Laxman: Yes. You will bring cash?
Investor in Tehelka, Devina Mehra’s statement when her husband Shankar Sharma was put in jail: “Now you realize that anybody out there is only there because nobody wants you inside (jail). Any time somebody in power wants you inside, you can be inside.”
Bangaru Laxman holds the unique distinction of being the only politician so far convicted for the corruption exposed by Tehelka in Operation West End. Laxman was shown on camera in the Operation West End tapes accepting Rs 1 lakh from the Tehelka operative.
On April 28, 2012, Special CBI judge Kanwal Jeet Arora held 72-year-old Laxman guilty under the anti-corruption law that allows a maximum of five years in jail for taking a bribe.
West End was a fake company created by the Tehelka investigating team, Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel to catch on camera bribes they offered to politicians, bureaucrats, army officers and arms dealers. The team offered them invented products from fake arms dealers to recommend a contract to the defence ministry for the Army.
On March 16, 2001, the BJP created The Commission on Inquiry on Tehelka which did little but create a platform for the lawyers of all the corrupt on tape to relentlessly go after the Tehelka team. The journalists became the accused. The investors of Tehelka, Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra suffered the worst harassment of all. Politicians are wary of troubling journalists as human rights activists and the journalist community reacts violently. They always go after the owners of the publication. Who cares about businessmen? Shankar and Devina had their properties attached and their offices and homes raided 26 times. All their branch offices closed down, they were banned from trading on the stock exchange – which is their livelihood – and their bank accounts were frozen. They received over 300 summons for personal appearances from various departments and agencies of the government, sometimes at the same time and day at different locations. The Income Tax Department, the Enforcement Directorate, the Excise Department, the Department of Company Affairs and the Reserve Bank of India all investigated Shankar and Devina. 22 cases were filed against them under the Companies Act, plus one FERA case and five FERA civil proceedings. Shankar’s passport was confiscated and it took him a year to retrieve it. They were physically detained three times and Shankar went to jail for nine weeks without bail under a law that had been repealed a year and half earlier by Parliament. There is a detailed report of this in Chapter 19 – Enforcement Inferno in the book Prism Me a Lie, Tell Me a Truth-Tehelka As Metaphor.
Operation West End was put in the public domain on March 13, 2001. The BJP government approved of the setting up of the Commission of Inquiry on March 16, 2001. On October 4, 2004, I received a call from Jaya Jaitly: “So you have a juicy ending for your book”, she said with a bitter edge to her voice. The law minister in the UPA government had announced that his government would not grant an extension to the Commission on Tehelka.
What impact did Operation West End have? It created a new form of journalism. A very thin line was created between journalism for the public’s benefit and invasion into privacy and voyeuristic journalism. The old team of Aniruddha Bahal and Mathew Samuel disbanded and stepped away from Tarun Tejpal’s Tehelka. Tarun became known for investigative and courageous journalism though he did no investigation at all. He took the brand and created a print magazine. Aniruddha started his own company Cobra Post, which freelances and continues to do stings and investigations. Mathew Samuel has simply disappeared.
Excerpts from Prism Me a Lie, Tell Me a Truth-Tehelka As Metaphor.
In an interview two years later, Arun Jaitley recounted, “I was called to the prime minister’s house, along with Pramod Mahajan and [M.] Venkaiah Naidu. The prime minister had also called for Bangaru Laxman. I was sent in to grill Bangaru Laxman. I concluded, ‘Yeh bilkul jhoot account nahin hai [this is not an entirely false report]’. It was decided that Bangaru must resign.” As simple as that. Not for Bangaru Laxman, who could not comprehend what he had done wrong. Wasn’t he supposed to collect money for the party and doesn’t everyone? When Laxman first heard of the tapes his initial reaction was, “My conscience is clear.” He pointed out, “You can’t run a big party like the BJP without accepting cash donations”.
His conscience may have been clear, but the prime minister’s reaction was also clear: resign.
Vajpayee had to save himself and his government. A puzzled and deflated Laxman reflected that because he belonged to the Dalit community, there must have been a conspiracy to push him out.
LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING SECRETARIES
“An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.”
