How a Plucky Dot-Com Changed India's Political Landscape

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Protestors burn an effigy of Prime Minister Vajpayee

Tehelka is a delightful Urdu word, difficult to translate. It refers to that special kind of tumult provoked by a daring act, or a sensational piece of writing. And that's exactly the effect that was provoked in India's government this week by a group of young Indian journalists who last year chose the word to name their web site. has certainly lived up to its name, announcing itself last May with an exposé — using spy cameras — of corruption in the top ranks of Indian cricket, the national sport. Now the fledgling web site has stirred an even bigger storm by secretly filming politicians, bureaucrats, army officers and business touts as they boast about fixing defense deals and, in some cases, are seen actually pocketing bundles of banknotes offered by Tehelka reporters posing as representatives of a fictitious British manufacturer of thermal imaging binoculars.

Falling like flies

Tehelka's sting turned New Delhi's corridors of power into a battlefield. Among the casualties are the national president of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (resigned); the national president of the Samta Party, part of Vajpayee's ruling coalition (resigned); Defense Minister George Fernandes (resigned), and several top army officers (suspended).

There are even a couple of deserters: Two senior ministers belonging to the Trinamool Congress resigned from Vajpayee's coalition government out of concern about the impact of the Tehelka tapes on forthcoming elections in their party's home province of West Bengal. Other coalition partners were frantically assessing the long-term political impact of the scandal.

Will Vajpayee survive?

So is Vajpayee next on the casualty list? Will become the first web site in history to unseat a prime minister and bring down a national government?

The answer lies in political arithmetic rather than political ethics.

Even after the departure of the Trinamool Congress, Vajpayee's government retains a majority in parliament. It could theoretically fall if more coalition partners jump ship. But if that happens, the snap general election that is sure to follow would be fought on a single issue — corruption in government. The incumbents would be at a terrible disadvantage. Safer to stick together and hunker down, and hope no more shells land close to the trenches.

BJP's halo muddied

But the Tehelka tapes may have forever altered the political landscape for Vajpayee and the BJP. The party's popular appeal isn't based entirely on its Hindu nationalist ideology. Equally important has been its image as an honest party that would never compromise on national security. The genial, portly Vajpayee is the personification of these qualities. But with the repeated airing of the Tehelka videotapes on TV, what was still largely cocktail party gossip in New Delhi has turned into a national sensation — Vajpayee heads a corrupt administration, and fortunes are being made from kickbacks on defense deals.

Indians are sick of corruption in government, but they've also learned to accept it as a fact of life. But what still gets people very angry is when guns and graft come together. That's viewed as venality that compromises national security. The late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi suffered a humiliating electoral defeat in 1989 after he was accused of accepting kickbacks from a howitzer deal with Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors. The Bofors scandal still haunts the Congress Party.

Indians are as unlikely to forget the latest defense scandal, this time implicating the BJP.

But they may also be discovering new heroes. Tehelka investigative reporter Anirudh Behl, who doggedly pursued both the cricket match-fixing and the defense ministry exposes, got mobbed when he stepped out onto the street in New Delhi. Two grown men grabbed and kissed him. "I'm amazed at the response of ordinary people," says Behl. "There's this whole feeling of empowerment, this feeling that somebody has struck a blow against corruption on their behalf." Things are certainly heating up in Indian politics — you don't need thermal imaging binoculars to detect that.