Debating India


Frame By Frame


Saturday 22 November 2003, by BHAUMIK*Saba Naqvi , KRISHNAN*Murali , PILLAI*Ajith

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition en ligne du samedi 22 novembre 2003.

Images do not lie. Even if they are a sting operation or a political checkmate by the opponent.

"This scandal came as a great favour from God. It is a boon from the heavens."

- Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi on his BJP rival Dilip Singh Judeo caught accepting money on camera

A moustache had become a symbol of political pride in Chhattisgarh ever since Dilip Singh Judeo threatened to shave off his very fine pair if he failed to defeat Ajit Jogi in the assembly polls. But a hidden camera, a grainy television image of cash being handed to him and a bizarre remark about money being equal to God, dashed all Judeo’s dreams of puffing his chest out and twirling that well-groomed moustache. It also sent the BJP, both at the Centre and in the states, reeling in shock. As Jogi said at every public rally thereafter: "Unhone muche nahin/apni aur BJP ki naak kata di (He’s not shaved his moustache but he’s brought dishonour to himself and the BJP)."

Judeo himself cut a sorry picture when the Outlook team went to meet him after sun-down, the day the scandal broke. Slurring, he mouthed several obscenities in Hindi. "To hell with everything. This is a conspiracy hatched by Jogi and anti-Hindu forces. There is only one thing I am good at. Converting people to Hinduism. Wherever there are minorities, there is terrorism. There will be another division of the country. The Northeast will separate, then Kashmir. But people like me who work for the Hindu cause are persecuted," he thundered. There was also something amounting to a tacit admission of guilt when he said: "What is wrong in saying paisa khuda to nahin/lekin khuda ki kasam/ khuda se kam bhi nahin (Money is not god, but by god, it is not lesser than god). " He then went on to recite a well-known Urdu couplet: "Zahid sharab peene de muje masjid mein baith ke/Ya woh jagah bata de jahan par khuda na ho (Allow me to sit in the mosque and drink/Or show me a place where there is no god)."

It was a day (Nov 16) that began with the Sunday edition of the Indian Express running a screaming double deck headline across eight columns on the front page virtually demolishing Judeo. Stills from the VCD showing Judeo with his hands in the till were also front-paged. On the same day, a copy of the VCD was made available to the Hindi news channel Sahara TV. The story surprised and shook readers and viewers nationwide. But rumours that a ’tape’ existed were doing the rounds in BJP circles for the last two days. BJP general-secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told Outlook: "I got to hear from Congress sources that a tape (VCD) existed. We also knew the minister who was to be targeted. In fact, I said as much at a press briefing. Two days later it was all there in the media."

Though the BJP are past masters at damage control, its spin doctors were strangely silent. Images do not lie. Judeo was asked to step down as the minister of state for environment and the CBI was directed to launch an enquiry. Since the Indian Express has refused to reveal the source which made the tapes available to it, the CBI enquiry will have to trace those involved in the production of the VCD from whatever evidence can be gleaned from the 35-minute film. CBI director P.C. Sharma spelt out to Outlook the broad framework of the investigation:

- The authenticity of the recording will first have to be established. Tests will be carried out to ascertain if any voice had been dubbed later.

- Since the room in a Delhi five-star hotel has been identified, the CBI is tracking the person/persons who hired the room.

- The face of the man (Rahul) shown on the tape as handing over the money is not visible. His identity has to be established.

- The conspiracy angle would be integral to the investigations. Questions such as who is behind the recordings and their motive for making it public will be detected.

According to CBI sources, some headway has been made in the investigations. The agency claims to have tracked down Natwar Rateria, Judeo’s loquacious assistant personal secretary who was present when the bribe was paid. He also figures on the VCD and has been missing ever since the scam broke. His interrogation could reveal the identity of the bribe giver. The CBI has also identified the room (822) in the Taj Mansingh Hotel which was booked from Nov 5 to Nov 6 under the name of Raman Jadeja. The bureau believes this is possibly a fictitious name.

