Sting on a shoestring

With inept cover stories, amateurish disguises and a tiny budget, these men exposed corruption at the heart of India's government. Luke Harding on a compelling tale of greed and stupidity

Luke Harding
Wednesday March 21, 2001

Guardian

As Major SJ Singh walked into the penthouse suite of Delhi's Oberoi hotel, he noticed nothing amiss. The surroundings were luxurious. And the man who rose to greet him from the plush sofa seemed entirely plausible if, perhaps, a little young to be the president of a large London-based arms company. The man introduced himself as Alvin D'Souza. He explained that he needed Major Singh's help. His firm wanted to sell night goggles to the Indian army. Would Major Singh - for a certain consideration, naturally - be able to smooth things along?

A keen observer of this encounter, however, might have spotted that all was not as it seemed. The black cap D'Souza was wearing for example, was completely ridiculous. As was his drawling transatlantic accent and his black Gucci spectacles. But Major Singh noticed nothing amiss - nor, in fact, did any of the senior bureaucrats, military officials and top politicians who were swept along in a sting which has the potential to bring down India's government. Had Major Singh known who his interlocutor really was, he would have groaned in horror. So would Bangaru Laxman, the president of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who resigned last week after he was secretly filmed stuffing a £1,500 payment into the drawer of his desk. So would George Fernandes, India's defence minister, who never met D'Souza but was forced to fall on his sword on Thursday for presiding over a ministry at the centre of a corruption controversy.

Because D'Souza was not D'Souza. He was Aniruddha Bahal, a 34-year-old investigative journalist working for a pioneering news website, tehelka.com. In August of last year he and a 28-year-old colleague, Matthew Samuel, began an investigation into the murky world of Indian defence deals. In theory, payment of commissions for defence purchases is illegal on the subcontinent. But since the mid-80s rumours had been circulating about Indian middlemen who had grown super-rich on defence commissions: rumours of luxury Mercedes cars they drove; the vast rococo farmhouses that they owned in south Delhi; and the lavish bashes they threw. No one, however, had proof.

So armed with a pauper's budget of just £17,000 and a rather preposterous black hat, the journalists decided to pose as arms dealers working for West End, a fictitious British company based in Regent Street in London. They first discovered a product the Indian army was genuinely interested in buying: thermal imaging night goggles for use on the icy mountains of Kashmir on India's border with Pakistan. In the cavernous ground floor of Tehelka's three-storey suburban office in Delhi, they devised a false logo for West End - a quaint English country cottage - and printed off phoney business cards. They then used the internet to obtain plausible specifications for their nonexistent product. They downloaded a couple of enticing photos. They put together a prospectus. Finally, Bahal bought himself a new suit. They were ready.

What followed was an extraordinary, picaresque journey. It would take the two reporters from the living rooms of retired brigadier-generals, through the lobbies of Delhi's most chichi hotels to, finally, the Indian defence minister's private residence, decorated with tasteful Buddhist wall hangings. "We lived with the danger of being exposed throughout this time," says Bahal. "I didn't have a Sunday off for eight months. Every day we kept going was a bonus for us. Luck was there but we also succeeded in holding our nerve."

The two men uncovered a compelling tale of greed, stupidity and institutionalised corruption. They began modestly, by approaching junior officials in India's defence ministry to "help" them secure a contract. In exchange for paltry payments of £100 to £600 - but with the promise of more to come - the officials introduced them to several middlemen who had previously "fixed" big-money deals involving Russian jets, Italian artillery shells and Slovakian armoured personnel carriers. The incriminating conversations that followed were recorded using hidden spy cameras.

The trail led deep into the government. Jaya Jaitly, the president of Fernandes's Samata Party, a crucial partner in India's ruling coalition, accepted a £3,000 payment from West End in the defence minister's living room. She agreed to alert Fernandes to West End's product.

After paying out more money in bribes, the journalists were finally introduced to Bangaru Laxman, the BJP's Dalit president and one of the government's most senior figures. Laxman was eloquent. He explained that the man to turn to over defence deals was Brajesh Mishra, the national security adviser and trusted aide to India's prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Laxman was happy to accept 100,000 rupees (£1,500) by way of a "small new year's gift".

Amazingly, during the amateurish seven-and-a-half month investigation, nobody guessed that the two representatives from West End were, in fact, rather bad and sometimes bungling impostors. At one point Samuel was asked which bank his company used. He answered: "Thomas Cook." Worse was to follow. One military official asked Samuel where he stayed when he was in London. Samuel had never been outside India. Panicked, he replied: "Manchester United."

"The official was confused but not suspicious," says Bahal.

"There were other difficulties too. Some of the people we talked to wanted us to introduce them to young women. We got some of the female reporters to come along dressed in normal western clothes. Halfway through the interview they would feign an asthma attack and run out of the room. By the end they got quite good at this."

By January this year the money had run out - and the calls from officials who had been falsely promised huge sums of money became more persistent. Too many people were growing suspicious. "We were working through three or four different channels. They blew one by one," says Bahal. A mobile phone call was traced back to Tehelka's office, and investigators were dispatched to London - only to discover that West End did not exist.

Last month the team hid itself in a ground floor editing suite sealed with black paper, and started transcribing 100 hours of video footage. A week ago they finally screened their exposé. The results were devastating, plunging India's 17-month-old coalition government into a crisis which most observers believe will finish it off in the next few months. The prime minister still has a small majority but appears demoralised and upset. And while ordinary Indians suspected that their rulers might be corrupt they had never been previously able to see them on the take on television.

"The visual image of Bangaru is just unforgettable. The whole thing is very sad but there is also a hilarious aspect to it," says Professor Zoya Hassan, a political analyst at Delhi's Jawarhar Lal Nehru University. Last Tuesday, Laxman was forced to resign. He claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy. Two days later, after protesting her innocence, Jaitly followed. One of the government's key allies, the Trinamool Congress, led by the mercurial Mamata Bannerjee, then stormed out of the ruling coalition. She demanded the defence minister's resignation. Two hours later Fernandes did step down and made a wild-haired appearance on India's state-run TV channel in which he denied any wrongdoing.

The government has agreed to a judicial inquiry but no criminal charges have been brought. But the tapes reveal a depressing pattern in which political parties, bureaucrats and generals routinely cream off at least 7% in commission on each defence purchase. A host of other defence deals have now come under the spotlight - not least India's baffling and bizarre recent decision to buy a fire-ravaged, secondhand aircraft carrier from Russia for $700m (£490m). Over the past week, Tehelka's website has received 30m hits. "There is a sense of national catharsis," says Tarun Tejpal, Tehelka's managing director. "Everywhere I've gone, people have wanted to shake my hand. I went to the loo in a hotel and people were waiting until I had finished peeing."

Tejpal, who set up the website a year ago ( tehelka means chilli in Hindi), says the investigation succeeded thanks to greed. "They were so blinded by money. They could only see the money. They took money routinely and this was just one more payment for these guys."

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