Book Excerpt: From Life Among the Scorpions by Jaya Jaitly

Jaya Jaitly - Life Among the Scorpions



Tehelka Sting I

CONSPIRACIES AGAINST PEOPLE PERCEIVED TO be in ‘power’ are meticulously planned and have a carefully orchestrated process. The perpetrators are efficient, stealthy, networked and rich. It is easy to go after unsuspecting innocents and paint them as criminals. With ample help from a blood-thirsty media, a gullible and inflammable public and the cynical adage that ‘politics is not about fact, it is about perception’, they always have an advantage.

On 22 June 2000, George Fernandes, Digvijay Singh and I were on a morning flight to Rajkot to attend a state Samata Party conference. The Times of India was at hand. On the very front page was a small column headed, ‘Jadeja fixes a good match’. It stated categorically that ‘cricket star Ajay Jadeja has married Aditi Jaitly, the daughter of Samata Party president Jaya Jaitly, in a secret wedding’ (see photo section). A ‘close friend from the ITC golf course’ is quoted as saying, ‘Jadeja confessed that he has married Aditi’ with additional information about him keeping it a secret because he planned to make a film with Sonali Bendre and it would ‘affect his star status’. We were stunned. My daughter was in London for a dance performance. Ajay was there for a match, I think, and of course they had been classmates at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya and good friends since the age of eleven, but they had been extremely careful not to flaunt their friendship in an age where a celebrity’s personal life is front-page material for voyeurs. Family respect and propriety within honest, liberal attitudes were values we brought up our children with. For a very brief second, I was hurt that my daughter would get married behind my back. I was instantly ashamed of losing faith in her openness, but if I had momentarily faltered, why would the media and public not believe it? I called Aditi in London as soon as we landed in Rajkot, where the media obviously made our poor Samata Party conference secondary to this.

Aditi had just woken up when I told her what The Times of India said. She burst out laughing and said, ‘Ma, it’s so ridiculous you should throw the newspaper in the dustbin.’ Ajay and Aditi were both quite used to gossip being written about Ajay and did not give it a second thought.

Looking back, observe again the headline of this news report: ‘Jadeja fixes a good match’. Just consider this: the match-fixing controversy created by Tehelka’s supposed exposé of crooked cricket players had hit the headlines in May 2000. It had invaded the cricket landscape entirely. The marriage headline popped up exactly a month later, connecting the reader to the ‘bad’ cricket match-fix. Ajay was then a very popular and successful cricket player who could have eventually headed the Indian team. He was lauded by veteran cricketers like Sunil Gavaskar, Geoffrey Boycott and Ian Chappell, among others. He always scored well or won the matches he played in by coming in when the team was doing badly and turned it around with his talent and cheery demeanour. Sceptics could check the statistics for those years.

Exactly a month later in July, the doorbell rang at 8 am at my very modest Khirki Village home, built as a make-shift extended one-room, one-floor space. It was all I could afford after selling some old wedding silver and cashing in my Gujarat Emporium Provident Fund. Either the trade union-owned Maruti car which I drove or Ajay Jadeja’s lent-by-Sahara Lancer car, or the vegetable-seller’s hand cart, occupied my garage. The neighbouring paan (or betel leaf) vendor, extremely embarrassed, would occasionally agree to have morning tea at my dining table—that’s how ‘local’ and grounded I was. By the way, at the time I was president of the Samata Party, an important ally of the government. The context needs a reminder.

Aditi and I were alone at home. We went to the door, accompanied by my two very amiable dogs—Eva, a German Shepherd, and Pepper, a black Labrador. A man with two policemen carrying rifles asked me rather harshly to open the door. Through the wire netting, I asked who they were and what they wanted. They first kept asking me to open the door. I repeated my response.

The man said, ‘Income Tax office.’

I laughed. ‘If you have any tax queries you could meet my Chartered Accountant.’

He replied with a grim face, ‘Open the door and tie up your dogs.’

‘They are very friendly and won’t do anything. But what do you want?’

The official indicated to the policemen to aim their rifles at our dogs and shoot them.

I flared up and asked what right they had to behave like this with my dogs.

‘Isn’t this Ajay Jadeja’s house?’ they asked, a bit surprised at my not being submissive enough.

‘No, I am Jaya Jaitly, president of the Samata Party and this is my house,’ I said, a bit surprised at their question but only slightly curious, unsuspecting of what was coming.

The fellow’s eyes opened wide, and he called someone on his mobile. In a few seconds, another man arrived, apologized politely that he was late, and requested that I opened the door just to answer a few questions. I did so without tying up the dogs and strongly objected to such aggressive behaviour towards pet animals who were wagging their tails and hadn’t even barked. The dogs that divided their time between my home at night and George Fernandes’s premises in the day were ‘political’. They welcomed people, crowds and joined some dharnas too. They had instinctively learned not to offend visitors.

