For whom the bell tolls
THE most unusual story I heard in the last eight most unusual weeks of my life came to me from a cameraman, an Indian who visited my office with an American crew. After the last question had been asked and answered – no different from a hundred other last questions and answers – and the interviewer was switching to a loose and chatty mode, the cameraman, winding up his wires, said tentatively, ‘Sir I want to tell you a story before we go. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.’
The cameraman had just come back from eastern Uttar Pradesh, after visiting his village in Jaunpur. There, as in the cities, the chaupal conversations had revolved around the Tehelka findings. But there was an interesting difference. There, in the crevices of eastern U.P., the denizens had no understanding of the medium the expose had taken place in. They had seen it on TV; they’d read it up in the papers; but they knew there was a new kind of entity that was responsible for the story. And they were clueless about it, clueless about the .com and the world wide web.
There was absolutely nothing in their experience or their imagination that could help them make any sense of a website or the internet. So they had conjured up a construct. Tehelka, for them, was a device in which subka bhrashtachar nanga ho jaata hai. A kind of x-ray machine which exposed naked anyone’s corruptions the moment they came in front of it. The talk there, said the cameraman from Jaunpur, was that this, the threat of the corruption-exposing machine, was the reason the prime minister had not appeared in public for the first few days after the scam broke.
Nothing had prepared us for the avalanche of energies that were triggered off by Operation West End. For months we had known that we had chanced upon a story of great gravity and impact. For months our dread had grown steadily as it became increasingly clear that this was not a story that stopped at a given point and offered itself up for analysis, criticism and policing. It was a story that went all the way to the top, and left little scope for face-saving manoeuvres. We couldn’t get one part of the governmental hierarchy to police another, inferior, part of it: by indicting everyone we were risking taking on everyone, the entire system, all of government. My standard line to Aniruddha Bahal, who masterminded the investigation used to be, ‘We’ll blow the whistle, but who’s going to police this?’
Faced with this spectre, we decided to keep our eyes close to the ground: maintain a narrow frame of reference, purely journalistic; not worry about who would gain, lose, and other consequences; stay with the story, just the story, and deliver it the moment it was done. So there were two reasons we were not prepared for the scale of the fallout. One, we deliberately kept ourselves from thinking about it. And, two, like the residents of Jaunpur, there was nothing in our experience that could have helped us anticipate it.
Battle cry: The sacred cow the middlemen milked
Operation West End began like most stories in a quiet, humble way. In August 2000, last year, Aniruddha Bahal, coming off the disappointment of a major scoop he had been working on for the last three months (it had seen him disappear for weeks in pursuit of the story), floated the idea of an investigation into the dubious nature of defence purchases, and the general porousness of even a ministry as sensitive as defence. Bahal has the two traits that distinguish outstanding reporters: great moral and physical courage, and a preternatural nose for the rot. When Indian journos were writing impossibly florid accounts of the wondrous deeds of our cricketers, it was Bahal who first smelt the stench of match-fixing. When the establishment was trying to cordon off defence as a holy cow, it was Bahal who intuited that it was no more sacred than the average Indian shrine where the pandas, the keepers of the idol, rip the devotees of their few rupees, swiftly and seamlessly converting devotional piety into personal profit.
The story idea of Operation West End got firmed up in the context of several things. The most recent provocation was the fire at the Bharatpur ammunition depot that had trashed crores worth of equipment. The rumour mills suggested it was basically a setup to destroy inferior purchases. The other things on our mind were the nagging questions that continued to trail the end of the Kargil war. Both Bahal and I had been at Outlook during the Kargil war, and as the magazine’s managing editor I had some role to play in Outlook’s editorial policy on the conflict. Our position had been very clear. During the course of the war we kept our nationalism within the journalistic frame: we were careful to avoid stories and pictures that could demoralize our troops or the war effort.
But the moment the conflict was over, we switched to the critical, questioning stance we construe as good journalism and began to ask all the uncomfortable questions that were jumping out at all of us. For us the sum total of the picture was: the troops did a great job, but the leadership, military and civilian, tripped up seriously. Of course in no time at all the establishment’s stormtroopers were in action trying to obfuscate the questions in a web of denials, countercharges and so on. Yet the questions stuck, and most people were left with the lingering feeling that all was not well with our defence establishment.
