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Stink-tank strategies

In stinking new politics, thieves get away, as mud-slinging and dirty tricks become weapons of mass self-destruction.

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Here is a deviously delightful story the late Giani Zail Singh loved to tell us. As chief minister of Punjab, he was concerned that the loaded business community of Patiala didn’t contribute to his party. He tasked his favourite “khurafati” (something between mischievous and resourceful) deputy superintendent of police (DSP) with teaching the “Lalas” (mostly banias) of Patiala a lesson.

The results were quick. The loyal DSP reported back with bags full. All he did was drive a van with curtained windows, a cash register and empty bags into the mandi — a police jeep both in front, with a loudspeaker, and behind. The loudspeaker announced that the police had busted a “house of ill repute” the previous night, its madam was in the van, she was going to identify all the Lalas she and her girls had serviced. They stopped in front of each shop and the panicky owners paid up and fled.

“But Gianiji, did the DSP actually bust a brothel?” somebody would ask.

Oye yaar, kamaal karte ho. Siasat karne aaye hain ya teerath-yatra pe? (Don’t be silly, are we here to play politics, or on a pilgrimage?)”, he would say — and explain, with doubled delight, that of course no such brothel even existed. “But do you imagine the plight of a respectable Lala named by our madam? His friends, family, biradari (community) would all spit on him. How would he ever clear his name? We were not even going to charge him with anything, just helping the mud fly,” he explained, “He would rather pay and buy honour and peace.” Gianiji found this very funny but would also say, somewhat seriously, “Dekhiye, izzatdar admi izzat jaane se darta hai, jail kyon bheje kisee ko (A respectable man fears losing his reputation, why bother sending anybody to jail).”
We have routinely seen the same game play out in our politics and public discourse now. Just that now it rules national politics and we in the media play along, part sniggering voyeuristically, part scared: God knows in which direction the s..t will fly next.


Also read: Rafale, Bofors, AgustaWestland: Why is every Indian defence deal hit by scam allegations?


We have seen a replay of that Patiala madam story twice lately. First, the AgustaWestland deal. Corruption was proven in an Italian court, bribes-givers sentenced. Nobody was specifically named as the bribe-taker (the only prominent name mentioned in the 2013 FIR is former Air Chief Tyagi). But a general “hawa” was built up, as if all political adversaries, half a dozen two-three star IAF officers, and top civil servants (some holding constitutional offices like CAG, CVC, UPSC Board) were on the take. Nobody was charged, nobody was officially named — but leaks and innuendo churned up enough muck in the Lutyens air to make the whole system seem infested with thieves. Nothing was left to chance; rumours of the existence of an authentic list of journalists on AgustaWestland’s pay were invented — even a hashtag, ‪#‎AgustaPatrakars‬, tossed around. The trick was still the same: no names, no charges, no facts, just imaginative mythologies — and mud-slinging as an instrument of shock and awe, a weapon of mass self-destruction.

Just as Gianiji’s fictional madam was. We do not even know if anyone was actually paid in this case. But enough damage was done to the credibility of the system and honest, sincere people in it who form a very vast majority. Ask any IAF officer how hurt they personally, professionally and institutionally feel about this calumny. Christian Michel can sit in Dubai and pretty much write the Indian media’s headlines for the following few days. We saw the same movie 35 years ago, with Win “Bofors” Chadha holding forth, safely harboured in that same city. The AgustaWestland case today seems approaching a dead end like Bofors.

With that balloon running out of gas, Sanjay Bhandari has emerged as the favourite new stink of the fortnight. Once again no one, except him, has been formally named yet. We do not know which deals he brokered, how much he got paid and who he shared it with. But it does seem already as if half of Delhi was “in his pay,” from the son-in-law of the Gandhis to an urbane spokesman of the BJP to a prominent journalist. Again, no charges, no names, just mud. Unsigned facsimiles of Mr Bhandari’s supposed “Call Detail Records” (CDRs) on plain paper, “show” the last two having made “hundreds” of calls to him. For what, what did they help Mr Bhandari fix, what were they paid and how, there is no need to know, or tell. As Gianiji would tell us, well-heeled people dread the loss of “izzat” — and who lives long enough to clear their name in our system, particularly when nobody would ever formally charge them?


Also read: Guns, Swedes and the Gandhis — how the Bofors scam tested the limits of the CBI’s power


When dirty tricks become the main tool in politics, there are grave implications for the national interest. All sides play the game (see the Congress using GSPC to malign Narendra Modi). If the BJP seems the most effective, remember its commandos are happy to even target their own without bothering to be undercover. Because your enemies are not just political rivals but also those within your own party, especially those you envy or whose positions you covet. It’s an ugly free-for-all, a kind of perverted state of “Ram Nam ki loot hai, loot sakey toh loot (Grab as much as you can in this melee). Party-lines smudge as targets shift: Vasundhara Raje one day, Sushma Swaraj the next, and Arun Jaitley now.

All the while, Vijay Mallya and Lalit Modi laugh at us from London. A few months back, Lalit Modi was painted as national target number one. Now, you admire his cheek for landing up in Tokyo exactly when his own target and tormenter Mr Jaitley was there on an official visit. Mr Modi even posted his smiling pictures from Tokyo on social media, thumbing his nose at India’s claims to being a sovereign power — we can meanwhile keep screaming “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. Mr Modi (Lalit), Mr Mallya, and Mr Michel — the three Ms that remind us each day how incompetent we are, how impotent, and also how corrupt, compromised and messed up.

A good example of how self-defeating this is comes from the so-called Tatra scam. It was alleged by responsible people in 2012 that the Czech manufacturer of wheeled vehicles on which our entire missile (including nuclear) forces moved, had bribed people to win contracts. The CBI registered a case, orders were suspended — though the vehicles were being manufactured by a defence PSU, Bharat Earth Movers (BEML), whose CMD, V R S Natarajan, was suspended. The cases have now been closed, and everybody discharged. Tatra purchases are back on track — though the Czechs now have a private sector partner instead (Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence) and Mr Natarajan has fought his way back through the courts. Meanwhile, our strategic forces remained badly immobilised for more than three years and the entire nation was made to believe we had an Army of thieves.

Rather than make life tougher for thugs, crooks, lobbyists and fixers, it leaves India entirely at their mercy, as everybody believes everybody else to be a thief. It also reassures our phenomenally incompetent and compromised investigative agencies, from the CBI to the ED — and now, most regrettably, the NIA — that they need take nothing to its logical conclusion. Just squirt filth when and where the establishment wants it, or hand out clean chits. The NIA’s turnaround on Malegaon and the Samjhauta Express is a national shame; but it may earn its chief a second life as a regulator or CVC or member of the UPSC electing IAS/IPS officers along with Mr “anti-sedition” Bassi. Nobody is to be spared: political leaders, judges, regulators, constitutional heads, the RBI governor and most certainly nor journalists. No surprise that New Delhi is now enveloped in devastating negativity, rotting with such stink. Just what you expect when political battles are not fought in Parliament, elections or public discourse but through dirty tricks as a political equivalent of wanton, open defecation, usually in front of your rival’s home.


Also read: 4 ‘Bad Boy Billionaires’ & where to find them — What Netflix’s controversial show reveals


 

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