When a journalist of the eminence of Inder Malhotra presents a political analysis (‘Coffingate, corruption and an escape’, The Indian Express, July 13), claiming that former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee turned a blind eye to corruption in defence dealings but, due to excellent back-channel relations with Sonia Gandhi, was able to achieve success in many aspects of foreign policy, it needs a considered response. His section on supposed scams in the purchase of coffins for martyrs of the Kargil War, as well as theories propagated at that time by Tehelka journalists is an unfortunate mass of misinterpretation, half-facts and fiction. While everyone is entitled to theories, a hazy, superficial and personal reinterpretation of what the writer thinks happened 15 years ago cannot be taken as a serious historical assessment.
Everyone loves adding the word “gate” to anything perceived as a scam, the latest being “Lalitgate”. Watergate was not a scam about water, so the sooner we end this silly nomenclature the better. Caskets, not coffins, were on the purchase radar even before the NDA came to power.
Due to the Kargil War and the utter shabbiness of the earlier methods of transporting the mortal remains of those killed in action, the matter of purchasing good-quality aluminium caskets was revived. A typographical error — the word “gauge” became “kg” in the purchase order — resulted in the delivery of the correct product with the wrong specifications and the miscalculation of payments. The uproar that followed did not match the error of a middle-level defence officer. There was no question of established procedures not being followed, as the writer claims. The CBI absolved George Fernandes of involvement or wrongdoing, and that too under the UPA dispensation. The CBI report was covered in a small column of the Economic Times but was ignored by all those who had been barking earlier.
Purchase orders of under Rs 5 crore never go to the minister’s desk for approval. Thus, the targeting of Fernandes was entirely mischievous and misdirected. How can a balanced journalist like Malhotra say that “understandably” Fernandes was the target. Did he not notice that it was Sonia Gandhi who led the charge against the NDA, shouting “kafan chor” every time Fernandes got up to speak? No politician or journalist cared to examine the official documents put out by Fernandes. There was never a “coffingate”, except in the minds of the Congress and gullible journalists.
Referring to the Tehelka episodes, while Malhotra names Bangaru Laxman, he delicately leaves out my name while claiming Fernandes was “heavily compromised” by me in the Tehelka allegations. He relates that “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’.” Not so. Anyone who has read the transcripts would know that those strangers were repeatedly told by me to follow procedure, and only if they didn’t get a reasonable response or if unfair practices were taking place would I consider doing anything.
Even then, I would only request sahib’s office that all persons should have a level playing field. In my mind, this is honest public-dealing. The so-called arms dealers did not subsequently offer a contribution to the party. They cleverly introduced themselves as people in electronics at the very beginning, and then in passing mentioned that they had brought something for the party. All this was before there was any talk of defence favours, so there was no “scam”. Malhotra shockingly says I told them to deal with the national treasurer, “who was conveniently present”.
But there was no mention of a “national treasurer” in the tapes, who was, in any case, not present. A party president is legally entitled to accept donations, which I did not take in this case. The imposter was asked to send the donation to Mysore, to which he readily agreed but eventually did not do. A case on this matter has gone on in five courtrooms presided over by eight judges for over nine years — with no end in sight. Till the truth comes out, persons like this esteemed journalist should not devise their own version of events or pronounce their verdict.
Malhotra gleefully writes, “almost all commentators mocked ‘the second coronation of King George’”. No such comments are on record, unless ugly gossip resonates in his mind as history. Vajpayee had immense faith in Fernandes’s integrity and patriotism, and brought him back to the ministry in the national interest when regional security was threatened after 9/11. It is unfair to raise imaginary issues when Fernandes was never adversely charged. Sadly, today he has no memory and is unable to speak for himself.
The writer is former president of the Samata Party