The third factor prompting the story was an old one, the fifteen-year old Bofors-fuelled controversy about kickbacks in defence deals. This was a controversy that had ravaged Indian public life for years, and had led in 1989 to a ban on defence middlemen. Since then on different occasions, different defence ministers, including George Fernandes last year, had asserted that their inquiries revealed there were no more defence middlemen operating in India. But the truth that everyone of the chattering power elite of Delhi knows is that the city crawls with defence middlemen; that the best farmhouses that gird the city are owned by defence middlemen; the most expensive cars are driven by defence middlemen; the most lavish parties thrown by them. They may work under different guises and label themselves other things, but then no crook nails a plaque on his wall saying ‘crook’.
Where eagles dare: Fearlessness and loathing in the land of the crooked
It was in the backdrop of all this – Kargil, Bharatpur, the middlemen controversy – that Bahal and his Falstaffian sidekick, Samuel Mathew, an investigative reporter of extraordinary grit and resourcefulness, began their story. Over the course of the first few weeks they did some background sleuthing and chanced upon a defence product that was in queue for purchase. It was something called a hand held thermal camera.
Neither of them knew anything about the product. They downloaded information on it from the net, and with the help of Tehelka’s design department created a brochure for it. Designed it in-house, printed it in-house. They also formed a dummy company and named it West End International. This entire phase of the operation was full of literary allusions that no one has discovered so far. The thermal camera was christened Lepak by Bahal, a reference to the Lepak gun which can glue together formations of fighter planes in the sky that Yossarian waxes about in Catch-22. The logo of West End International was taken from a book-jacket that the design department had made as a dummy presentation for one of V.S. Naipaul’s books.
Armed with this rudimentary paraphernalia, Bahal and Mathew sailed into one of the most audacious journalistic stings ever. They started at the bottom of the food chain, with their first contact being a section officer who earned Rs 2000 off them. And then before they knew it they were sucked into a web of graft and deal-makers. Over the next few months the soul of the system bared itself open to them. It was an ugly sight, based only on the principle of greed. Everyone, from army officers, bureaucrats, defence dealers and politicians were willing to help push anything as long as there was a kickback in the offing. The avarice was naked, completely transparent: percentages and commissions were openly discussed; help of all kinds in circumventing the system was generously offered; in a spirit of camaraderie, secrets of other dubious deals were served up; credentials were established by flaunting rosters of personal corruption. There was no trace of shame, no intrusions of conscience.
Tyros in matters of defence hardware, totally ignorant of the subtleties of financial skulduggery, Bahal and Mathew – particularly Mathew – made enough gaffes to render some moments into pure slapstick. In one meeting, asked about West End’s bank, Mathew replied Thomas Cook. On another occasion he described the head office of the company as based in Manchester United. My own favourite is his answer to a question about the range of the thermal binocular. ‘Unlimited,’ says Mathew cheerily. ‘Unlimited?’ goggles the interlocutor. ‘Well, it blurs after a point,’ admits Mathew. Arundhati Roy’s favourite moment is Mathew’s description of the product range of his company. It is involved, he says, in ‘making typical type of bombs.’
To my mind, there are only two explanations for this incredible lack of discernment on the part of those who manned the defence gravy train. The first is that the greed was so blinding that they could see nothing else. The second is that deals of this kind were so quotidian, so everyday that there was no reason for anyone to suspect anything. But it would be skewed to conclude that the entire operation was a vaudeville affair, starring a couple of bumbling reporters.
The truth is that Bahal and Mathew planned each sting with meticulous care (in fact neither took a single day off for six months). Bahal would give thorough briefings to Mathew, who carried out most of the stings. The devices would be checked and re-checked (in the knowledge that they could land one set of confessions, or capture the transaction of a deal, only once). The venues would be recceed in advance. They would tick off detailed checklists (which grew more elaborate as the cast of characters increased and with it the possibilities of an unintentional gaffe). And having done all that both of them would turn to God. Before every operation, Mathew would visit the church, and Bahal would nip into a temple.
