I used to admire Jaya Jaitly. Her role on the Tehelka tapes didn’t entirely shake that admiration. She had made a mistake: I was sure she’d set the pace; be gracious; step down. But watching her doggedly amplify her wrongs over the last year, I realise she embodies a kind of political predicament – she is the good individual who’s been unable to withstand the system; the idealist who has lost the way but remains frighteningly opaque to the situation.

Spread-eagled between the idea and the reality then, she is trapped in her own trick mirror: she is no longer who she was, she cannot reconcile to who she has become. The moral bewilderment of that position explains her spiralling deceptions.

On March 13, 2001, what was Jaya Jaitley on the mat for? Being a close associate of the defence minister, she had met ostensible arms dealers at his residence, offered to refer their product to him (though she had no official locus standi to do so), and had accepted a packet of money in return. This was handed over to Gopal Pacherwal in her presence; she asked for it to be sent to Srinivas Prasad for a political meet in Bangalore. All of this was an impropriety; a flagrant misuse of public office; an example of the rot in the system. If she had recognised this and apologised – I am sure she would have been vindicated.

Instead, she has chosen an increasingly dishonest path. On March 14, 2001, (HT) Jaya claimed that she wasn’t in the wrong because she had merely asked the “decoy businessmen” to hand over the “donation” to Samata officials for organising the party’s national council meet. “And a close scrutiny of the tapes will show,” she said, “I clearly told them… I would help them out provided it was not against national interest.” This was moral equivocation, but still, largely true.

Subsequently though, she played other tunes: she claimed the tapes were entirely doctored; that she had never taken any money at all; that the Tehelka journalists approached her as “electronic dealers”; that the whole thing was an “unscrupulous conspiracy”. When the Venkatswami Commission ruled that the tapes were genuine, she appealed to the high court. When the high court ruled against her, she corralled the media. Finally, when she was forced to admit in the commission that a packet had indeed been handed over on her acceptance, she said she thought there were sweets in it!

Why am I singling out Jaya Jaitly? To my mind, it is precisely her past record of integrity that makes her conduct matter the most. Her post-exposé behaviour tells us that even the good in Indian politics are morally unsalvageable. Instead of standing apart – through admission and penitence – she has led the ranks of the guilty in their chameleon stands, their shrill propaganda, their acrobatic lies.

The disappointment is great, the scorn is greater: if the journalists had met you as “electronic dealers”, Ms Jaitly, why would you need to bracket your offer of help with the caveat that it should not be against “national interest”? If you thought the packet had sweets in it, why did you ask for it to be sent to Bangalore? If you are an impeccable leader, how can you not admit to a mistake? Not distinguish right from wrong?

It’s curious. Our experience should have sent us scuttling for burrows. Instead, the more we’ve been shot at, the more combative we’ve become. This comes from the realisation that an ordinary act of conscience can wrest you out of your secure orbit, that modern battles are not for heroes, they have to be fought by each one of us. The struggle is not to arrive at acceptance: we have learnt the hard way that for every clean politician, there has to be one less colluding Indian.

And so the questions rattle in my head.

When Kirit Rawal – the additional solicitor general of India – says in the commission that “according to information received by the government” (sic), Aniruddha Bahal’s advances from the reputed publishing houses of Faber & Faber and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for his novel, Bunker 13, are really “illegal earnings” being routed back to him – is the government displaying its colossal incompetence or is it lying? With all the intelligence machinery at its disposal, can it not ascertain a simple book advance from a hawala transaction? Does it think that the publishing houses above can lend themselves to money laundering? Does the ASG’s office have no dignity? Are we right to allow him to stoop so low?

Seasoned journalists have become too inured, too accepting of the rhetoric of realpolitik. When I recount this story – the most innocuous in the Tehelka saga – they brush it aside as “typical”, “expected”. This is a mistake. If public life in India is to change, we have to rediscover the moral power of shock. Every time we allow the government to mouth the smallest of stupidities, we are lowering the bar. If they are not even incumbent to say the right thing, why will they bother to act?

In the last one year, there’s been a mounting brazenness. The CAG report confirming irregularities in procurements for Kargil has been rudely dismissed. Never mind that it is the highest auditing office in the land, R.V. Pandit called it “half-baked and almost intentionally malicious”. The CEC has been kicked off as a “Congress stooge” (which rings a bell for Tehelka); and the CVC brushed under the carpet.

We have heard of the State killing its own citizens and fudging their DNA in Chittisingpora; and watched George Fernandes declare the rape of women a habitual crime in Parliament. Every NDA ally has stood by on Gujarat. The Congress’s hands are always tied. And while Shankar Sharma is made to remain paralysed “pending investigation”, Fernandes has calmly resumed office.

And so I come to the most disturbing question of all: if the cards are so powerfully stacked on the side
of the wrong, why should anybody ever want to do the right thing?

Also Read: The Lagaan Team