India's new watchdogs bite back

Six government and Army leaders have resigned in the past two weeks as a bribery scandal unfolds.

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Millions here are riveted to a made-for-television corruption sting that has bounced from the airwaves into a political slugfest and jolted the country into a bold new era of Internet journalism.

In secretly taped videos, senior Indian politicians and Army officers are shown apparently accepting bribes from dotcom journalists posing as dishonest defense contractors.

The sordid footage has triggered the resignations of the defense minister and the ruling party president, as well as four Army brass. Though few are predicting the downfall of the 17-month-old ruling coalition, the uproar has dimmed the reputation of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, at least temporarily derailed an important new government economic initiative, and unleashed a hail of moralizing invective from the political opposition.

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"The TV was the court this time, and sentence was passed by the people when they saw the wads of bills being accepted by the politicians. The effect was almost pornographic, they felt they had been soiled," says Shiv Visvanathan, an anthropologist and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies. "This was totally new for Indian journalism. The people got a sense of closure with the immediate resignations of the politicians who had no place to hide - this, too, is something new."

Such a fallout would have been unthinkable 11 years ago, when private channels were banned and all news was censored by the minister of Information and Broadcasting.

"This is a proud moment for Indian journalism;" says Aroon Purie, editor in chief of the leading newsweekly magazine, India Today. "The basic purpose of journalism is to hold a mirror to society, however ugly the sight. That's what Tehelka.com's intrepid team has done."

Barely two-years-old, Tehelka.com - tehelka means "sensation" in Hindi - has now become a household name, though its undercover operation, as a form of entrapment, might not stand up in a court of law if the government ever decided to sue. The broadcasters are a hit with the public, aware of corruption in Indian politics and finally getting the satisfaction of seeing heads roll in high places.

Tehelka CEO Tarun Tejpal says the success of the videos results from a combination of journalistic and business enterprise. "We are among the first journalists who could raise funding from the open market," he says. "We are a company owned by journalists. This is just our job, and we have moved on to other stories. We don't really care about the political outcome of the expose."

So far, the outcome has been an increasingly shrill exchange of accusations between traditional rivals - the Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the government coalition, and its main opposition, the Congress Party. With elections coming soon in five states, the Congress Party is going on the offensive and has called Vajpayee a "thief" and "crook" who should resign.

As the war of words heated up, India's Parliament went into an early three-week recess on Friday after nine days of chaos in the chambers.

Almost two weeks after the footage was released, the story is still making front page news.

Tehelka spent $40,000 over eight months on the investigation - a massive amount by Indian standards. Mr. Tejpal says his goal is to do one expose a year.

Noting that changes in government rules have opened the door to "free-wheeling venture capitalists" who can finance entrepreneurs like Tejpal, economist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar told the Times of India newspaper: "In the bad old days, anybody could enter the print media, but not the electronic media. In a liberalized India, he [Tejpal] has been able to raise enough money to start Tehelka and finance expensive exposes."

In the past, newspaper exposes of political corruption routinely became mired in the Indian courts, where a weak judicial system was unable to stand up to a strong single-party government in New Delhi. In 1987, when newspapers in the country erupted with accusations that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had received $14 million in kickbacks in a defense deal, Indian investigators took the case to court, where it remains.

In 1971, an Indian intelligence agent by the name of Nagarwala is said to have impersonated prime minister Indira Gandhi on the phone, some say at her behest, and got the State Bank of India to give him $133,000. Both Nagarwala and the policeman investigating the case were found murdered, and the case remains unsolved.

In 1996, former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and other senior politicians were accused of receiving millions of dollars from middlemen. The story was all over the Indian newpapers. Nothing could be proved in court, however, and most of the accused officials have been discharged.

In all three cases, the government derived its power from the fact that there was just one single party in power, the Congress Party. With the introduction of coalition politics in the late 1990s, however, major parties like the Congress Party are weaker and more vulnerable when political scandals arise.

When the Tehelka tapes were released, coalition partner Mamata Bannerji of the Trinamool Congress Party of West Bengal abandoned the coalition government, leaving it nine ministers short and weakening the coalition.

According to some analysts, the new leaders from the lower castes are less sophisticated in handling cover-ups than the Congress Party - thus making them more vulnerable to investigations such as this one. "People like Tejpal have recognized the lethality of the visual metaphor, and for the first time the public was getting real information instead of rumor," Visvanathan says.

But he is wary of the impact of the new media. "There is no halo around these new journalists. They have no crusading zeal; they are only peddlers of information. They could easily exchange roles with the touts one day."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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