Even with God on their side, Bahal and Mathew had to display exceptional courage. People keep asking me about the cameras the team used. All that is idiot stuff, not rocket science. The cameras are just low-end devices which can be purchased or put together at any electronics outlet. The key is the gumption of those who used it. Had they been discovered at any point the consequences could have been very serious. You have to only imagine what could have happened if Mathew had been caught out at the defence minister’s house, all wired up. They would have doubtless taken him to the cleaners.
The longest day: The story is over; long live the story
The truth is there was continual tension, and it mounted with every passing month as the final contours of the story began to reveal itself. By the time Bahal and Mathew nailed Bangaru Laxman and walked out of his room with a demand of US $30,000 ringing in their ears, it was January 2000, and the story had pretty much played itself out. To proceed any further we needed two things: more money, and the actual product, the thermal hand held camera. And since we had neither, the curtains were pulled down on the fieldwork by the middle of January and the tedious task of transcribing, scripting and editing the evidence began.
Two large rooms in our office were cordoned off, their windows blacked out with opaque cardboard. Till now a mere half dozen of us in the office had known of the investigation; now fifteen staffers were handpicked from different departments – television, investigations team, and Tehelka – and conscripted for transcribing the almost ninety hours of tape. This entire team worked around the clock, in shifts, in total secrecy – with Bahal administering the omerta every day. No sooner did the thick bound transcripts begin to emerge that Bahal began to script the story. When edited, the first cut clocked in at over seven hours. Bahal then took another go at it, and ruthlessly hacked it down to a little over four hours.
The general consensus was that even this was too long for anyone to sit through. With song, dance, hero, heroine, villain, a Hindi film could become tedious at under three hours. Our earlier investigation, Fallen Heroes, into matchfixing in cricket, had been just an hour-and-a-half long and had the attraction of starring famous players, and a subject everyone was crazy about. In the case of Operation West End the dramatis personae consisted largely of unknowns, and the subject matter was far less accessible and exciting. Faced by this we took a decision that strengthened our belief and resolve in what we were doing. We decided the story was way too serious and went beyond the normal issues of mass media: viewer interest, accessibility, attention spans, and so on. We decided we would give the story the space it needed to establish itself. If it needed more than four hours to play out and prove its findings, then so be it.
(That decision was to prove critical. It freed us up. Over the coming weeks as the odds against us mounted, as pressures of investments, funding, friends, foes, ethics, motives, legal notices, threats, phone tapping, surveillance et al grew, we took refuge in the calm certainty of the story. We were journalists and had done a journalistic investigation, and that, in sum, was it. All the other shrapnel flying around couldn’t damage that core truth.)
The final tape was ready by the after-noon of 12 March. In less than 24 hours, on the afternoon of 13 March, we broke the story, screening it in the ballroom of the Imperial Hotel in Connaught Place. The screening was scheduled for 1.30 p.m. The editors at Tehelka arrived at nine at the Tehelka office and began to punch the phones. I made a couple of mandatory calls, one each to Amitabh Bachchan and Shankar Sharma of First Global, our first round investors. Neither was told the details of the story; just that we were breaking a very important story in the afternoon. We had gotten so far, but we were still worried. In a display of amazing commitment the twenty odd people who had worked on preparing the tapes had maintained the omerta, but there was always the fear of the last minute slip.
The same morning I also went and personally met half a dozen important people – none of them politicians. We may have been naive but we were not so foolish as to be unaware of the sheer gravity of what we were doing. We were also not unaware of the entrenched and vested interests our story would end up hurting. I felt the need to make sure that nothing – no envy or doubt – muddied the story once it broke. I also felt the need to rally the good behind us.
But I have to confess that we were on tenterhooks till the screening actually began. About 300-odd people – among them retired generals, bureaucrats, mediapeople, and then as word spread, politicians – showed up for the screening, not quite sure what to expect. And then as the tapes began to roll, as the story of Operation West End began to seep into the public domain, the tension began to flow out of us. Now nothing could pre-empt us, nothing could trip up the story. For better or worse, it would soon cease to be our sole and onerous responsibility. Our duties were done; our work was over. The story was out there, and was now everyone’s duty and responsibility.