While BJP leaders defend the freedom of the press and do not question the Indian Express’ right to publish a scoop, many are raising questions about the motive behind the sting operation and, most critically, the timing of the VCD release to the paper. BJP general-secretary Pramod Mahajan wonders about the "interests" that could have coalesced to ensure that Judeo committed political harakiri even before the race could really begin in Chhattisgarh. "There can be both political and business interests behind it. I don’t rule it out," Mahajan told Outlook. Adds Naqvi: "It is clearly a deep-rooted political conspiracy and the chief beneficiaries are Ajit Jogi and the Congress party. So at this point it appears as if Jogi is involved in the conspiracy. There definitely has to be some business interests involved as well. They either have interests in Chhattisgarh, or are backers of Ajit Jogi and the Congress."

Indian Express maintains it went to press only after it verified the authenticity of the VCD. According to editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta, "The Indian Express, as part of its ongoing investigative coverage of the elections, gathers information from a variety of sources. The VCD was received by us and because it featured images of Union minister Dilip Singh Judeo-in charge of a key ministry-allegedly receiving cash, we decided to investigate it. For, our readers have the right to know. We obviously put it through due repertorial rigour, cross-checking the images and got back to the minister, to his party president, his party’s general-secretary and the Chhattisgarh chief minister."

The Express insists that the source of its report is of marginal importance. But BJP leaders say the identity of the source is critical in this case because of the timing of the VCD’s release. It was made available to the Express a fortnight before the assembly elections in the state and its contents were such that they could influence election results in Chhattisgarh in particular and in the other states where assembly elections are to be held. DPM L.K. Advani noted that the difference between this sting operation and the one done by Tehelka was that in the latter case the identity of those who carried out the operation was known. In the Judeo case, however, it is shrouded in mystery.

Senior BJP leaders admit in private that Judeo, a man who loves the good things in life, was guilty of accepting money, and that it cannot be justified irrespective of the motive of the sting operators.

But they reiterate that the operation’s only purpose was to embarrass and damage the BJP just before the assembly elections. Says a BJP leader, "It is a larger game plan which involves not just this election but also the general elections. One hears there are two more tapes involving the BJP leaders. I’ve been checking with them. They say they’re innocent." The rss too sees a hidden agenda. Says spokesperson Ram Madhav: "This is a conspiracy involving Christian missionaries and the Congress. But one also hears other interests are involved. The full truth will come out after the CBI completes its investigations."

The entire episode has clearly stumped Judeo, the Raja of Jashpur, famed in the BJP and the Sangh parivar for his Ghar Vapsi programme seeking to "reconvert" Christian tribals to Hinduism.He is, in fact, just the sort of man who would walk into a trap. Advani, who landed in the state capital Raipur the day after the scandal broke, had this to say: "Perhaps this is the first time that politics has been reduced to the level of a sting operation. The CBI will not only investigate the charges against Judeo but also who made the tape," he said.

As for Jogi, the dark side to the otherwise charming chief minister is well-known. He is known to be vindictive and ruthless in dealing with political opponents. Though unsubstantiated, stories of Jogi being harsh on those who stand in his way routinely do the rounds of Raipur. Some BJP leaders consider him so diabolic that they describe Madhya Pradesh CM Digvijay Singh as a paragon of virtue compared to him. Say Ramesh Bais, MoS at the Centre and now one of the frontrunners for the post of CM in the event of a BJP victory: "In undivided Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh has been a fierce opponent of ours. We have fought many straightforward political battles with him. But the tactics employed by Jogi are low and hit below the belt."

Indeed, sources in Raipur claim that a tape involving an NCP leader allegedly "in a compromising position" too exists. But the tape is believed to be in such bad taste that no media house would ever consider printing or televising it. And since Jogi is the direct beneficiary of the so called Judeo-kand, most in Raipur seem to believe that people close to him may be behind it. As NCP leader V.C Shukla puts it, "When people who have never faced any charges are suddenly entrapped, you must ask questions. Particularly as the beneficiary of this scandal Ajit Jogi is a cat with several lives who survives every sort of charge from forgery to corruption."

But Jogi himself gets angry when asked whether he pulled strings behind the scenes. "Why do you keep asking me that question. I only heard about it when the local Indian Express correspondent telephoned me to get my reaction the day they were printing the story. I told him I can only react after I have seen the story." What about the overwhelming perception that he may have known about the plan? "Those who are against me now blame Ajit Jogi for everything. If there is an accident they will say Jogi did it, if they sneeze, Jogi did it. I would like to ask you why Indian Express, of all papers, would do me such a favour? Let there be a perception that I am behind it."

