That voters in India are routinely bribed in cash or kind is a well-known phenomenon. In Tamilnadu according to WikiLeaks, it is commonplace, as indeed it is elsewhere in the country. Indians are also familiar with what is generally known as “horse trading” that involves in huge amounts of cash changing hands when, post-elections, political parties engage in government formation to find that majority in the “house” that elude them at the hustings. Likewise, Indians have been taking bribing of legislators for voting for a minority government in the state or national legislatures during trust-votes, by and large, in their stride.
Nevertheless, the expose’ by the highly respected newspaper “The Hindu” of the “cash for votes” cables sent from the US Embassy and procured from WikiLeaks, seemingly, set the cat among the pigeons. The cables talked of millions of rupees being paid to a certain political party at the time of the 2008 no-confidence motion moved against the Manmohan Singh government that lost its majority in the Lower House on withdrawal of support by the Left parties over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal.
The July 22 2008 no-confidence motion moved against United Progressive Alliance government by the Opposition was followed by tremendous amount of theatrics. Three Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MPs came rushing into the Lok Sabha, the Lower House, waving bundles of currency notes in front of the Speaker, alleging attempts by Samajwadi Party (SP), then a supporter of the government, to bribe them with a crore (ten million) of rupees each for voting for the government. The name of Amar Singh, then of the SP and a well-known political wheeler-dealer, was mentioned in this connection. The expose’ was result of a sting operation by CNN-IBN news channel, masterminded by one Sudhindra Kulkarni, a BJP ideologue.
The money was seized by the Speaker and, later, a committee of Lok Sabha was constituted to probe into the matter. Failing to arrive at a definite conclusion even though video tapes and other documents relating records of phone calls etc. were submitted to it by the news channel and the BJP, respectively, the Committee exonerated Amar Singh but labelled his aide, one Sanjeev Saxena, as a bribe-giver who was caught on camera bribing a BJP MP. Unable to probe further for reasons of rules and procedures, the Committee suggested further investigations into the matter. However, neither the matter was probed further nor the case registered at the instance of the Speaker with the local police pursued. The Manmohan Singh government survived the motion with the help of a few abstentions and support of a few BJP MPs who defied the party’s whip.
In the context of what happened in the Parliament in July 2008, contents of the leaked cable are perfectly credible. It is quite likely that as a measure of abundant caution the Congress Party attempted to muster as many votes as possible in favour of the government. After all, the Prime Minister was deeply committed to the Indo-US Nuclear Deal and the government (and his party) had to take all possible measures to ensure its survival to push it through. Apart from using Amar Singh to bribe some BJP MPs, the Congress, apparently, pitched on the MPs of Rashtriya Lok Dal, a regional political outfit of Uttar Pradesh (UP), more open to the lure of money. Headed by one Ajit Singh, a man of dubious reputation, the party has frequently figured in reports of its involvement in lending support for monetary considerations to shaky governments. Apparently, the US Embassy contact was told that the MPs of RLD had been paid a billion rupees each. Their reputation is such that even the Congressman, Nachiketa Kapur, who organised the payment, was not sure whether they would vote in favour of the government even after having been bribed. He, however, boasted that there was enough kept away in chests for further pay-offs, if necessary.
Yet another factor that makes the cable credible is the mention of Capt. Satish Sharma, an MP in Rajya Sabha, the Upper House, who also was met with by the US Embassy contact. Looks like, Capt. Sharma and Kapur were jointly in charge of the operation of bribing the RLD MPs. Once a close friend of the Late Rajiv Gandhi, he is now a close associate of Sonia Gandhi, widow of Rajiv Gandhi and the current Congress President. With a chequered political career and several brushes with the law, he, seemingly, has been involved in the dirty work of the Congress. He was also involved in 1993 in bribing the MPs of another regional political outfit, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), to save the minority Congress government of the Late Narsimha Rao in a trust-vote moved by the BJP. The investigations had revealed that various industrialists had paid Rs 13 crore (130 million) to Capt Satish Sharma, who arranged payments to the JMM MPs out of this amount. Narsimha Rao’s government did survive the trust vote.
Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, brazened out the WikiLeaks disclosures by an outright denial of the allegations of bribery and rejected the charge of the Opposition, which he said was based on “speculative, unverified and unverifiable'' communication, and told Parliament that none from the government or the Congress indulged in any unlawful act during that time. He went on to say that the government “cannot confirm the veracity, contents or even the existence of such communication.” At the then ongoing India Today Conclave he had said, “I have no knowledge of any such purchases and I am absolutely categorical, I have not authorised anyone to purchase any votes. I am not aware of any acts of purchase of votes…I am absolutely certain in asserting that I am not at all, I think, involved in any of these transactions”.
Nobody is buying what Dr. Singh has been saying in denial. Not only there was enough evidence gathered earlier, the US officials have since certified the accuracy and credibility of the cables now released by WikiLeaks. Julian Assange, Editor in-Chief of WikiLeaks, branded Dr. Singh’ statements of denial as “misleading”, a charge that is serious when made against a prime minister. Generally known for his clean image, Indian people are aghast at the way the Prime Minister, with his distinguished academic and bureaucratic background, staked his reputation and all that he had for winning a trust-vote to see a mere deal through. At a recent interview with the editors of Indian TV news channels he had said, that after his academic and bureaucratic stints, politics was a fresh field that was providing him a new learning experience. Apparently, he has been very quick in picking up the tricks of his current trade.
Apart from the image of Dr. Singh, the image of Congress has taken a severe beating. The grand old party, now more than a century and a quarter old, has, somewhere down in the post-independence years, lost its moral fibre and has acquired an insatiable lust for power. This very lust may see the end of it. Mahatma Gandhi happened to say in 1948 “...in the ungainly skirmish for power, it (Congress) will find one fine morning that it is no more.” That may well happen with the contemptible riff-raff that it now constitutes of, unless the party immediately sets about correcting its course.