Indian politicians rarely write memoirs. And the few who do, offer such a sanitised version of men and matters that it makes a very dull reading. Whether the reticence to tell it as it was stems from an anxiety not to step on toes or from concerns that truth-telling in turn might leave them scarred as well when the victim offers his own version, is hard to say, but there is no denying the paucity of good political autobiographies. L.K. Advani and Pranab Mukherjee, tall leaders in their own right, have offered their memoirs, but, if you think, these contained any hitherto unknown nuggets of information, clearly you do not care to keep yourself abreast of current affairs. A fully varnished account of recent but historical events does not a great autobiography make.
However, Jaya Jaitly, a one-time president of the now defunct Samata Party, has most pleasantly surprised us with her memoirs, a welcome exception that proves the general rule about political autobiographies. Her Life Among The Scorpions: Memoirs Of A Woman In Indian Politics is all the more relevant because for the first time it spotlights the rottenness of the polity and a section of the mercenary media always ready and willing to sell itself to the lowest bidder.
That a woman with an upper middle class upbringing and a fine education, with friends and relatives in senior positions in the ruling establishment, who had done laudable work for the uplift of the hitherto neglected handicrafts and tribal artisans, chose to enter politics, ought to have been a matter of celebration, given how few women there are in politics. Instead, she became an eyesore not only for some of her own party colleagues, but for all others because she was unwilling to play politics of intrigue and manipulation and, above all, unready to soil her hands with filthy lucre.
For us the value of her book lies in its reaffirmation of what we have said and written all along, that the so-called Tehelka sting operation was a grand conspiracy masterminded by a couple of high-profile dalals in order to destabilise the A.B. Vajpayee government. These dalals roped in Tarun Tejpal. The rest of the rottenness is recent history anyway. But Jaitly brings it out lucidly and forcefully in her memoirs. Defence Minister George Fernandes, a life-long critic of the Gandhi family and its close friend, the Italian wheeler-dealer, Ottavio Quattrocchi, was the main target, because he kept an open house and was personally squeaky clean. Jaitly, the Samata Party president, became a collateral victim.
The conspiracy was encouraged by the powerful fixers who were rendered jobless by the Vajpayee government. Contrary to the false claim that the money for the sting operation—including for supplying prostitutes—had come from his old school friend, one Shankar Sharma, a share broker, Jaitly provides evidence that Rs 6 crores came through foreign channels and was only routed through Sharma for it to be given to Tejpal for implementing the plot.
Then BJP president Bangaru Laxman, a simpleton, was easily trapped, but Jaitly, the target of the dalals who had bankrolled the conspiracy, was no fool. Though she was the president of the Samata Party at the time, she did not handle the party’s finances. But the sting-operators thrust a small packet in the hand of a visitor whose name they did not even know. The visitor, an old socialist from Rajasthan, had come to meet Fernandes. Later, it was claimed that Jaitly accepted money on behalf of the Defence Minister. And the tapes were apparently used to try and achieve the intended political effect by the mercenary Tehelka bosses.
Meanwhile, Sharma, the share broker, had short-sold in the belief that the Tehelka revelations would destabilise the Vajpayee government. Years later, the market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, would blacklist Sharma, banning him from market operations. The Supreme Court upheld the ban. It is a reflection on the financial media that in spite of this proven crookedness, Sharma regularly holds forth in print and on various TV channels on the state of the economy. Maybe such market players know better than others.
(Later, when the UPA returned to power, Sonia Gandhi personally directed Finance Minister P. Chidambaram to accord Sharma the VIP treatment, and remove all the restrictions the previous government had put on his unholy market operations. And Tejpal in a letter to Soniaji would beg her with folded hands that she should also release Priyanka Beti for the service of the nation. Touché!)
Still, staying on the fake sting operation, the most damning part in Jaitly’s book is how the Congress party subverted the functioning of the Commission of Inquiry headed by a widely respected former judge of the Supreme Court. Just when it was about to reveal the entrapment conspiracy and the doctoring of the tapes, its financing, various false claims made by Tejpal, a Congress lawyer humiliated a self-respecting head of the inquiry commission, forcing him to quit in a huff. This is exactly what the Tehelka backers wanted because the truth would have shamed them all.
Meanwhile, if you still want to know how easy it was to classify Tejpal’s journalism, remember that he had given a clean chit to the Ruias of the now bankrupt Essar group, the main accused in the 2G scam, in a cover story done by another messiah-journalist, Ashish Khetan. It turned out that the Ruias had paid Rs 3 crore to the Tejpal-run tamasha in Goa, yes, the same where he was caught allegedly molesting a journalist colleague, for the said clean chit in the 2G scam.
To sum, if you have to read the memoirs of a politician, read Jaitly’s. Her intrinsic decency and upbringing made her unfit for this dirty business. The few women we have in politics, bar an honourable exception or two, have to hang on to the coattails of their male mentors. Or they invariably fail to rise to the top—unless, of course, you belong to the Congress’s royalty resident at 10 Janpath.