The naked and the dead: Storm-troopers at large; the road not taken
It didn’t quite turn out like that. True, the story did dominate the public domain, and ended up being claimed by everybody – politicians, public, media. But, sadly, it did not get quite as detached from us as we had imagined. At the press conference, after screening the investigation, we had made it clear that as far as we were concerned our role was over. We had followed a story, it had turned out to be a good story, we had broken it, and we were now out of it. The politics of it did not concern us. We also said we did not set out to get any politician, the story led us there: it led the reporters to Bangaru Laxman and Jaya Jaitly, characters who didn’t exist in our mindspace when the story began. We also said that we had nothing against the BJP or the Samata Party. We were sure had this investigation been carried out in any other regime – a Congress or Third Front government – according to us the chances were very high the results would have been the same. The problems we’d unearthed were endemic, and a wake-up call to everyone.
We repeated our independent stance ad nauseum over the next many weeks, but everyone had stopped listening. The Congress and other opposition parties were with predictable cynicism trying to extract any kind of mileage from it (and doing poorly as ever), but it was the BJP’s strangely cussed, almost immoral reaction that was the most disappointing. The party and the prime minister – a man many of us admire – felt no compulsion to display a moral core.
The moral high-ground of governance was abandoned to indulge in some inter-party bickering. Ill-conceived attempts were made to paint it as a ruling party versus opposition game. Precisely what it was not. First and last it was a story about corruption and decay. This was not like Bofors or dozens of other similar controversies. This was not one political party casting allegations at another. This was a purely journalistic story, with no trace of politics in it. There was also no web of confusing arguments and gray areas you had to steer yourself through. Operation West End was not about accusations. It was about evidence. People had heard it. And seen it.
And by any reckoning what had been seen and heard was distressing. The picture was so perverse it demanded a modicum of contrition: at one end of the frame very poor soldiers serving out the prime of their lives in the most inhospitable conditions for a few thousand rupees a month; and at the other, sleazy fatcats cutting dubious deals worth hundreds of crores in Delhi. To then deny it all, to try and oilily slither past a people waiting for some answers, was, in my opinion, a grave mistake. The naked must be honest: there is some grace, explanation and redemption in that.
In the long run, I don’t think the Tehelka expose will do the ruling party as much damage as will the party’s handling of the entire affair, its rather sad response to the tapes. The spectacle of a much-loved prime minister evading and then denying vivid proof of corruption was a deeply diminishing one. It was a wounding reminder that we must never expect too much of our leaders, a reminder once again that there is no higher conscience we can appeal to. In the pond of Indian politics and power, the conscience is an eel forever wriggling out of grasp.
Had the prime minister simply admitted that yes, something was gravely wrong. Yes, the guilty would be brought to book. Yes, they remained committed to weeding out corruption, it would have buoyed the national mood. Even if he had then gone on to do nothing. When we don’t get action, we at least still need words. When we get neither, we are left with nothing.
Catch 22: Half lessons from half- finished battles
Yet, unexpectedly, we may be left with something.
By the time we had finished with all our explanations (the detective in the dock, even as the thief posted queries)...
none; it was a purely journalistic story
none; not political, not business
owned and managed by media professionals
legitimate; time-tested; reporters and spycams
above board; did not pry into anyone’s private life; only exposed the abuse of public money and public office...
By the time we had finished with our explanations, the story had become much larger than anything we had done. We watched it acquire its own life with as much awe as anybody else. When I went to speak at JNU – in an electric atmosphere, where agitated, highly informed students were unwilling to listen to K.R. Malkani’s facile excuses – I said if the story was the size of the pencil I was holding, then the energies that had been sparked off were bigger than the JNU campus (it sprawls over park and ravine, to those who don’t know). We believe that. All we did was a story. The staggering goodwill we have received, the tsunami of reactions that have followed have constituted easily the most humbling experience of our lives. To be stopped on the road, in restaurants, airports and be thanked by unknown people is way more than any journalist expects for anything he does.
