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The Cash-For-Vote Scam and the BJP Bluff

September 11, 2011

Three people have been put behind bars in cash-for-vote scandal that hit the nation on the fateful evening of the 22nd of July, 2008.  The former Samajwadi Party Rajya Sabha MP Amar Singh, and two former BJP MP’s   Mahabir Singh Bhagora and Faggan Singh Kulaste have been arrested and put behind bars. BJP led opposition has been castigating the government for engineering the cash for vote scam and how money was being thrown around to get the required numbers in Parliament for the all-important July 22 voting on The Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Bill.

The nation has been outraged by the whole scandal. The way bundles of currency were put on display in sacks full of hard cash was indeed very dramatic. The nation was stunned and what followed was an inquiry into the whole scam. The Congress looked on the back foot and for most people the ruling UPA had egg on its face. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha Somnath Chatterjee condemned the whole episode and after his stint was over resigned from the membership of the Communist Party of India (M).

The two former BJP MP’s who have been put behind bars were the ones who had engineered the sting along with their colleague Ashok Argal. But it is also true that it was not just these three MP’s along with CNN-IBN that engineered the sting that was at the core of the cash-for-votes scandal. L.K. Advani the patriarch of the BJP has stated on the floor of the House that the sting was engineered by him and that it was unfortunate that the whistle blowers have been jailed while the real brains behind the attempt to bribe MP’s to vote for the UPA during the crucial July 22 vote in the Parliament are still not identified. He challenged the government to arrest him as he had given the go ahead to his MP’s to do the sting operation. Remarkably the controversial Tehelka newspaper had also alleged much earlier that both Advani and Arun Jaitley were not only in the know of the sting but coordinating the whole operation through Sudhendra Kulkarni who was the secretary to Advani.

The cash-for-vote scam was put in the cold storage soon after and while the Delhi police was given the task of finding out the people behind the ghastly attempt to bribe MP’s to vote in a particular way, the probe was hardly moving forward. It was after the Supreme Court took cognizance of the matter that the case began to move. It was then established that Sanjeev Saxena who was an associate of Amar Singh and one Suhail Hindustani were behind the cash-for-vote scam. It was Sanjeev Saxena who went with the cash to the MP’s residence and was assisted by Suhail Hindustani. Suhail is a small functionary of the BJP and no one knew him before this scam broke out. It also appears that Sudhendra Kulkarni was in touch with CNN-IBN and had facilitated the sting. Kulkarni might find himself behind bars soon as he is set to return to India and face the courts.

People are asking as to who is the beneficiary in this whole cash for vote scam. The fingers are pointing towards the Congress and the UPA-I, as one would logically deduce. It is also being said that Ahmed Patel and Amar Singh tried to bribe BJP MP’s. The Delhi police found no evidence against Ahmed Patel in the matter.

There was this other detail that emerged in the WikiLeaks that suggested that Gandhi confidant Satish Sharma and Nachikata Kapoor, a close friend of his had shown some US Embassy staff cupboard full of cash which they proposed to use to buy MP’s. The staffer found this distasteful and ‘not necessary’.  Both Kapoor and Sharma have denied talking to any US Embassy staff and showing any horde of cash.

The whole July 22 vote in the Parliament on the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Bill was a murky affair. The situation had become complicated after the Left parties had distanced themselves from the UPA alliance which they were a part of and the government had fallen in a minority of 268 in a required number of 272. The question was as to where will the UPA get those crucial few votes. The Manmohan Singh government looked pretty confident. The truth is there was reason for Manmohan Singh to be confident. And the reason was not because he had people like Amar Singh and Ahmed Patel and Satish Sharma working overtime to ensure that the government did not fall, but because there was no way the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Bill would not passed in the parliament. The stakes were too high and there were forces at work that were over and above Manmohan Singh and the Congress party. This was one Bill that had to pass, come what may and the whole cash for vote drama, as Ambassador  David Mulford said , “was clear theatrics.”1

What Ambassador David Mulford has said in muted voice is critically true to understand what happened on that fateful evening of July 22, 2008 in the Indian Parliament. Why did the Ambassador who was there to see the Nuclear Bill through chose to say what he did? It means that the whole sting and the following dramatic display of cash had no substance in it. It must be remembered that the government not only survived the voting in parliament but had a comfortable margin of 275 for the Bill and only 256 against it with 10 members abstaining.  The Opposition MPs who voted in favour of government were from the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Dal (BJD), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Janta Dal-Secular (JDS), the Janta Dal (United) JD (U), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the Nagaland People’s Party (NPF) and the National Loktantrik Party (NLP)2

The BJP, one would assume got a terrible beating after the sensational appearance of bags of currency notes. But was it really a loss for BJP either? The answers are not too simple. As said earlier, there was no way the Nuclear Bill was not going to get passed. My hunch is that had the Bill failed muster the BJP would have asked for a revote on some technical grounds and seen to it that the Bill passed in the next round of votes. Advani would have seen to it that the Bill got passed.