Still, there was a curious sequence of events in Raipur the day the story broke.

Initially only the Sahara TV news channel was telecasting the tape. Then as all news channels began clamouring for copies, two pollsters considered friends of Ajit Jogi’s son Amit, began distributing VCDs that they claimed were of a better quality to journalists staying at a central Raipur hotel. Some of the news channels therefore acquired their copies in Raipur which were then uplinked to their head offices in Delhi and Mumbai. Copies of the tape were reportedly made at the Raipur offices of Akash channel, which runs its own 24-hour local news channel, Abhi-Abhi, besides controlling the cable distribution network in the state.

The Akash channel story is a mini-subplot by itself. Run by ’friends’ of the chief minister, the channel is known to ’accidentally’ take entire bouquets off the air if an anti-Jogi story is breaking or if the BJP is getting coverage in the state. For instance, when the local BJP released its manifesto this week and the event was being covered live by all the news channels, the cable network in Chhattisgarh strangely went on the blink. It was miraculously restored when the BJP function was over. At other times, a particular news channel is removed from the bouquet for some days if it has carried an anti-Jogi story.And after the recent scandal broke, it is worth noting that the Abhi-Abhi channel ran the unedited version of the Judeo tape for close to 48 hours.

Given this backdrop, it is easy to understand why many people in Chhattisgarh see a Raipur angle in the Judeo VCD. The Congress, in fact, published huge advertisements in local papers with the cartoon of a drowning Judeo. Next to it was a cartoon of a villager complaining that his milk had soured that morning. Another villager replies: "Ajit Jogi must have done it." A large blurb then states: "Had kar di aapne (This is too much). You have been caught taking a bribe and you blame Ajit Jogi for it! "

The CM, meanwhile, claims to be sanguine about the fact that even after the Judeo explosion, he remains the central issue in the Chhattisgarh election. "Whenever there is a campaign to get rid of one individual, he sweeps the polls. It happened with Indira Gandhi, Jayalalitha, Laloo and even Narendra Modi," he says. But most political observers believe that Chhattisgarh is headed for a photo-finish, because anti-Jogi forces have ganged up in a do-or-die contest. For they know that if Jogi gets another five years, he will only tighten his grip on tribal and other rural pockets of the state. In urban centres, however, Jogi is perceived as a villainous figure. This is understandable as the CM has gone out of his way to disrupt the upper caste political-business nexus that has traditionally run the show in a resource-rich region.

A fine orator who speaks in all the various Chhattisgarhi dialects, Jogi claims that the rural poor will see him through. "I don’t believe in opinion polls as they reflect an urban bias," he says. But since the margins of victory in the last assembly polls in undivided MP were narrow, and the NCP is expected to cut some of the Congress vote, the ultimate outcome will really depend on what percentage of rural and urban voters go out to cast their ballots. To ensure his win, Jogi will have to see to it that people living in far-flung villages also reach the polling booth. But with the Judeo "heavenly boon" landing in his lap, the Jogi march may have again picked up momentum, giving the Congress a narrow edge.

For there is little doubt that from launching an offensive against Jogi, the BJP has gone on the defensive. The party is trying to compensate by getting top-rung leaders like Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, DPM L.K. Advani, Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and Narendra Modi to campaign intensively in the state. The Congress campaign, however, rests entirely on Jogi’s shoulders. He can draw some satisfaction from the fact that he has become a campaign issue even outside Chhattisgarh. Vajpayee, for instance, kicked off his campaign in Rajasthan with an attack on the Chhattisgarh CM, saying the Congress was applying double standards by not making him resign in spite of several charges against him.

But once the dust of these polls settles down, the BJP will have to stop agonising over Jogi and do some serious calculation of how much Judeo may have damaged the party’s credibility at a national level. Even BJP leader Arun Jaitley says: "Though the whole thing smacks of a sting operation and while it’s true that political parties collect funds for electioneering, no central minister should go to a hotel room to personally collect cash."

That grainy image was indeed a stark reminder of declining moral standards in India’s volatile democracy. And the BJP can no longer claim to be a party with a difference.