Simon Cameron, American politician (1799-1889)
Bangaru Laxman, then president of the party in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party, accepted Rs 1 lakh in cash from Mathew Samuel without so much as glancing up, and quickly tossed it in his drawer. When Laxman flew in from Hyderabad on the morning of 13 March, 2001, he had no idea what Delhi had in store for him. A reporter from Telegu Daily called him in the afternoon and informed him that Tehelka was airing these tapes. He watched it play out on the Zee News.
Laxman said, “It was shocking because I never thought that this particular thing was filmed. They meant to show it to the whole world. I felt it very, very bad. You could have given an objective thing. After all, they wanted to put a story, they could have verified with me and then taken my side also.”
What then was his ‘side’? Laxman was upset that Tehelka reported that he was ‘anxiously’ gazing at the briefcase, to be opened awaiting the hundreds of dollars he would receive. He pointed out, “Whoever watched the film cassette saw I was most reluctantly and absentmindedly attending them.” Absent-minded? True. It was just another day’s work.
The day after he put the money in his desk, did he think about it? Unlikely. For Tehelka, it was The Day. Aniruddha and Samuel attempted to get access to Bangaru Laxman because they had heard he was making money from business houses. R.K. Gupta asked for Rs 25 lakh for an introduction to Laxman, according to West End. Mohinder Singh Sahni allegedly sought Rs 10 lakh. Eventually, H.C. Pant sent Mohan Singh (private secretary to the former Minister of State for Defence, Hiren Pathak) to introduce West End to Raju Venkatesh, Laxman’s private secretary.
The first sentence Mathew Samuel uttered when he was introduced to Laxman was, “So I am chief representative. It’s written in my liasoning this thing”. Without any waste of time in small talk, he immediately told Laxman that they were interested in investing around Rs 5000 crore in India and had moved a proposal to the Prime Minister. He told him that they wanted to introduce hand-held thermal cameras and needed help because they were competing with CSF-Thomson and El-Op. Samuel said, “Now, I need your favour…uh…to defence secretary.” According to Tehelka, Laxman answered, “I know him, but now at what stage the proposal is?” Samuel, clearly nervous, replied, “The proposal is…if defence secretary will send the…proposal… already the file is with the defence secretary. Already users…that means they will decide which item they will use or not. So they’ll send the file to defence secretary.” Laxman did not look up but continued to mutter “Hmmm… hmmm”. Samuel said, “So what should we do, thinking on these lines. So if defence secretary will agree, so our company will be shortlisted. We will get around Rs 60 crore order.” Laxman pointedly asked, “Who are the people who will help this? There must be some committee which must have gone in.” Samuel, as vague as ever and totally out of his depth, said, “No, that is they’ve approved. That PNC will open in January first week. Before we have…Sir, there is one reason, I’ll tell you very frankly, openly. So in the bureaucratic and in the political level, they will not allow in the third company into the fray. Reason, two companies are already supplying.”
Samuel worked out a second meeting with Laxman by giving a gold chain to his secretary Satya Murthy and Rs 10,000 to his other secretary Raju Venkatesh. In his affidavit, Satya Murthy said that every time he took a cigarette from Mathew Samuel, he would feel numb.
At the Commission, Tehelka’s lawyer Sidharth Luthra made chutney of that excuse.
Luthra: Is it not correct that the first time he came to Mr Laxman’s office, he offered you a cigarette?
Satya Murthy: Yes.
Luthra: And you say you felt numb?
Satya Murthy: Yes.
Luthra: And despite that, on each occasion Mr Samuel would offer you cigarettes and you would accept them, knowing fully well that you would feel numb?
Satya Murthy: I was not knowing. Whenever I smoke the cigarette, I used to feel something different. But I did not know that. Every time he is offering and it is happening.
Luthra: Did you consult a doctor?
Satya Murthy: No.
Luthra: Did you ever complain to anyone that the cigarette had an adverse effect on you?
Satya Murthy: No.
Luthra: Isn’t it possible that you are not a smoker and, therefore, by smoking a different brand of cigarette you felt different?
Satya Murthy: It is not smoking a different brand, because I do not have a particular brand. I am not a regular smoker.
Luthra: You said you felt numb. Why were you continuing to meet Mr Samuel again and again, although you felt numb with the cigarettes he offered?
Satya Murthy: After meeting so many times…
Luthra: I am talking about the first meeting. You meet on the first meeting. He gives you something. You say it does not suit you. Why did you continue to meet him and why did you continue to accept his gifts, his entertainment, his lunch, his job, his gold chain?
