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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Why is George haunting Congress?

Vendetta, fake charges
By Udayan Namboodiri

At a function in New Delhi last week, to release a book on Netaji, a journalist asked George Fernandes: "Do you think that just like Netaji, you too have been wronged by the Nehrus?" To this, the former Defence Minister in the Vajpayee government only gave a sad smile. Nobody, who attended that book release function, failed to gauge the significance of the question.

George Fernandes is the favourite hate object of the Left-liberal intelligentsia. The Lohiaite and Socialist has been perceived as something of a rebel by the powerful media-houses -- and their favoured political parties -- for linking the Janta parivar to the BJP. The Tehelka affair which shook the nation initially, marked the climax of a campaign to debilitate George and his agenda to reform the Defence establishment. After that, the Congress-communist combine made it a point to humiliate him in Parliament. Whenever the Defence Minister would stand up to speak in either of the Houses, the Sonia Gandhi-led Opposition would walk out. Even Somnath Chatterjee, who nowadays holds forth with his plaintive entreaties like ‘honour Parliamentary traditions’, participated in these profane exercises.

After the UPA came to power, it was concerned that George’s innocence would be vindicated. So, it scrapped the Justice Phukan Commission of Inquiry just as it was about to finalise its report. It was a last minute move to protect the image of the Tehelka and sustain the anti-George programme, the UPA ordered a CBI inquiry into the affair.

The Congress, when in government, knows from the St. Kitts experience that pursuing narrow political vendetta can often backfire, particularly if the basis of the allegation is slippery. So, on April 5, while responding to a Public Interest Litigation alleging irregularities in the process of procurement of Defence hardware during the Kargil conflict, the UPA government, in a counter-affidavit, said there was "no violation" of any financial rules or procurement procedures.

Does this or does this not imply that a clean chit had been given to George? The entire national media interpreted the affidavit in the only way that was reasonable. But the UPA, where careers depend on how a minister grovels before the Nehru-Gandhis, was quick to backtrack. Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee was quick to change the stance. He did so because he was pulled up by Sonia Gandhi for his ‘lapse’ of telling the truth about George. Mukherjee apologised, saying his bureaucrats had written that affidavit without taking his consent. He rushed to the press with a profound misrepresentation: The government had not given George a ‘clean chit’. The Defence Ministry said in a press release: "The inference is unjustified and totally unwarranted. There was no question of giving a clean chit to any person, much less George Fernandes. The affidavit does not even refer to or mention any person, much less George Fernandes."

The government now claims that the affidavit noted the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) valid points and action was being taken on them. It also said the affidavit pointed out that even after the expiry of the term of the Tehelka Commission, a reference had been made to CBI which was examining the transactions mentioned in the Tehelka tapes. Apart from this, the Central Vigilance Committee (CVC) recommendations on involvement of agents and middlemen and other allegations were still being looked into. Individual contracts, which had been given, were being examined closely. The affidavit concluded by saying that there were cases pertaining to T-90S tanks, armoured recovery vehicles and up-gunning of 130 MM calibre guns to 155 MM calibre, which have been referred to CBI. "Thus, five cases are being presently referred to the CBI and are being actively investigated," the release said.

The Congress’ grand design to keep George endlessly and unjustly pilloried was further exposed when, on April 14, it filed a second affidavit before the court. It said: "The government is committed to taking strict action against authorities/officials, including the former Defence Minister, if it is found that the excuse of Kargil war was taken to make the purchases with a motive of personal benefit in violation of rules and regulations."

Such selective targeting of a political opponent by a government is rarely seen in the annals of democratic India. Even Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay, had not been so abused by the Morarji Desai regime which came to power after the Emergency. The Vajpayee government had similarly desisted from pursuing legitimate allegations of corruption and theft carried out by the Congress after Sonia Gandhi was illegally made chairperson for life of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. The UPA has pursued its witch-hunt to absurd levels. Mukherjee refused to table the report of the Phukan Commission and the CVC report in Parliament. This means that George has been left to his own resources to defend himself.

What reminds one most of the St. Kitts scandal is the manner in which the name of a foreign arms supplier, Denel, has been dragged in. The government, through selective leaks in the friendly media, has encouraged the circulation of a rumour that grave irregularities had characterised the purchase of 300 anti-material rifles from Denel and that the guns were sub-standard. But the Army has never complained of this. The reports quoted an obscure South African rag as claiming that the country’s anti-corruption bureau is investigating ‘bribery’ behind the deal. The initial reports said that Denel had paid "millions of Rands (South African currency)" to one Varas Associates, which was said to be a company registered in the Isles of Man for securing the minutes of the meeting of the Price Negotiations Committee of the Defence Ministry.

However, an investigation carried out by The Pioneer led to the revelation that there was no such Varas Associates registered in the Isles of Man. The tax-haven’s Registrar of Companies has no such entity on its list. Now, the South African anti-corruption bureau has decided to complain to the country’s media ombudsman for jumping the gun. Apparently, there was no inquiry at all.

The irony of history is that the same Pranab Mukherjee had financed the trip of an Indian journalist to the United States, back in 1989, to lend credence to the media organisation’s claim that it had conducted an ‘independent investigation’ into the St. Kitts affair. The object of that slander, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, emerged with honours while the Congress covered itself with infamy. This time too, the forces of history are headed in a similar direction.

Like Netaji, George Fernandes too will be vindicated, despite the Nehru family’s best efforts.

(The author is senior editor, The Pioneer, and national spokesman of Siksha Bachao Andolan.)

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