leaked the story." However, Tehelka's defence that it filmed the sexual encounter to bolster the story rings a bit hollow, say officials.
While not holding a brief for Tehelka, Congress spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy said "the focus of the investigation should not be lost". There's a chance, albeit a very slim one, that the case could be compromised by the revelation of Tehelka's underhand methods, admitted eminent lawyer Rajeev Dhawan. "It's the Poisoned Tree principle," he says, referring to a legal argument employed in the US (Mapp versus Ohio, 1961). The question it raises is whether evidence derived from a "poisonous" source is admissible in court.
While MP and lawyer R.K. Anand said he felt that the "illegal methods" employed by Tehelka were justifiable because "even the police uses such means", other lawyers felt this was not a valid defence because the powers of the police are statutory and cannot be arrogated to a private citizen. Journalistic espionage, they feel, cannot be treated at par with security espionage, undertaken by intelligence agencies. Basically, legal experts are of the view that Tehelka's activities are "worthy of investigation, if not of prosecution".
The main legal question centres around whether Tehelka can be charged with "procurement" and "running a brothel" within the meaning of the Immoral Trafficking Act. This would be established only if it can be proved that the investigators set aside a room with the intent of perpetrating "sexual abuse for gain".
Whatever the home ministry and the Venkataswami Commission unearth, the expose of Tehelka's methods of investigations has irretrievably damaged its credibility. Hopefully, its findings will not go the same way.
And Ajith Pillai
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