Dramatis personae: Amar Singh at the Supreme Court
Dramatis personae Amar Singh at the Supreme Court , Photo: Vijay Pandey

AMAR SINGH’s arrest last week would have come as a cathartic rush for most Indians. Barely a couple of years ago, such an arrest seemed an unimaginable thing. Singh was a formidable figure on the political landscape: as brazen as he was unassailable. He moved around famously with powerful filmstars, politicians and corporates — and a cloud of disrepute as large as the glamour. But the cloud never seemed to dwarf the silver lining.

Scandalous tapes that spoke of unsavoury deals and liaisons; an on-going police investigation into hundreds of his allegedly shell companies; the sudden emergence of tapes with his alleged conversation with lawyer Shanti Bhushan; fatal rifts with SP supremo Mulayam Singh and the formerly inseparable Bachchans — he survived them all with his peculiar brand of crudity, chutzpah and junglecraft.

But finally, the cloud seems to have caught up. As this issue goes to press, it’s unclear whether Singh will get bail. If not on clinching legal evidence, at least by the codes of street justice he has lived by and surely understands, it seems fit that he remain in jail a while.

Dramatis personae Advani at the Lok Sabha
Advani at the Lok Sabha

The cash-for-votes scam that Amar Singh has been arrested for is a complex issue that raises many vexed questions. In a sense, Singh is the easiest end of the puzzle. No matter what the complicated politics of the sting are — who really authorised it; who engineered it; what was the motive — this much is clear from the CNN-IBN tapes: Singh was willing to play ball. When senior party colleague, SP leader Reoti Raman Singh, was approached by the BJP decoys, he caved in easily and promised to take the MPs to Amar Singh’s house. Unfortunately for the sting operation, the MPs were too terrified of Amar Singh’s reputation as a street fighter to take body cameras into his house. So Amar is not seen anywhere on camera. But the circumstantial evidence is high. There is Reoti Raman Singh’s conversation on camera; there is the drive to Amar Singh’s house; and later, the shots of Sanjiv Saxena, Amar’s associate, dropping money off to BJP decoy Argal’s house.

Even if one grants that Amar and his associates may not have been the aggressor in this particular case; that it was not he who was actively shopping for the MPS but the BJP MPS who approached his men seeking to be bought — even if one grants this, the fact remains that he had the option to turn them down. The choice for personal integrity is always available to everyone. By entertaining the BJP MPs’ offer to be bribed, it is clear Singh had absolutely no qualm in subverting democracy’s highest plinth: Parliament. Of all the reasons the cloud could finally have caught up with him for, this seems most symbolically correct. And potent.

BUT THAT, roughly, is where the simplicities of the cash-for-votes scam end. On 8 September, leader of Opposition LK Advani stood up in Parliament and made an assertion that was masterfully astute, yet, morally shocking.

Defending the two BJP MPS Ashok Argal and Faggan Singh Kulaste, jailed with Amar Singh for their role in the sting operation, Advani admitted in Parliament that it was he who had authorised the sting operation and dared the UPA government to arrest him as well.

As politics goes, there couldn’t have been a better joust. The UPA — already beleaguered by a dozen crises — can hardly dare to arrest him and Advani has skillfully managed to put the government on the backfoot for arresting supposed “whistle-blowers”.

The problem is this would have been both a politically astute and morally noble position if the BJP MPs and the cash-for-votes sting operation had really been a bona fide whistle-blowing operation.

That is, if the BJP MPs had been approached by the UPA to jump ship and the MPS or the BJP had decided to expose this by asking a media house to sting the shameful bribe offer.

But as TEHELKA’s story (A Trap. And a Cover-Up, 2 April) established, and the edit (The Rules of Entrapment, 9 April) reiterated, the reality is much more complicated.

Both from the CNN-IBN sting footage and the account of former CNN-IBN reporter Siddharth Gautam, the only neutral and credible voice in the sting operation, it is clear that at least in this case the BJP MPs were not first approached with a bribe by the UPA or even the SP, but the exact opposite: it was the BJP that was out looking frantically for someone to bribe them so that they could catch it on their hidden camera and embarrass the UPA the next day. (Siddharth Gautam has audio clips to back this claim.)

This completely changes the nature of the sting. It is no longer a bona fide whistle-blowing operation exposing an actual and on-going wrong-doing but something cynically engineered by one political party to bring down another. Such a sting — a sort of morality test to see who would stumble in a generic atmosphere of corruption — would have been tenable if it had been undertaken independently by a media house that had nothing to gain from it. But here the BJP clearly stood to gain: it had a vested interest in bringing down the government and seizing power itself.

Frustratingly, few seem to grasp this essential difference between a media house and a political party undertaking a sting of this nature.

Often there are comparisons to TEHELKA’s own famous and controversial sting into defence corruption back in 2001. The simple answer to that is TEHELKA did not stand to become prime minister or defence minister by testing the virtues of the establishment. But Mr Advani does.

People often mistake TEHELKA’s stand on this issue as a partiality to the Congress. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our anxiety is about a point of principle: can our parliamentary democracy be reduced to political parties engineering stings against each other to topple each other from power or erode each others’ political capital? Will elections soon be made redundant? The next time the BJP is in power, should the Congress set out on a fishing expedition to test the morality of its weakest link and use that to unseat an NDA government?

In Parliament, Advani claimed passionately that he knew everything about the sting and asserted that, as leader of Opposition, if he had felt anything was wrong with the exercise, he would have stopped it. This is making too tall a claim for immaculate personal judgements. Perhaps it is time to remind the august leader that about 20 years ago he had presided energetically over a rath yatra and a show of strength at an old medieval mosque. Later, he called its demolition “the saddest day of my life”.

8 September 2011 should not become a smaller, but similar, error in personal judgement. Far better to stick with asking the much more valid political question: Whose interest was Amar Singh acting for?