It turned out to be a not very funny comedy of errors. The senior, a more decently behaved person, phoned his boss and described how he had discovered it was Jaya Jaitly’s house. He was instructed to ask me to fill a questionnaire. Their intended raid plan was abandoned but they asked to look around. They asked me why some men’s underwear was lying around. (Answer: They are my son’s. He occasionally comes here to bathe and change after playing golf along with Ajay.) They asked whose car was in the garage with the golf clubs in it. (Answer: Ajay’s. He leaves it here for my daughter to use when he is away. He is currently in London. It belongs to his employer. It is old.) I asked if I should open my cupboards and if there was anything more they wanted to examine. Highly embarrassed, the officer telephoned his boss again and said in Hindi, ‘Sir, there is nothing here but wooden objects.’ I found that funny but kept a serious face. We had a wooden armchair, a dining table, a chest of drawers, beds and a couple of unlocked cupboards. The only valuable item was a sixty-year-old camphor chest belonging to my parents. It was just wood to them. There was nothing more than clay artefacts, handloom, and sadly, no gilded fittings or staff. In their eyes, this must have been unbelievably sparse for a Party president. My son called at one point but I did not mention what was going on. There seemed no need to agitate him.

I proceeded to 3, Krishna Menon Marg to prepare for the release of crafts maps at the India Habitat Centre the same evening. Aditi went to Ajay’s tiny rented office space to look after his correspondence as he was not well-versed in English at that time. She usually handled his correspondence and minor paperwork every now and then. I decided to treat it as one more day of the normal rubbish of politics and did not worry that she would be alone. Late in the evening, when I met Aditi again she reported the raid on Ajay’s office after she had reached there. It had gone on for hours. The officials found cash worth seventeen hundred rupees only. They ordered snacks and tea, and the petty cash was used to pay for the order. When they listed the cash among the goods found, Aditi had to object, arguing they had spent it all so it was no longer there. I do not know if it was finally added or not. They took away the computer, laptop, and a bunch of bank deposit slips, which they offered to leave behind if she paid a bribe of fifty thousand rupees. She is a spunky child, so she replied that bank deposits proved money was legitimately deposited in the bank and thus accounted for, so they were doing her no favour. She added she would need to call Ajay in London and ask his permission to write them a cheque since they could see there was no cash. They left.

We learned from an honest tax officer later that it was wholly illegitimate to do that as tax officials are given allowance for food and contingencies. The same officer also told Ajay during the examination of bank accounts that were ten years old, including stubs for travel for cricket matches while he was still in school, that his ‘to-be mother-in-law’ had never been on the list to be raided. Either they foolishly thought the house actually belonged to Ajay, or my name was added informally as part of some conspiracy to draw me into the picture. It was hard to imagine why they would risk raiding the house of a Party president of an important ally of the government unless there was a reason to defame me or else, more likely, it was simply the usual case of one wing of the government not knowing what the other was doing.

George Fernandes was in Sierra Leone or some such far-off place at that time. He called in the afternoon to check on things here as he routinely did. I mentioned casually that the tax authorities had come to my home but that he need not worry about me. Later in the day, some local pharmaceutical factory owners from Lucknow came to me with a representation that needed to be brought to the prime minister’s attention. Lucknow was his Parliamentary constituency. I called N.K. Singh, an old acquaintance from college days, then in the PMO, and passed the visitors on to him. I did not mention anything about the incidents in the morning; I was no alarmist who would run to the PMO to sort out something that seemed like a containable situation. I was astounded that a handicraft-devotee, leading a non-glitzy, simple lifestyle, and president of an allied party in government should be the target of such actions. I was also angry at the petty corruption of the tax officials. Still, I thought it best not to embarrass the government and did not ruffle the waters anywhere as I was not personally affected and these matters weren’t known publicly.

What followed though was a series of trash dumps and tragedies. The following day, the front page of one of the foremost newspapers of the country, The Hindu, had a story saying raids on the cricketer’s had led the authorities to Jaya Jaitly’s farmhouse. Reports appeared in other sections of the print media overnight that I had ‘made calls’, ‘pulled strings’ and abused officials. I recall a small snippet in The Indian Express reporting no money was found but some secret defence papers were. I decided to meet Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, my old colleague from Janata Dal times.

