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Cash-for-vote scam: Why was the sting operation foiled?

Cash-for-vote scam: Why was the sting operation foiled?

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: Free Press Journal
Date: July 29, 2008

If ethics, morality, propriety and ordinary decencies are kept aside, the Trust vote victory last Tuesday evening was one of the most successful operations ever mounted by the Congress and its UPA allies, with a little help from intelligence agencies. In converting a 10 MP deficit into a 19-vote majority, the Manmohan Singh Government showed managerial skills of a high order. Had a fraction of this energy, out-of-the-box thinking and single-mindedness been employed in governance and the fight against terrorism, India would unquestionably have been a much better and safer place to live in.

For the UPA Government, it was tragic that the huge political dividends that should have accrued from this successful operation were checked by one act of counter-audacity by a beleaguered Opposition. The dramatic protest by three BJP members flaunting the wads of Rs 1,000 notes, allegedly paid to them as bribes by UPA managers, shocked the country. This is not because the three MPs were suggesting something bizarre but because they were confirming what was widely suspected to be happening in Lutyens' Delhi.

For 72 hours prior to the vote, the Government's spin doctors went into overdrive with feeds to ever-obliging TV channels that all the Opposition parties (barring the Communists) would be affected by defections and abstentions.

TV channels competed among themselves for dramatic sourcebased stories of a crumbling Opposition. Last Sunday night, for example, it was suggested by channels that both H.D. Deve Gowda and Ajit Singh were going to turn turtle again and vote for the UPA; that some six Biju Janata Dal were going to either abstain or vote for the Government; and that three Shiv Sena MPs had made up their minds to switch sides. In hindsight, this psychological warfare which combined triumphalism with disinformation may come to haunt the UPA for a long time. It certainly created the atmosphere for the last-minute BJP protest on the floor of the House to be taken seriously. Additionally, it had the unintended effect of covering the Indo-US nuclear agreement with moral disrepute. That the Government was caught totally unawares by the flaunting of currency notes in the Lok Sabha was pretty obvious. The reason was that by the afternoon of Tuesday (just four to five hours before the actual voting) the UPA leadership had been informed by its friends in the corporate world that a BJP-inspired sting operation to implicate the Samajwadi Party leadership in the purchase of MPs had been foiled.

The information was not entirely incorrect. Apparently on Monday afternoon, a BJP member from Madhya Pradesh was approached with the suggestion that he help out the UPA. He contacted a BJP functionary who then thought of the bright idea of entrapping the UPA. The BJP itself certainly had the wherewithal to record phone conversations and even use a hidden camera. However, it was thought that any sensational story backed by film and audio evidence was likely to enjoy more credibility if it had the certificate of a reputed media organisation. A media house was sounded out and the approval of its editor secured.

Between midnight on Monday when a SP leader visited the BJP members and 10.30 am on Tuesday when the "advance" was paid by the secretary of a flamboyant leader, the conversations and transactions were electronically captured. The BJP expected that the sting would be first telecast on Tuesday afternoon.

By 3 pm on Tuesday, it became evident to the BJP that its socalled media partner had absolutely no intention of either telecasting the sting or handing over the raw footage to the party.

The possible reasons for its abrupt U-turn-profound respect for the sanctity of parliamentary democracy, a desire to not appear as a friend of the BJP, its shareholding pattern or belief that the nuclear agreement was good for India-is a matter of conjecture. Whatever the real reason, the relevant people in the UPA and its friendly agencies were aware that a potentially damaging, last-minute crisis had been narrowly averted thanks to the good sense of those who had faith in a "free vote" in Parliament. The conduct of the media house is certain to become the subject matter of a wider debate on journalistic ethics in the weeks to come. However, for the BJP, the realisation that it had been "double-crossed" was a bitter blow. It is not that the party believed that a single sting telecast would alter voting patterns and neutralise the UPA growing advantage in the numbers game. Having been completely outwitted and outmanoeuvred in the battle to remove the UPA Government, the party wanted to end the campaign on a moral high. The refusal of its media partner to keep its side of the bargain jeopardised its damage limitation plans. After frenetic negotiations, the media partner agreed to send a copy of the electronic evidence to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha for his consideration. It is a different matter that the tapes finally reached Parliament House nearly 24 hours after the Trust vote thereby exposing the media channel to possible charges of additional subterfuge.

It was at this juncture that some BJP leaders, including, by his own admission, L.K. Advani, took the decision to let the three MPs lay the evidence before the whole Lok Sabha and, by implication, the whole country. That their dramatic gesture was novel and didn't correspond to the exacting standards set by Westminster is unde niable. Yet, in the light of suggestions by the UPA that this was a pre-planned gimmick concocted by the BJP to subvert parliamentary democracy, it is important to note that the protest was an act of desperation by an Opposition that proved unable to resist the UPA's no-holds-barred determination to win the vote.

Like the unedifying picture of Bangaru Laxman accepting money across the table, the image of currency notes being flaunted in Lok Sabha will be etched in the public memory for a long time. It has certainly become the defining image of the Trust vote and, by implication, the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is too early to say if this "cash for votes" scandal contributes to further cynicism or translates into a quiet disgust with the UPA. All that can be said with certainty is that the impression that some 22 MPs changed sides on non-political considerations may come to haunt the Prime Minister. Yet, the BJP cannot but express its complete indebtedness to the three MPs who refused to sell their soul to the highest bidder. It is worth speculating what would have happened if the cash transactions had remained in the realms of subterranean whispers and the UPA had won with a 19vote majority. First, Manmohan Singh would have emerged politically much stronger-as P.V. Narasimha Rao did after defeating the 1993 no-confidence vote in broadly similar circumstances.

The defectors would have been packaged as those who voted according to their conscience.

Secondly, the Samajwadi Party would have been even more uninhibited in projecting themselves as the single-window policy clearance agency.

At present the party leaders are under some tension. Finally, the Government would have claimed the scalp of the Leader of Opposition. The stage had been set for the defections to be accompanied by charges within the BJP that Advani had lost the moral authority to be the NDA's shadow Prime Minister.

A revival of internal dissidence would have created chaos and demoralisation in the main Opposition party in the run-up to the general election. The Government thought big, planned big and almost succeeded. The whistleblowers were the spoilers.

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