Last week the Supreme Court questioned journalistic sting operations. Were they organized for public interest or to improve TV ratings? The Court added: "Whether they are in public interest will have to be answered one day." Official investigative agencies meanwhile are undeterred by doubts. When it suits them, they rely on the flimsiest evidence gathered from sting operations to launch prosecution. Is this because of zeal to uncover corruption? Hardly. There is far more damaging and clinching evidence in the government’s possession over which the agencies have sat for years.
Information came my way recently of one such piece of evidence exposing corruption at the highest level. It relates to major corruption cases that occurred decades ago, of which available evidence was systematically suppressed. The evidence consists of taped conversation. It was a sting operation, but not by journalists. It was conducted by corrupt politicians for purpose of gaining leverage over their corrupt colleagues. A classic case of thieves falling out, falling in. The information is dynamite. It was not intended for public consumption but for private persuasion.
It surfaced in 1994. In a Kolkata branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) a safe deposit locker remained unopened for a long time. Rent for that locker also remained unpaid. Thereupon bank officials, before witnesses as per procedure, opened the locker. They discovered foreign currency worth Rs 50 lakhs, among some other items. Since apparently unaccounted money in foreign exchange was involved, the bank informed the Directorate of Enforcement.
Preliminary investigation by government sleuths revealed that the locker was rented by a bank executive working in Mumbai. On questioning, he told detectives that he had no knowledge of the contents in the locker. He was related to an important former aide of the Prime Minister who rose later to become a cabinet minister. Detectives verified the claim of relationship to be correct.
Further investigation revealed something far more startling. The other items along with the money included several micro audiocassettes. The cassettes contained secret recordings of conversations among an unsuspecting group of friends. From the recorded conversations, extending over several hours in various tapes, it became clear that the recording occurred some time around 1988-89, when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister. What stunned the detectives was the identity of the participants in the recorded conversation. They were close confidants of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, belonging to its inner circle. The recordings were of a very high level, carried out obviously with state-of-the-art equipment. The conversation was of a low level, such as often occurs among drinking companions. But in course of the conversations, extending over several hours of secret recording made on separate occasions, there were incriminating and clinching pieces of information related to negotiations in the HDW submarine and in the Airbus deals. Both deals were under a cloud. Both were being investigated by CBI.
This information was deemed admissible in a court of law. Two of the participants in the taped conversation had belonged to Indira Gandhi’s inner circle. When the conversation was recorded in 1988-89, both had been marginalized by Rajiv Gandhi. During the conversation they gave away details of their personal knowledge regarding corruption in the HDW submarine deal. Both claimed personal involvement in the deal, and knowledge of how it was clinched. Their talk implicated two other confidants of the dynasty. In another part of the taped conversation both—the former close aide of Indira Gandhi and the member of her charmed inner circle—claimed full knowledge of the details of payoffs made in the Airbus deal. Their talk revealed that a titled NRI business tycoon in London was involved in swinging the deal. It also revealed that half a million pound sterling per plane was paid. Apparently two per cent commission of the contract value went separately to the tycoon. Reference was made in the talk to a senior official in the ministry of civil aviation who had put pressure on the duo having the conversation. Incidentally, that official was treated as a suspect by the CBI in both the HDW and Airbus investigations. When the submarine deal was clinched the said official was serving in the Defence Ministry.
The detectives investigating the tapes were convinced after their probe that the clandestine tapes were jointly organized by the official, who had served in the Civil Aviation and Defence ministries, and an hotelier who had received undue favours from the government. Both were present in the group whose conversation was taped. They hatched the conspiracy in order to derive leverage over the two loquacious participants very close to the dynasty, and, through them, leverage over dynasty members themselves. That the tapes had been used for pressure is evident from the fact that the locker in which they were found was traceable to the aide close to Indira Gandhi; and the contents of the tapes incriminated him. The hotelier died years ago. The former official rose to become a Governor. The former aide, who owned the tapes, became cabinet minister in the Narasimha Rao government.
The discovery of the tapes and the follow-up investigations occurred when Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister. At that time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was his Finance Minister. All the facts pertaining to the tapes and the information gleaned subsequently from the investigation were in full possession of the Revenue Secretary and the Finance Ministry. This evidence is already part of the original case record. It is inconceivable that Dr Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister was unaware of the exposure. Yet he did nothing. Readers might recall that, earlier, this scribe had pointed out his passive role regarding the fake currency scam when around the same time, he was Finance Minister in the Narasimha Rao cabinet. He refused to respond, in that case, to warnings against contracting sub-standard currency printing machines. The warnings had been given by several MPs, including the present Lok Sabha Speaker, Mr Somnath Chatterjee.
Regarding the Airbus and HDW scandals Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s role is more disappointing. After becoming Prime Minister he approved the appointment of the former official, who conspired to tape the incriminating conversations and was himself considered a major suspect in both corruption cases, as a Governor. As Governor, he is above investigation. But on the available evidence the cases can be reopened. The official’s elevation as Governor cannot impede the whole investigation. The Prime Minister must ask himself: Is mute inaction over corruption less reprehensible than corruption itself? This scribe has deliberately refrained from naming names at this stage. But the last on this subject has not yet been heard.
Rajinder Puri can be reached at email@example.com