All the accusations made by Mrs [Niloufer] Bhagwat became the checklist of allegations Tehelka built into their elaborately planned sting called Operation West End, aimed at bringing George Fernandes and the NDA government down. In that, Tehelka finds a character who supposedly tells them all about corruption in defence matters because he lives near the naval barracks in Bombay. The purchase of missiles or ships, and the Barak deal issue dragged in APJ Abdul Kalam and George Fernandes.
They made any unsuspecting character a defence dealer crawling out of nowhere, one of whom was supposed to have claimed that I got two per cent on each file that was signed, or that I was the “suitcase” woman of the defence minister. All the usual innuendoes of me being a second wife, companion, live-in partner, and co-conspirator in corruption were seeds planted in Tehelka’s flowerpot by the verbal onslaught Mrs Bhagwat had let loose. As usual, it was cherchez la femme, the very French, very sexist expression that indicates a woman is the indispensable ingredient that leads to every great man’s achievements or downfall.
To be fair, however, there was an added non-sexist dimension here. When Mulayam Singh Yadav was defence minister, Amar Singh was his party’s general secretary. It was widely rumoured, with no evidence to prove it, that he was the go-to man to “facilitate” decisions. Delhi abounds with such defamatory allegations to which I no longer pay attention. Theirs was not a party ever short of money as was the Samata Party which could often not pay its monthly telephone bills of four thousand rupees at the Party office.
People cannot be faulted for automatically presuming the next incumbent and the general secretary followed the same alleged system. Rajeev Shukla, now cricket honcho and Congress party loyalist, was then an independent member of the Rajya Sabha, hoping to be made a junior minister in the NDA. Anyone wanting such things arrived at the Fernandes house to lobby. If he was busy, they found me. One day, he struck a conversation with me starting like this:
“Jayaji, you and George are among the most popular and in-demand people in Delhi to meet.”
“Why so?” I asked.
“Do you know that people are willing to pay twenty lakh rupees to have a cup of tea with you?”
“Good god, whatever for?”
“Well, if they want to show they are close to the person who is close to the minister, it gives them an advantage outside among defence commission agents. They will show they have spent half an hour in this house having tea with you. It cuts the competition. Even if you don’t help them, it helps them,” Rajeev very kindly explained. The whole procedure seemed an elaborate sham enacted between aspiring defence dealers.
That is how I heard about this sordid world of defence deals and commissions and realised Delhi was teeming with people who turn into serpents and scorpions at the sound of money.
Having been uncomprehending of the world of business, negotiations, percentages and murkiness, I blanked out and remained oblivious to such things, not bothering to engage my mind with such unpleasant talk. I soon realised that many defunct old socialists, Party workers, perfumed ladies in chiffons, young smart alecks and an assorted range of people kept asking for time to meet me. I politely met the political characters I knew but froze when the topic of their conversation veered towards some “file” that had been cleared but “just needed George Sahib’s signature”. This is it, I thought. Even offering tea had become dangerous. Not a single person’s request was either forwarded to or mentioned to George Fernandes at any time. Anyone in the Ministry would swear to that.
In fact, they did, when officers were later asked formally in the Inquiry Commission and court, they confirmed I had never made any request or engaged with the Ministry at any time. Occasionally, if I happened to meet George sahib, I would mention the names of colleagues who seemed to be turning into sharks circling the premises hoping to make money from “a cup of tea”. He would growl and avoid them like the plague. This created a batch of disgruntled “friends”. The real dealers or commission agents as they are called in polite circles, were well hidden, I presumed.
I must correct myself. One did emerge.
Soon after the Pokhran nuclear missile test, India was in the doghouse among certain countries. George Fernandes started wooing Japan through his old socialist friends there. While counting friends there were many discussions on who would reach out to India-friendly groups in the US Congress and Senate. I received a call from a foreigner who gave his name as Christian Michel. He said he wanted to meet the minister to assist in ways to lobby with these groups in the US. He gave Naresh Chandra, then the India’s Ambassador in the US, as a reference to his credentials. I said I would pass the message on.
George Fernandes rang Naresh Chandra in Washington DC. He sounded slightly uncertain but did affirm that he knew him. Presuming it was a strictly diplomatic strategy to be discussed, George Fernandes decided to make me the sounding board till he could figure out what was going on. I agreed to meet Michel and he suggested the IIC lounge as the meeting venue.
When I met him, he had a badge saying “Press”, and a magazine on some advanced aircraft stuff – Dassault, I think – on the coffee table. He patted both and said, “This is for cover.”
Eek, I thought to myself, what is this cloak-and-dagger operation? “Cover?” I ventured, curiously. He came out with a long tale on how he had been an informant for years, and claimed to have helped Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao keep tabs on Sonia Gandhi whenever she visited London. He opened up one of those electronic diaries that fancy people had those days, to show me times, dates, places and people he had met in London. He may have been fabricating all this in trying to establish his credibility. I was disinterested in this information and didn’t utter a word. I was trying to see what he was getting at.
Michel then tried to educate me on all the real defence dealers who operated in India and the bureaucrats they had in their pockets. He mentioned the Choudhury brothers and a former Admiral. (I had never heard of them at that time but their names cropped up in conversations later in the Tehelka tapes. Significantly, Tehelka never went to their homes or offices because its stories consisted of sham dealers, agents, companies and officers. But I get ahead and need to rewind.) Michel then blatantly offered me the opportunity to make a huge pile of money for the party. I guessed it was positioned as a quid pro quo for some favour to Dassault.
I said, “We do not do such things.” “How will you run your Party?” he asked, slightly condescendingly. I got a little riled at that. “I would rather beg in the streets,” I replied. I kept my cool in front of so many people in the IIC lounge but beat a hasty retreat, reporting the entire story to George Fernandes the same evening. He told me to write it out in a letter in full detail and send it to the Defence Secretary. I did so the next day. Neither did I get any acknowledgement nor am I aware if any action followed. George Fernandes had too much on his plate to keep any of this in his mind as the Kargil War soon followed.
Michel managed to get my home number after that and called half a dozen times to revive the conversation, but I refused to meet him or discuss anything.
When the Tehelka allegations struck in mid-March 2001, with all its immediate repercussions, I received a fax from Michel, saying: “Dear Mrs Jaitly, I am so sorry about what has happened. I warned you about them. Sincerely, Michel.” The fax remained in my files for a long time, till it faded, as fax papers did then.
The next time the name Michel appeared it was in the AgustaWestland helicopter deal in which the Congress was accused of shady dealings. Christian Michel and Guido Haschke were the middlemen named by the court in Milan. Was this the son, or the same man? I have no idea, nor do I want to know.
Excerpted with permission from Life Among The Scorpions: Memoirs of a Woman in Indian Politics, Jaya Jaitly, Rupa Publications.