If the BJP was so keen to get the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Bill passed then why all the efforts at a sting and the following display of currency notes in parliament with millions watching the live coverage of the parliamentary proceedings around the world. The answer to the whole sordid affair also lies in the huge media coverage of the event and the BJP leadership reckoning that if they did something as dramatic as waving wads and wads of currency notes the prime minister would have no choice but to tender his resignation on the floor of the House. They calculated that the public outrage would be such with millions watching the proceedings live that the government would have no option but to resign. This was a calculated risk that the BJP top brass took. It was during the pandemonium in the House for close to half an hour when Adavni and Swaraj and others repeatedly demanded that the PM resign. Their shrill angst at the purported attempt at bribing MP’s and loud demands for resignation of the government that were a dead giveaway. It took some time for the UPA to get its bearings with Pranab Mukherjee walking out of the House only to return and say that the government will not resign and that they were ready to face a vote. For a moment it appears that Sardar Manmohan Singh was almost on the verge of writing his letter of resignation there and then. The wily Pranabda, it appears stopped him from taking any hasty steps and went out into his office only to reemerge and declare after a brief confabulation with the PM and Sonia Gandhi that all was well and that they must insist on a vote in the House. That took the wind out of the sails of the BJP, as it were. Suddenly Sushma Swaraj and Advani had a sheepish look and were like cattle going to a slaughter house. The bluff that the BJP had tried to pull off had been called and they knew that they had no choice but to ensure that the Bill be passed, which in turn meant that the government had to survive. This huge bluff was such a blow to the BJP that the government not only survived the July 22 vote but also completed its term. Had Advani, Swaraj and the rest of the BJP not tried this huge charade maybe at a later juncture, with the Left weaning away from the UPA, it was possible that the government could fall at a later date. But the eagerness of the BJP to bring down the government was such that it back fired. Had it been any other Bill than the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Bill maybe the government could have fallen. The BJP chose the wrong time and the wrong Bill to try and overthrow the government through sheer bluster and trying to pull a fast one.

As I said earlier, there was no way the government was going to fall over a Bill as important as the Nuclear Bill. The BJP knew that the Bill had to pass come what may. Why did the BJP know that the Bill had to pass? Because they had given an undertaking to the US that they would not come in the way. This was stated as much by none other than L.K. Advani when Henry Kissinger came calling before the crucial parliamentary vote. Imagine The Old Fox descending in New Delhi and meeting leaders of various political parties. It is also no secret that the Rightist BJP has had close relations with the West particularly with the US over the years. The West is more comfortable with the Rightist BJP than with the Left-of-Center Congress hobnobbing with ultra-Left for political expediency. When men like Henry Kissinger make a call, things move in a particular direction. It may not be too farfetched to say that the emergence of the BJP as a political alternative to the Congress is not just a coincidence. There were forces that wanted a rightist alternative to the Congress on the Indian political horizon. And then to expect the BJP to reject the pet proposal of the US government on which the US president had staked his own reputation was a political impossibility. There was no way the BJP could afford to let the Bill fall on the floor of the House. Jaswant Singh, one of the founding members of the BJP voiced his displeasure at the whole drama that was cash-for-vote. The man had reasons for doing so.

The question then arises as to why did Amar Singh and his side-kicks did what they did. And if indeed Nachiketa Kapoor and Satish Sharma were flaunting hordes of cash as claimed and never denied by Mr Sharma why did they do it. American officials have said that the whole exercise of trying to bribe the MP’s was unnecessary and something that was just not required. The simpleton PM had voiced his concern to his US counterpart that he may find it difficult to get the Nuclear Bill passed in the Indian parliament. The Americans  had obliquely indicated that they would ensure that the Bill got passed.

