March 16, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt

Report from Ground Zero
Report from Ground Zero

We are aghast. We shudder to even think about our loyal party workers. I cannot imagine what will happen to a worker watching Laxmanji holding the money in his hand and slipping the bundle into a drawer under the table. He might feel like committing suicide. We have no explanation because there can't be any explanation, the bloody video says it all. Idiot!" A confidant of Prime Minister A B Vajpayee told on the night of March 13, 2001.

The Sudden Shock

A political hurricane had struck New Delhi earlier that day.

Once the video-screening by was over, the first thing the establishment's defenders wanted to know was how to get hold of the tapes. They wanted to -- and still want to know -- the date and time when the videos were shot in order to build up a strong defence.

Everyone, without exception, was shocked seeing then BJP president Bangaru Laxman pick up the currency notes. Sensational stuff, they thought.

At the Prime Minister's Office, at the defence ministry and among political functionaries, no one was willing to say anything unless they first got hold of the videos and transcript.

"We are too busy in saving the government. It will take time to assess the damage to the party," said a BJP official, and added, "It's shocking because he is the party president."

Union Ministers L K Advani, Jaswant Singh, Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley reacted faster than others, and started formulating a defence for the government and party. Laxman's resignation was a foregone conclusion, because BJP leaders wanted to buy time to stave off the damage to the government. Party matters could wait.

The Enemy Has Attacked, Build The Defences

The situation was more serious than hitherto perceived, because the image of the armed forces had also been tarnished. On March 13, Mahajan, Jaitley and two other BJP leaders watched the videos, studied and dissected the material. Mahajan and Jaitley were a little relaxed after the screening, and from this sprung the party's line of defence:

  • Where is the deal?
  • Let's have an inquiry and once it is set up ask the Congress to shut up. Do not let the Congress drag the issue till the AICC session in Bangalore.
  • Repeat again and again, that the country has not lost a penny, so why this hungama?
  • How do you run a national party without money?
  • Do not target in the first round.
  • Fernandes's honesty is beyond doubt.
  • Since the current crisis is related to defence, and since a CVC inquiry is on into defence deals struck since 1989, it was not difficult to assume that former defence ministers Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav would behave responsibly, and not allow the Congress to extract mileage from the situation.
  • Tehelka's expose last month on Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu's alleged corruption helped the government immensely. Naidu was forthcoming on the issue, since he knew where it hurts. He was the 'first victim'. He simply laughed at the expose.
  • Manao Mamta Banerjee, but not too much because her stock had already dipped in anticipation of her ditching the NDA.

    These were the broad lines to hand out to the media, and thus the NDA in general and the BJP in particular tried to lift the government's sinking spirits on days one and two of the crisis.

    Who is Afraid of the NDA Meeting?

    On March 14, the NDA leaders met at the prime minister's home in the afternoon. Mamta was adamant, she wanted Fernandes to leave the government. Her stance 'to gain' from the crisis irritated more than half the Union Cabinet.

    What the meeting brought out was dampened spirits, hurt egos and serious faces. While the prime minister hardly spoke, Communications Minister Ram Vilas Paswan did not mince words. He said angrily, "Langdi billar, ghar main hi dhundhe shikar (the disabled cat is searching for her prey inside the house)." Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran advised his colleagues "to first look for a convincing explanation for the videos." "That is what is already exposed to people and needs an explanation."

    Omar Abdullah drew the attention of the elders to the fact that only had so far been visible, not the government. Nitish Kumar was his aggressive self, and bitter too: "What resignation? For what? What wrong have we done?" Maneka Gandhi wanted George to go, and asked for his resignation. "After all, politics is a game of perceptions, and once the leader or minister is perceived to be dishonest, how can he remain in his chair?" she asked.

    Interestingly, Fernandes was the meeting's convener, but he didn't speak much. Only when someone mentioned Mulayam Singh did he speak, arguing that Yadav would not capitalise on the crisis, perhaps because the Su-30 deal, struck during the latter's tenure at the defence ministry, is currently under inquiry.

    Media Management

    After the NDA meeting ended at around 1730, the media was taken for a ride by Mahajan. With a clear aim to satiate the media's hunger he answered coolly, calculatedly and successfully.

    Right in the compound of the PM's home he spoke to some 50 journalists off the record and informally. He requested more than 10 cameramen present to switch off their cameras: "Is se to dar lagta hain. Yeh sab hua hi isi liye hain (I am scared of the camera, all this has happened because of this)." His mission was to save Fernandes as much as possible, skirt the grave issue of his party's greatest moral setback since its inception and convince the media of the government's seriousness in setting up the inquiry as per the Opposition's wishes. Other NDA leaders became forthcoming and started appearing on television talk shows.

    Credibility Matters In Politics

    March 15 was a difficult day. The impact of the spycam was tremendous. The Lok Morcha's formation and Mamta's resignation were the major media events of the day. Before the Trinamul Congress leader could issue more soundbytes against Fernandes came the news from Raisina Hill.

    President K R Narayanan, supreme commander of the armed forces, it said, wanted the defence minister to resign. The PMO and the BJP tried to save him, for some logical and some not so logical reasons. But in the end, it was a win for realpolitik.

    At 1830, a senior BJP leader told, "George has resigned, because we could not find any other way to re-establish our credibility. The people's faith in the government is more important than anything else. We thought over it, but could not find any other way out. Look, the people will want the inquiry to be impartial, but with George heading the same ministry obviously we can't have credibility. We will score once the inquiry is set up."

    At 2200 on March 15 I asked a Cabinet minister, "But what about stability?" "Come on, Opposition ke kehne se kabhi sarkar jati hai kya? (Do governments resign because the Opposition asks for it?) he said."

    Design: Uttam Ghosh

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