ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Cancer It Is

I n his address to the nation on Friday on the situation arising out of the Tehelka disclosures, the prime minister spoke in two voices. In the earlier part of the address he came close to echoing the position taken by numerous other spokespersons on behalf of the government and the ruling NDA, casting doubt on the motivations of those responsible for giving currency to the allegations against the government and emphasising the alleged threat to the country’s security and economic stability as a result. “Many a country has been destabilised by such gales”, as he put it. Towards the end of his speech, however, the prime minister struck a more reflective, non-partisan note. He said: “In an important sense, what has come into view goes beyond security; the ease with which persons posing as arms merchants gained access to our defence personnel and politicians shows how far the cancer has spread”.

In his address to the nation on Friday on the situation arising out of the Tehelka disclosures, the prime minister spoke in two voices. In the earlier part of the address he came close to echoing the position taken by numerous other spokespersons on behalf of the government and the ruling NDA, casting doubt on the motivations of those responsible for giving currency to the allegations against the government and emphasising the alleged threat to the country’s security and economic stability as a result. “Many a country has been destabilised by such gales”, as he put it. Towards the end of his speech, however, the prime minister struck a more reflective, non-partisan note. He said: “In an important sense, what has come into view goes beyond security; the ease with which persons posing as arms merchants gained access to our defence personnel and politicians shows how far the cancer has spread”. This, of course, is the true, chilling import of the Tehelka episode, not the culpability of particular politicians and  officials. This is also why the statement by George Fernandes, broadcast on Doordarshan on Thursday after his resignation as defence minister, lacked credibility and was disingenuously self-serving, in large parts in fact trivial. It passes comprehension that Fernandes seriously expected it to be believed that he had effectively dealt with corruption and undue influence in defence procurement and contracts by having installed “complaint boxes at many places in the ministry of defence and other defence offices in Delhi” or by requiring that in every defence contract “the party contracted with has to certify in the contract itself that it has not employed any agents or middlemen”. This determination, to the very end, to sweep all dirt under the carpet (“there are black sheep in every organisation and it is quite possible that some individuals in this vast machinery of government could have been corrupted”) is all of a piece with his initial refusal, as widely reported in the media, to accept ministerial responsibility for what had been brought to light in the department under his charge.

The analogy of “cancer”, appropriately employed by the prime minister, however, raises doubt about what precisely is expected to be achieved by the “inquiry by a sitting or retired judge of the Supreme Court”, to be completed within four months, which the prime minister has put forward as the government’s principal constructive response to the Tehelka revelations. While it undoubtedly sounds politically correct to affirm, as the prime minister did, that “the government shall do everything necessary to bring everyone guilty to account – howsoever high or low”, in this instance that is hardly the heart of the matter. The point is not to establish ‘guilt’ through a judicial inquiry. What was said and done by the different individuals involved is there on tape; in any case there was no actual deal. The significance of the evidence captured on tape is in the lurid light it throws on the mores of the government, the defence department in particular, and the political system. As the prime minister recognised in his Friday’s address, what is needed is to “initiate reforms across the whole range of our political and administrative life”.

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