I believe that the US government had ensured that the Bill got passed. For them it was no great effort when they knew they had leverage with the principal opposition party the BJP. They however did not discourage the Congress and the UPA to make efforts at their own end. That is perhaps what explains the attempt, howsoever crude it was by some people to try and buy MP’s. I am not saying that Amar Singh  or Ahmed Patel or Satish Sharma tried to buy MP’s. The process of finding out the facts is still going on. But Amar Singh is in jail as of now and if one were to assume that he tried to throw money at some MP’s I guess he was doing on his own initiative. It must be remembered that soon after the cash fo vote scam Amar Singh was ousted from the Samajwadi Party. It seems that Mulayam Singh Yadav did not have a clue that Amar Singh was trying such theatrics. When it did come out in the open, a defiant Amar Singh played martyr for the Congress government and tried to justify all efforts fair and foul outside the Parliament right after the passage of the Bill talking pot shots at Advani and swearing his allegiance to Manmohan Singh. It could be that Amar Singh wanted to quit the SP and move the Congress and this was his way of alleging loyalty to Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi.  For his part Manmohan Singh government stalled the inquiry into the scam. It was this scam that was a Damocles sword on his head and which made Congress cagey about accepting Amar Singh into the party. The SC monitoring the scam saw the culmination of the probe and the ultimate arrest of Amar Singh.

As for the drama that was the waving of wads of currency notes in the Parliament, it sure did shock the nation and more importantly the Congress Party. The UPA had been assured by the US that all the holes had been plugged and even after the Left had withdrawn support the Bill would sail through the Parliament.  It was when the drama started that Pranab Mukherjee began to have doubts about the passage of the Bill. My take is that Pranabda then rushed to his office and contacted people who he had been confabulating with, it could be David Mulford or some other high US functionaries in DC. Be as it may, he was reassured by them that there were no glitches and that he should insist on the vote be carried, which he did when he came back. This then took the BJP by surprise. They had reckoned that the PM would resign on the floor of the House. They had also thought that they would then get the Bill passed with minor changes and take the credit for it. But that was not to be. The Congress insisted that the PM would resign if they fell short of numbers. That was a masterstroke from Pranabda and he had veritably checkmated Adavni and Co. who had no option but to support the Bill. An embarrassed BJP then expelled the 8 MP’s that had voted against the party but that was just a face saver. Most parties did not expel their MP’s who had cross voted but just asked for an explanation. The cash for vote was a stunt gone horribly wrong for the BJP. It ensured that the UPA completed its full term unhindered even after the Left had withdrawn support. As for the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Bill, there was never an iota of doubt about its passage – that was a foregone conclusion especially after the appearance of Henry Kissinger on the scene.

Update Sept., 20, 2011: There was this interesting comment from Renuka Chaudhary, the Congress spokeswoman who said as regards cash-for-vote scam that ‘pran jaye par Bachchan no jaye’. It must be pointed out here that a few days after Amar Singh got admitted to AIIMS Amitabh Bachchan and daughter Shewta went to meet Amar Singh. Could it be that the crores that were displayed on the floor of the house came from Amar Singh who had in turn sourced it from his friend Amitabh Bachchan?

The question is why would the two do such a thing. And the answer is that both had one thing in common – their innate desire to be in the good books of the First Family of India – the Gandhi family. Bachchans were close to Gandhis till things went sour after the marriage of Priyanka. Since then there has been a frosty aloofness between the Gandhis and the Bachchans. Amar Singh was for long trying to switch over to Congress – he was tired of SP and made no bones about it.

It could well be that both Bachchan and Singh thought that this was the right time to prove their undying loyalty to the Gandhis. The government was in a minority or so they thought. They would save the government and earn the gratitude of the Gandhis. It was a childish thought and bereft of political savvy. But then neither Amitabh Bachchan nor Amar Singh can be credited with astute political acumen. Bachchan may have thought worth his while to throw a few crores to earn the goodwill of the Gandhis. Amar Singh being the manipulator in-chief would of course get the credit. Who knew that the all consuming ambition of a Sindhi would be their undoing. What happened next must have left them open-mouthed!

  1. Diplomatic cables are ‘generally accurate’: David Mulford  : Hindustan Times, New Delhi, March 18, 2011
  2. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2008-07-23/news/27719712_1_cross-voted-trust-vote-bjp-mps  Economic Times
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