Satya Murthy: Yes. We have become very friendly after so many meetings.
Luthra: I am talking of the first meeting. After the first meeting, when you felt numb …
Satya Murthy: He used to meet me very often. I have like that feeling.
Luthra: Did you inform Mr Laxman about the cigarettes and this feeling?
Satya Murthy: No.
Two days after West End gave Bangaru Laxman the money, Mathew Samuel said he started receiving calls from Laxman asking him when they were visiting him next. Satya Murthy took the initiative of showing up at Oberoi Hotel where Aniruddha Bahal had taken a suite, to ask for more money. Satya Murthy promised them that he would introduce them to Ved Prakash Goyal, the BJP treasurer. Satya Murthy also told them that Goyal had asked him to ‘screw’ Gupta. With West End operatives goading him along, Satya Murthy said it was true that Gupta was involved in the Sukhoi deal. He said, “They were here about a month back. Sukhoi. Because myself and Mr Laxman, we operated. We operated, very… nobody, nobody can smell.” He boasted, “It’s like a very small needle behind that kind of congested place and we’re very cautious.” He did add, “Even the money, what you giving, we give it to the party. We won’t take it.” When West End representatives said that Laxman spoke about an overseas account, Satya Murthy said, “I’m doing it in London now”.
Satya Murthy mentioned that R.K. Gupta, Mohinder Singh Sahni and Sudhir Choudhrie were involved in the Sukhoi deal. He did admit that he made money from it and was quite happy. He said that only south Indians could do these kinds of deals because, although they sought a higher percentage, they were the most trusted. West End then offered to give Laxman $31,500, and Satya Murthy promised to set up the meeting for 6.00 p.m. the following day. When asked how many foreign accounts Laxman had, Satya Murthy said, “He must be having five or six”. He added that he was supposed to have gone to Thailand for this kind of work.
Somehow, this conversation has just too much of feeding of names and gas to be credible. West End leads Satya Murthy into it and he just runs with what is being suggested. It is difficult to believe that a man in Satya Murthy’s position would be making money out of a deal as big as Sukhoi, but then there are many known examples of business people who want work done by bureaucrats, who tip everyone in that office from the peon upwards.
At the Commission, Luthra went after Satya Murthy, in his way. Hey, Siddharth, pick on someone your own size. Here was this guy from a village in Andhra Pradesh being lunched and cigaretted by the likes of Mathew Samuel, and promised a job in London, with an undreamt of salary. It would be surprising to find a person in that position who would not succumb to giving an entry to a boss, who in any case happens to be available. The transcript does show Mathew Samuel leading him to names like Brajesh Mishra and Mohinder Singh Sahni. Satya Murthy did not exactly volunteer them but acquiesced to all of Samuel’s suggestions. Satya Murthy mentioned he was going to Thailand for a wire transfer of money. Thailand? Why did he not just say, ‘Phoren’?
At the second meeting, Samuel introduced Aniruddha Bahal to Laxman, saying rather incongruously, “Sir, my boss is here. In…in…a…in Oberoi executive…executive suite”. Samuel then said, “For the party fund, I have Rs 5 lakh. I will give you Rs 1 lakh for just the beginning. A New Year’s gift.” Samuel asked Laxman about R.K. Gupta. Laxman replied that Gupta had asked him if he would entertain work from West End. At this point, Samuel handed over Rs 1 lakh to Laxman and said, “Sir, this is a small gift … small gift”. Laxman responded, “Oh, no, no… .” Samuel persisted, “It’s a small gift for the New Year party. Right?” Laxman opened his drawer and without looking up, took the wad of currency from Samuel and tossed it into his desk. Samuel tried to set up another meeting with Laxman and was told to come at 5.00 p.m. the following day. Samuel asked, “Rupee or dollar?” Laxman sealed his fate by saying, “Dollars. You can give dollars.” Samuel also confirmed that they could come directly to Laxman after fixing an appointment with his secretary.
When I asked Laxman about this conversation, he said that conversation was doctored. He pointed out, “If you look to the preceding conversation, I was referring to them that my treasurer knows whether dollars are accepted, whether there is any other account, all these things I said, you meet my treasurer. But, they had a definite script. They had certain things which they want to put into my mouth.”
