As the sting operation in 2001 on a fake defence deal had just shaken the then NDA government,its defence minister George Fernandes and his companion Jaya Jaitley were in a denial mode but the law minister of the day Arun Jaitley was sure that his party president was not all that innocent.
“I concluded ‘yeh bilkul jhoot account nahin hai’ (this is not an entirely false report),” Jaitley felt after one look at the tape the Tehelka portal had made showing then BJP president Bangaru Laxman receiving wads of currency notes in the party office from an undercover journalist.
“I was sent in to grill Bangaru Laxman. I concluded ‘yeh bilkul jhoota account nahin hai.’ It was decided Bangaru must resign,” Jaitley recounted in an interview to journalist Madhu Trehan,who has recounted it in her 587-page book ‘Tehelka as a Metaphor’ published by Roli Books.
Hours earlier,the Lok Sabha had to be adjourned as opposition members shouted that the word was out in every street that the government was a thief. It was almost as bad in the Rajya Sabha where the members demanded arrest of people shown on the tape.
Jaitley was in the Lok Sabha. By the time he got back to his home,his office had downloaded transcripts of the ‘Operation West End’ and by evening he was prepared to meet Vajpayee,who called him to his office.
Vajpayee’s damage control team waited for Fernandes to arrive. Fernandes delayed the meeting. It was reported that Fernandes did strongly propose that the government should fight it out and he didn’t resigned following Jaya Jaitley’s advice to him.
The following day,a contrary buzz was generated by the government’s spin doctors that Fernandes had offered to resign,the book says.
In another interview to the author,Fernandes said everyone of his colleagues told him that he should not resign.
Jaitley (Jaya) also asked him why he should resign.
“But by now there was an orchestration by the other side; that is,by the Congress,the Marxists and such others allied to them. It started with the government should resign.
“I was not prepared that this government should go and I decided that I shall resign and fight it out. Because I knew that there was nothing in it and all that I needed to do was present the facts and that was all,” he said.
Fernandes said he thought his resignation would save the government which was under attack.
Asked if in retrospect he felt it was a big mistake to resign because it undermined his ability to fight back,he said,”It undermined the fightback,hurt a lot of people who should not have been hurt,one of them being Jaya Jaitley.
“I do feel that the resignation was the biggest mistake. One should have slugged it out and shown these fellows their place,” he said.
Asked why his Samata Party did not support him,Fernandes said some leaders spoke in Parliament and some outside.
“Yes,It is legal. It is absolutely legal. For that matter,any person in the political party…,” he said in reply to Trehan’s question whether it is acceptable for the President of the Samata Party to accept money for the party in his house.
Fernandes said the Tehelka episode has been a watershed in his personal life as well and has changed him.
Asked in what way it had changed him,he said,”In the sense that I have always been a frontline fighter,and for the last three years (I) am being written about as a tainted person. Right across the world,this word has gone. Your capability to do what you wish to do and what you need to do has been affected to a very great extent.”
He said as Defence Minister he never went asking for money at any given time. He kept his distance.
Asked if he thought Jaya might have been wiser to check ‘Operation West End’s’ antecedents before accepting the money,he said,”Jaya has this sense of wanting to help people and that’s it…And you see how they tricked her and despite their tricking her,what did she say? What did she do?
“She didn’t touch the money that’s there on tape. She didn’t say,I will settle your problem,don’t worry. She didn’t say that. Every word she has uttered,I must have said or written those words to thousands of people in my life.”
Fernandes,who briefly lost his job as Defence Minister in the Vajpayee government after the Tehelka expose,says he was devastated that some of his closest colleagues believed that he must have made money in the scam.
“The closest of my colleagues believed that I must have made money. Congressmen and Marxists and such other characters…I can understand such people. But,people who were very close to me in the socialist movement for years together who had worked with me,worked under me,when they thought I had made money…betrayed is not the word. I can never forget this,” Trehan quoted him as saying.
Asked whether he was “devastated,” Fernandes said: “That’s the word; that my own colleagues should talk such rubbish.”
Fernandes said he felt this way because his colleagues in Samata Party and in the socialist movement suspected him.
“(It) Shows how fragile relationships are. How people crowd around you when they think you are powerful and when someone makes a charge against you that is totally beyond all imagination,they go by that. They take the word of the enemy as the right word and they attack you or they run away from you,” he said.