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Coffingate, corruption and an escape

The Vajpayee years saw their share of scandal — but there were victories too, such as the decision not to send troops to Iraq.

Written by Inder Malhotra | Updated: July 13, 2015 12:51:27 am
Kargil War, Kargil coffins scam, coffin scam, coffingate, kargil coffingate, BJP government, George Fernandes, Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Inder Malhotra column, ie column, indian express column Atal Bihari Vajpayee

As was only to be expected, the Kargil War conferred kudos on both the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government of the National Democratic Alliance and the armed forces. Unfortunately, however, this was not the entire story. There was also a somewhat dark side to it. The war in Kargil and surrounding heights was the first in South Asia to be televised. The people, therefore, witnessed in their homes not only acts of great bravery on the high mountains but also the funerals, with full military honours, of the nearly 500 officers and men who had made the ultimate sacrifice to throw the Pakistani invaders out. Unlike in the past, the flag-draped coffins of the heroes were flown to each one’s village or hometown, and kept in a prominent spot to enable families, friends and admirers to pay their last homage to those being cremated or buried. This had led to a wave of national pride. At the same time, it was discovered that the hurriedly crafted wooden coffins were not usable on this occasion. So a number of metallic coffins were bought from Israel, obviously in a hurry, because the funerals could not be put on hold.

Consequently, established procedures could not be followed. Many therefore alleged that the purchase of the coffins was a scam and called it “coffingate”, as has been the custom with every scandal since Richard Nixon’s Watergate burglary. Understandably, Defence Minister George Fernandes was the main target of the critics.

To make matters worse, a news magazine, Tehelka, released the videos of its elaborate string operation on corruption in both the government and the parties in the ruling coalition. Two recordings were mortifying for the BJP. In the first, the saffron party’s then president, Bangaru Laxman, was seen accepting a bundle of currency notes — both rupees and US dollars — and putting it in the drawer of his desk. The second heavily compromised leader was Fernandes, already under heavy attack over “coffingate”. To record it, the investigators of the magazine, masquerading as arms dealers, met a high functionary of Fernandes’s party at the defence minister’s house and complained to her that the defence ministry’s bureaucrats were discriminating against them and rejecting their sound offers. She promised them that this would be conveyed to “sahib’s office”. The “arms dealers” then wanted to contribute to the funds the defence minister’s party needed to hold a conference. They were told to deal with the party treasurer, who was conveniently present.

After these disclosures, both the party president and the defence minister were left with no option but to resign. However, in Fernandes’s case, the BJP leadership made it clear that he would be back in the cabinet if the inquiry that had been ordered proved him to be innocent. No wonder, the country was startled when, long before the inquiry’s completion, Fernandes was back in his old office in South Block. Almost all commentators mocked “the second coronation of King George”.

And then followed what many have called the 2002 “pogrom” in Gujarat. In his latest book, the former chief of India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, and Vajpayee’s confidant, A.S. Dulat, has recorded that when he asked Atalji about the cause of the BJP’s unexpected defeat in the 2004 parliamentary election, he had replied: “Gujarat was mishandled.” It is no secret that even at that time Vajpayee wanted the then chief minister of Gujarat to resign but powerful leaders of the party and the RSS didn’t let this happen. In fact, Narendra Modi remained chief minister of the state until his spectacular election as PM in May 2014.

One of Vajpayee’s commendable achievements was that he had maintained cordial relations with the principal opposition party, the Congress. There was a smooth backchannel line of communication between him and Sonia Gandhi through Brajesh Mishra who, as the prime minister’s principal secretary as well as national security advisor, wielded enormous power, and Natwar Singh, later to be Manmohan Singh’s foreign minister. Relations between the two mainstream parties deteriorated badly only after May 2004 — when, thanks to its slogan, India Shining, the BJP believed that the Congress had somehow cheated it out of power. Since the “compulsions of coalition politics” had led to the inclusion of some “tainted” politicians in the UPA’s cabinet, the BJP boycotted the entire budget session of Parliament. Consequently, the budget was passed without a single minute’s discussion. Since then things have worsened because of the Congress’s shattering defeat last year, which has reduced its tally in the Lok Sabha to 44.

However, for as long as the decency of dialogue between the two sides persisted, Vajpayee put it to excellent use. For instance, while following a policy of improving relations with America, he remained unwilling to do everything the US wanted him to. Today, the Americans admit that their invasion of Iraq in 2003 is responsible for what is happening there, and in Syria. Also the grounds for the invasion were demonstrably false. Then US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s testimony to the UN Security Council that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” was an essay in mass deception. Many BJP leaders, including L.K. Advani, were in favour of doing America’s bidding. So was the army leadership. Its ostensible argument was that India would get access to high technology usually denied to it. The real attraction, however, was the much higher salary during a foreign assignment. However, Vajpayee brilliantly cut the ground from under their feet. When the Congress conveyed to him that Indian troops must not be sent to Iraq, he told them to make their demand louder. And then he used Guru Nanak’s birthday to go to Gurdwara Bangla Sahib and remind his audience that the founder of the Sikh religion was the greatest Indian to have visited Iraq. His message, the PM emphasised, was not war but peace.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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