Uncomfortable questions, unconvincing answers

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Last week’s investigation by TEHELKA into the Jet Airways free tickets scandal (How the mighty fly high on freebies by Mathew Samuel) lays bare the collusion among corporates, politicians, bureaucrats and other VIPs, which everyone suspected existed but no one cared to expose.

By conveniently choosing to explain it away as something that was commonplace, some of the individuals accused of abusing power and peddling influence in the Tehelka report only reinforced the belief that, perhaps, we, as a nation and a society, have become so inured to (and tolerant of) corruption, in all its forms and manifestations, that even a brazen display of corruption, such as in the instant case, does not stir our collective conscience.

In a sense, the reaction is reminiscent of how Beni Prasad Verma, a former minister in the erstwhile UPA government, chose to respond when asked about the allegations of embezzlement of Rs 71 lakh levelled against the Dr Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust, run by former Union minister Salman Khurshid and his wife Louise.

“It is a very small amount for a Central minister. I would have taken it seriously if the amount was Rs 71 crore,” Verma had said matter-of-factly. He later clarified that even 1 constitutes corruption but a message had already gone out that for a scam-ridden government such as Manmohan Singh’s, Khurshid’s alleged misdemeanours paled in comparison to, say, the 2G, the Commonwealth Games or coal scams. (A private television channel’s report based on a sting operation in 2012 said the trust allegedly forged the signatures and faked the seals of senior officials of Uttar Pradesh to receive grants from the Union government for the welfare of the disabled. The report claimed that the aid was not distributed to the targeted beneficiaries.)

This is not to say that politicians in the United Kingdom are any less or more corrupt than their counterparts elsewhere, India included, but former British home minister David Blunkett had to resign for even as much as asking the person concerned to fast track the issue of a visa application of the nanny of his former lover. The contrast becomes stark when you consider successive governments’ oft-repeated slogan of zero tolerance to corruption and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion that neither does he himself indulge in corruption nor would he allow others to do it (“Na khaata hoon, na khaane doonga”.)

Following the Tehelka exposé, when journalists approached the various persons named in the report, they tied themselves in knots. Former civil aviation secretary KN Srivastava had this to say: “I completely deny the allegations. These are totally rubbish. I have never asked for free tickets. When in service, we used to always travel by Air India.” Kerala Chief Secretary and former Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) chief EK Bharat Bhushan, in turn, was quoted as saying: “I paid for my journeys. I have records to show that.” DGCA’s Joint Director-General Lalit Gupta shot off a letter to Jet Airways CEO Cramer Ball, copying it to DGCA chief Prabhat Kumar, warning of legal recourse, accusing the airline of “leakage” of its confidential papers. Gupta claimed that he had “paid tickets and government approvals” for two official visits abroad on Jet Airways. While one of the visits to Athens was to attend a meeting under the India-EU Aviation Environment Training Programme, the other one was to Montreal for a conference of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) as India’s representative.

Suffice it to say, none of the dramatis personae in the TEHELKA investigation offered a convincing or satisfactory explanation of their alleged wrongdoings. It leads one to believe that the only reason they didn’t is because there was no way they could have defended their actions. For, it is an open-and-shut case of bureaucrats, big business and other VIPs colluding and compromising with one another in a clear violation of service rules and in utter disregard of probity and propriety.

Jet airways may have the discretion to upgrade an economy class passenger to the higher classes in some cases but surely the bureaucrats would have known that they were flouting rules by flying a private airline and not a State-owned carrier as their service rules stipulate? Again, surely their service rules did not permit them to make their friends, families or relatives fly a private airline and that too free of cost?

According to the documents, including, but not limited to, the Travel Authority Requests (TARS), confirmed tickets and email correspondence between and among Jet Airways employees and the officials of the civil aviation ministry, the DGCA, the Bureau of Civil Aviation Safety (BCAS) and others accessed by TEHELKA, some of the tickets were paid for by “9W accounts” (9W is the airline code of Jet Airways); in other words, the cost of those tickets was borne by Jet Airways, and not the passengers in question.

To say that the Tehelka investigation dealt only with upgradation of tickets from the economy class to the higher classes is only half the story told. Look at it that way and one may not be seeing the wood for the trees. More important is the quid pro quo that was established, including, in one instance, extension of the Foreign Aircrew Temporary Authorisation (FATA) until 2016 — which is evidenced in certain email correspondences.

For its part, a media report, which was published after the Tehelka report was made public, quoted Jet Airways as saying that “upgrades are a common industry practice in the global travel, tourism and service sectors and are extended to passengers subject to availability at the discretion of the service provider. Jet Airways has the prerogative to afford its guests privileges, including upgrades, at its discretion and does not stand alone in this practice”.

The rot is not limited to bureaucrats alone. Some VIPs such as Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, had made it a habit to automatically get upgraded to the first class every time he flew Jet Airways.

An economy class ticket for London costs about Rs 80,000 while the first class fare is in excess of Rs 3 lakh. Emails of Jet Airways’ internal communications show that Vadra always bought economy tickets only to be upgraded to the first class. Furthermore, the manner in which Vadra’s associate calls up the Jet office, including its top officials, is out of the ordinary, to say the least, and hardly fits the description of someone who likes to describe himself as a “private person”.

How many “private citizens” do you, the Tehelka reader, know are exempted from security checks (frisking) at airports? Vadra is reported to be the only private person on the list of 31 exempted individuals such as former presidents of India, the Chief Justice of India, the Lok Sabha Speaker and sitting Supreme Court judges.

In a statement issued purportedly on Vadra’s behalf by INTUC (Indian National Trade Union Congress) vice-president Jagdish Sharma, he wonders why Vadra is being selectively targeted. (Incidentally, Sharma was present at the press conference called by Tehelka to share the exposé with other media.) A media report has since quoted sources close to Vadra as clarifying that “no statement has been ­issued by Vadra or his office”.

One can only ask, half in wonderment, “Are you serious”, Mr Vadra?!

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