The next time Samuel showed up with Aniruddha Bahal, they asked Laxman if he could help in getting the item they were selling, short-listed. Laxman responded, “On Brajesh Mishra? How?” Bahal elaborated that R.K. Gupta had asked for Rs 20 lakh to introduce them. He also said that West End would give 4 to 5 per cent commission but were confused on what to do with the treasurer. Bahal asked, “Do we wire or transfer the money?” Laxman said, “Yeah, yeah. I will tell you…” When Bahal grilled Laxman about the procedure to follow, Laxman said, “Yeah, yeah. I will tell you”. Then Laxman contradicted himself and said, “Look, no. Probably you know may be knowing the procedure better than me.” Bahal said, “Yeah, yeah. That’s why I was here. But things don’t move in India without some political…” Laxman said, “Yes, that is true, provided… We shall try to do that. So far we have been taking the help of Brajesh Mishra to organize this because Brajesh Mishra is there on a number of committees apart from principal secretary to prime minister.” Laxman added that they turned to Brajesh Mishra because he had access to defence, foreign, and other related ministries. According to Laxman, Mishra was the liaison between the prime minister and the bureaucracy. Laxman admitted that Mishra was the lynchpin in all the dealings and promised to obtain all the requisite information. Laxman also told them that the prime minister’s foster son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, was not involved in defence deals but dabbled in other things. Laxman promised to meet them the following day and explain the system of procurement to West End. Inexplicably, Tehelka excluded the following conversation in the unedited tapes from the broadcast tapes and edited transcript:
Tehelka: So we should meet tomorrow? Possible?
Laxman: Yes. You will bring cash?
In his interview with me, Laxman recalled, “I found my lips were there, but there is no sound. Nothing is coming out. When I was not speaking, something was coming out. There was no sync. At one point of time, they were explaining something. Then I said there must be some committee, some system through which these things might be going. They said, ‘Sir, system is there, but we are only afraid that the bureaucrats, bureaucratic set up, will not allow any new competitors to come into the field.’ I said that shouldn’t take place. So, they told me that, ‘Sir, these things are decided by the defence secretary.’ I told them I don’t know defence secretary. Now they have interfered with that particular scene and sentence, and then removed that ‘don’t’. While removing the ‘don’t’, the ‘t’ remained. So there it appears as though, ke bhai I told them I know, they wanted to show that I know defence secretary and I can get this. That ‘t’, fortunately remained. So I demonstrated before the Commission. And ultimately Prashant Bhushan [Tehelka’s lawyer] had to say that the benefit of doubt in this particular thing can be given to Bangaru Laxman. They had a definite scheme and script, so the names, which they wanted, they should come into the audio, video.”
“So, after some time I realized these things are irrelevant. Why they are asking? So I had to answer in some way. If you watch my whole tape, I think it runs into thirty to forty minutes or so, meine jo usme kaha hai, voh paanch minute se zyada nahin hai [what I said there, could not have been more than five minutes]. Rest of the time they were talking. And they got some certain terminology and that they wanted to put into my mouth and get a nod from me. Ke iss tereh se unho ne kiya hai [this is how they did it].”
Laxman broke through the entrenched caste system when, in spite of being the son of a Dalit pump operator in Metro Waterworks, Hyderabad, he rose to become the president of the BJP. He joined the RSS when he was twelve years old, studied up to the 10th class in a government school in Nampally, Hyderabad, and then dropped out to work to help support his family. Laxman went to Evening College, Osmania University, for a Bachelor of Arts degree and then a law degree from Law College in the same university. He was enrolled as a lawyer but never got to practice. He became involved in fighting against the Emergency called by Indira Gandhi and went to jail for fifteen months. He held low level government jobs in the electricity department, railways and the auditor general’s office. Laxman was preparing for the IAS examination in 1969 when Jan Sangh President Deendayal Upadhyaya was murdered. Laxman had great regard for Upadhyaya and reacted by resigning his job to become an active political worker. He said he never aspired for political power, but inspired by Upadhaya, he said was interested in public service. He was appointed president of the Andhra Pradesh BJP unit and served as president of All India Scheduled Castes Morcha for over seven years. He held various positions in the BJP until he was appointed president of the party in 2000.
