India's Establishment Dot-Compromised

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Naming names: Tehelka's chronicle of graft

Eat your heart out, Matt Drudge. India's defense minister George Fernandes resigned Thursday, joining a growing number of leading politicians and senior army officers forced to stand down in a corruption scandal revealed by a tiny New Delhi dot-com. certainly made good on its promise of "news, views and all the juice" when it sent a few of its journalists out posing as arms dealers waving wads of cash at politicians and generals, and then filmed the resulting transactions with secret cameras. The result? A corruption dot-bombshell that has shaken India's political establishment to the core. But, says TIME contributor Maseeh Rahman, the dramatic sting was business as usual for the plucky web journalists. It must be an unprecedented event for a web site to rock the political establishment in this way...

Maseeh Rahman: Not really. In fact, this is not the first time Tehelka has caused a national sensation with its spy cameras. The cricket-match-fixing scandal that has rocked India's national sport began with the same dot-com, which sent well-known cricketer Manoj Prabhakar and some of their own journalists out with spy cameras to meet leading players and officials and get them talking about all the sleazy dealings. And what they uncovered forced the government to launch an FBI-type investigation, which led to some of India's leading cricketers, such as Ajay Jadeja and Mohammed Azharuddin, being punished for match-fixing

And the funny thing was that during the cricket scandal, Jadeja's most furious defender was Jaya Jaitly, who is the companion of the defense minister and whose name has come up in connection with the latest scandal. Jadeja had been a kind of fiancé to her daughter. So it suggests that corruption may run in different directions, but they're all interlinked.

Have they posted their findings online?

They had a four-hour press conference yesterday where they showed the footage, and they've put a lot of material up on their site. But of course the site was almost impossible to reach yesterday because of all the traffic.

Does this portend a new form of more aggressive investigative journalism in India?

Well, Tehelka has certainly changed the rules of the game, bringing in miniature spy cameras where previously journalists had relied only on tape recorders and notebooks. And both times, the site conducted extensive investigations over a number of months. But while one hopes this will usher in a new era in investigative journalism, corruption has become so endemic in our system that people generally see it as just one more scandal — a few heads will roll, and then it's back to business.

The media is not making the kind of impact it did in the past. Once, a report of this type would prompt a serious review of what was going on. There's no indication that we can expect that any time soon. And the depressing thing is the extent of the rot. These guys set up fictitious companies that had no background. They were nobodies from nowhere, but because they were carrying bundles of money they could walk into the homes of leading politicians' houses and meet the top generals. And it's not as if they were offering sums that were all that large. You just have to have a bundle of banknotes and you can do anything you like in Delhi. The generals were giving confidential Indian army documents to these guys. It's the honest guys today who are the odd men out. They have to either keep their heads down and say nothing or else get out. That's the difference from 20 years ago — it really has become a fraternity of thieves.