Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Hindu Brings in the Clowns -- Again

The Hindu, Chennai's bastion of radical chic journalism, has done it again.

A quarter century after an anonymous "leak" to its NRI stringer in Geneva set off the clown-show in Delhi  that has gone down in history as the "Bofors Scandal," it has mobilized a repeat performance by the pratfalling, slaphappy crew that passes for the parliamentary opposition.

The story is totally delicious in its "Only in India" aspects.

First: the EXPOSE!

A front-page story on 17 March carried a 5-column headline: "Satish Sharma aide showed U.S. Embassy employee cash to be used as 'pay-offs' in confidence vote."

On the basis of a Wikileaks cable given exclusively to The Hindu, Siddharth Vardarajan reported that five days before the 2008 no-confidence vote in parliament on the US-India nuclear deal, "a political aide to Congress leader Saish Sharma showed a US Embassy employee 'two chests containing cash' he said was part of a bigger fund of Rs 50 crore to Rs. 60 crore that the party had assembled to purchase the support of MPs." The aide "also claimed the four MPs belonging to Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal  (RLD) had already been paid Rs. 10 crore each"to ensure they voted the right way."

The cable was sent by Steven White, then charge d'Affaires at the US Embassy, but he himself did not see the money. The person who saw it was unnamed in the cable, and identified only as an "Embassy staff member." White informed Washington that "Sharma's political aide Nachiketa Kapur" had told the staffer about the money "in an aside." Varadarajan then added his own spin to the tale: "Lest this should be construed by the visiting diplomats as an empty boast, Sharma's aide put his money where his mouth was" and showed the Embassy aide the money.

Vardarajan doesn't seem to have done the most elementary fact-check on what he called the cable's "revelation." If he had made a few phone calles the facts that came to light immediately after the story hit the wires would have become readily apparent:

Satish Sharma denied that he had an aide called Nachiketa Kapur.

Mr. Kapur told reporters he had never worked for Satish Sharma.

Ajit Singh said that his party had only three Members of Parliament in 2008, and they had voted against the government.

As of this writing, the Opposition in Parliament was in full cry about the "moral stain" on the government, as the BJP's Arun Jaitley termed it. He demanded that the government resign immediately.

Brinda Karat of the CPI (M) told a television reporter it was a "shame." The reporter pointed out the denials by Sharma and Kapur, and the fact that the supposedly bribed MPs had voted against the government.

"It doesn't matter" (if they took the money or not) she declared. "The question is if the money was there..." She wanted a "criminal investigation."

At this writing all work in Parliament had been brought to a halt.

There are two questions unlikely to get much attention in the noise this issue will generate in the coming weeks.

1. When will The Hindu learn not to headline foreign "leaks"  without checking any of the facts?

2. When will Members of Parliament learn that such "leaks" are politically motivated and that they should avoid knee-jerk reactions?

And a third consideration which everyone should take into account in these perilous times: the entire Wikileaks phenomenon reeks of manipulation. Almost everything revealed so far is embarrassing to other capitals, not Washington. Has anyone considered if Mr. White's cable was an attempt to provide plausible cover for an attempt by the United States itself to manipulate the parliamentary vote?

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