Can you blame the Tehelka journalists for their exuberance after catching the president of the party in government accepting money on camera? Bangaru Laxman was utterly bewildered about the fuss. Wasn’t he, as president of the BJP, supposed to take money? Wasn’t that his job? How else could a party run? When I asked him about how his wife and his four children reacted, he answered, “They knew it pretty well this money was taken for the party and given to the party. Therefore they were not seeking my explanation ke bhai, why did you take money? After all, it was part of the job. But they did feel: why did they choose you? And, naturally they were hurt.”
On the evening of 13 March 2001, Venkaiah Naidu, the (late) Pramod Mahajan, Anant Kumar, and Arun Jaitley arrived at Laxman’s house. They wanted to know Bangaru Laxman’s side of the story. Laxman said that someone called him from the BJP and told him that the leaders had met and discussed his resignation. Laxman said he immediately sent in his resignation because, “I don’t want to cause any embarrassment to the party, on account of this”. He recalled that there was a history in the BJP of leaders resigning in the event of any serious allegations. He pointed out that L.K. Advani, Yashwant Sinha, and Madan Lal Khurana all handed in their papers when allegations were levelled against them.
When I asked him if it was common for him to accept donations in his normal working days as president of the BJP, Laxman said, “It happens. Wherever I went, some people come with currency garlands. Even those have been accounted for. I did not know what I did wrong.”
Well, no receipt was issued. When asked by the Tehelka lawyer in the Commission whether Laxman was aware of the rule that he could not accept more than Rs 20,000 in the year 2000, Laxman fallaciously replied: “It is for the contributor to ensure this is followed.” When questioned further, Laxman clarified, “As far as we are concerned, we ensure that whether it is accounted in our books or not”. When it was pointed out that Ved Prakash Goyal (treasurer of the BJP) stated in his affidavit to the Commission that no receipt had been issued, Laxman looked puzzled and said, “I don’t think he has said so. He has not. No, no, he was not even asked about this.”
Laxman denied what he said about going to Brajesh Mishra for defence deals in the Operation West End tapes. He said, “No, absolutely not. I was only saying that Brajesh Mishra being a member in the National Executive earlier, he was taken as secretary by the prime minister.”
Laxman told me that he was not aware that his personal secretary Satya Murthy took money to arrange meetings with him. Before he asked Satya Murthy to leave, he did ask him about it. Laxman said that Satya Murthy had explained to him that as his job with him was not permanent, West End induced him with many promises and he got sucked in by them.
It is noticeable that Bangaru Laxman is not living in financial discomfort. He has rented a large enough house and seems to have enough people still working for him. But he is despondent because, from leading an active political life, he is reduced to going to general programmes of the party or meetings of the Scheduled Caste Morcha of the BJP. He pointed out that from 1969 to the time he resigned, he invariably held some responsible position in the BJP. With a bitter laugh and sadness, he said, “You can imagine the change”. He said there were certain people whose behaviour with him had changed, but most people were good to him. He pointed out that he was no socialite and always kept a low profile. He never projected that he was a fixer or doled out favours as an extension of his power. He said he was never spoken about as a man who could get things done. Laxman believed this was not the end of his political career; only an interruption. He said, ‘Once the Commission’s report is out and the truth is out, I will be free to pursue my political career’.
Did Laxman feel that he had been treated unfairly? “Yes,” he said, “I do feel but maybe it is a part of the whole plan laid by the Almighty”. Did this embitter him? Laxman replied, “No, I am not because surely I feel that I must have committed a mistake, therefore, I am being punished. If not now, maybe in the previous lives. You cannot escape.”
Laxman said, “Certainly they have targeted me for two reasons. One is my humble background. A man coming from that background and going to such high, highest of position. Media was very kind to me during my tenure as president. Even international media was kind to me. So maybe that created a kind of jealousness for some people. Secondly, I was easily accessible. Mere gate bandh nahin rehte teh [my doors were never closed].”
On 6 December 2004, the CBI registered a case of corruption against Laxman. Despite everything, Laxman still hangs on to his belief that he was targeted because he belonged to the Dalit caste. This despair brings him right into Insectpur, the land of the helpless, with karma as the only explanation for his misfortune. Perhaps, then, he wouldn’t be shocked that a senior BJP politician on hearing about Laxman taking money from Tehelka, said privately, “Bhangi toh bhangi hee raheyga [a bhangi, (low caste individual) will always remain a bhangi].” Don’t test your naïveté by being shocked.