Making sense of this scale of response is difficult. I have applied the pop psychology that is every mass media person’s stock-in-trade. Is it that we, as a people, have become so desperately cynical that even a pinprick of light seems like a big ray of hope? Or is the outrage due to the fact that Operation West End holds up a mirror to ourselves, and the image of ourselves we see is really ugly? Or is it that personal and public degeneration have finally hit a critical mass and the ready to burst dam has felt the first jackhammer rattle its concrete?
More qualified people will make better sense of the phenomenon, but I have some sense of the residual impact of Operation West End. The most astonishing in my opinion is the fact that corruption has once again become an issue in India. For the last decade – since V.P. Singh fought the 1989 election on the Bofors issue – corruption has been a non-issue. It seemed as if we’d given up on it. But suddenly it is the one thing that is dominating private and public discourse. At least we see it once again – even if fleetingly – for the aberration it is.
The second perhaps important impact has a more incestuous air. The story will hopefully serve as a reminder to all of us of the continuing power of journalism. It is a reminder that good stories can make a difference, a lesson most of us had forgotten in the last ten years (including this writer who has occupied several senior editorial positions in this period). It’s a nice thought that if Indian journalism broke four major stories like this every year, people in public life would be forced to clean up their acts. In a way it is also a reminder that in a poor democracy like ours the press has a quintessentially scrappy, adversarial role that should never be diluted.
(Curiously, in the weeks following the story any number of white journalists who came to see me would ask why India never had any sexual scandals. For me the answer is simple: we are a very poor country, and in the hierarchy of scandals, the only really important scandals are the financial ones. Money misused, money siphoned off, money wasted – these are the things that hurt us. The sex scandal comes way down in the hierarchy. It means nothing, concerns no one, does not exist in the public domain. It is basically a first world indulgence, a means to group voyeurism and artificial excitement).
We, the media, tend to make oracles of anyone in the news. Fashion designers and beauty queens are asked to comment on everything, from food to politics, and they do, with grace and authority. So, my fellow-journalists inevitably deliver the coup de grace and ask me, what can be done? That the rot runs so deep, how can it be reversed?
Ihave no idea. Or at least no better than the next guy. I can only think of the same cliches. Claw back the credibility of the key institutions: the police, the judiciary, the media. In other words, don’t expect self-restraint to solve the problem, build in enough deterrence. Then the next cliche: start with yourself, and try and call a halt to corruptions at a personal level. I confess I do amuse myself sometimes with fanciful ideas: if in a hundred years of the last century we could go from being a feudal people to a colonial state to an independent democracy, can we not in the next fifty years go from degradation and corruption to some state of grace?
When we launched Tehelka last year we made some immodest claims. We said we wanted to rediscover the distinction between journalism, public relations, and entertainment. A distinction that had been blurred in the nineties by a combination of satellite television, colour pages in the newspapers, and the first giddiness of liberal consumerism. Also by the co-options of politics and business. By the end of the nineties, every senior journalist, every publication, could be identified with a political party or a business house. We said we too loved trivia, we too had friends among politicians and businessmen, but we believed that the core of journalism was a very serious one. It was built on the bedrock of uncomfortable questions, not comfortable alignments, nor pretty sentences or pretty pictures.
Since I in particular was a journalist of the early eighties, I made some loud claims about trying to bring back the hard journalism of the eighties. A decade when all the major issues of the day were centred in the public domain by print journalists. Not just centred, but scrapped and fought over. It has been a long, arduous and exhilarating year at Tehelka. There are things we’ve managed to pull off, and others that have just bested us. And then there have been things we could have never bargained for. Even as I write this the air is thick with rumours of plots to bump off some of us, and the television behind me informs me the Delhi police has just picked up six contract criminals commissioned to kill me. Bahal and Samuel inevitably live under as great a threat. The only way we deal with it is to not think about it.
We think about the stuff that is harder still: how to make both journalism and the business of journalism work? One we have some sense of, the other we are perilously discovering. The odds against a group of journalists like us are long. But we are determined to give it our all. Operation West End is over; Operation Hang-In-There is on.
Like the residents of Jaunpur, there is nothing in our experience or imagination that can tell us how it will all finally unfold.