I recounted the whole story of the demand for food and bribes. I specifically said this was for his ears only as I had no objection to them landing up at my home, or any enquiry made against anyone since we do not indulge in malpractice, but that he should find a way of reigning in the corrupt elements in his tax department. Strangely, the fact of my visit reached the media, most likely through one of the staff. This, in turn, set off another spate of stories from me protesting to the finance minister and prime minister, to Ajay Jadeja owning my house as benami property, to that he had a house in Cyprus. (Poor fellow had never heard of Cyprus since he only played cricket and didn’t study much at school. One prominent weekly magazine said he earned Rs 8 crore—an impossible amount in the year 2000; this was before the days of auctions and huge endorsements). Every day, the media released more lies about Ajay, with some additional spice about me. He was said to have relatives holding his property in Dubai because someone found a cousin called Jai Jadeja living there. They said the bookies’ diaries had ‘AJ’ written in them. None of these allegations amounted to anything eventually as it was not possible for them to produce evidence where none existed. I was inextricably tangled into the loop and began to be referred to in the media as the future mother-in-law of a tainted cricketer before any investigation had even taken place.

As a political figure and Party president, I had to separate fact from fiction. So I held a press conference where the Samata Party always held them, at the verandah of 3, Krishna Menon Marg. I also requested Sports Minister S.S. Dhindsa and Minister of State for Finance, Dhananjay Kumar, at the press conference not to allow the atmosphere to be vitiated by false reports. Dhindsa was quoted in a lengthy, rather unpleasant India Today story (‘Mother of all rows’, 7 August 2000) as saying: ‘Jaitly tried to threaten IT officials visiting her place.’ The storm was carried further by The Week (‘Sack them’, 6 August 2000), and Outlook (‘Mums’s not the Word’, 7 August 2000). The Times of India had a front page headline ‘Jaitly bats for Jadeja’ which tried to report my press conference in a balanced way. Earlier, Punjab Kesari (27 July 2000) had a story titled ‘Jadeja ki hamdard Jaya ka chutkaaraa jaldi nahin’ (Jadeja’s sympathizer Jaya not to be let off so soon). US President Donald Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ of 2017 are nothing compared to what was being churned out almost every day in those days. The story said five bags full of currency notes were in the boot of the car found in my home. These imaginary notes were linked to me as Samata Party president, and me to George Fernandes, the defence minister. They deduced that this was the reason why the thief (me) was scolding the policemen (the income tax authorities).

It is easy for anyone to see where the story was going.

Many more lengthy and negative articles appeared in regional languages. Each questioned my credentials, my audacity to speak out and my ‘interference’. They openly implied a hand in corrupt practices. The issue of India Today that carried the article ‘Mother of all rows’ also carried an article by Tavleen Singh titled ‘Tabs on the Taxman’, cautioning against allowing tax officials from becoming bounty hunters. She was the only one who got a part of the point.

Nitish Kumar, our Party colleague, and always holier-than-thou, publicly questioned my interest in cricket, saying socialists and Dr Ram Manohar Lohia did not believe in such sports. When I rang to ask him why he said this, his answer was a smooth segue, ‘Jayaji, my hair has become white because of the media.’ It was obvious he was sidestepping the issue to avoid admitting he did not approve of me defending Ajay. I left it at that.

After the story of tax officials coming to my house and my purported behaviour, our honourable Parliamentarians didn’t leave me alone. The opposition raised the issue in Parliament, including the incident of my dogs, who promptly became famous. Reformed dacoit-turned-MP Phoolan Devi of the Samajwadi Party, jumped in my defence and diverted the discussion. She came straight to me at 3, Krishna Menon Marg right after that and told me the whole story: ‘Hum mahilaon ko ek doosre ka saath dena chahiye. Main jaanti hoon aap kaisi sadhaaran mahila hain. Maine unko rok di!’ (We women must support each other. I know what a simple kind of person you are. I stopped them), she said, in great excitement. She was bold all right. And I was very grateful. When Phoolan Devi was shot dead in 2001 at her residence, I was the first one to reach her house after the news broke.

Kapil Dev, who also suffered indignities at the hands of the tax people, said in an interview to The Times of India on 30 December 2001, that he was ‘heartbroken’ by what happened to Ajay who was his special protégée. Significantly, he said, ‘It probably never occurred to Ajay that certain relationships could prove to be derogatory to his career.’ He didn’t realize the words could also mean being close to me could have harmed Ajay’s life.

In the early days that Tehelka and Aniruddha Bahal came out with the match-fixing story, we were thoroughly confused on many counts. Bahal had befriended Ajay and dropped in at his house now and then. They had no discussion even remotely on the subject of match-fixing. Suddenly, he was accusing Ajay of being a crook and harming India’s standing in sports. Friends and family scrambled to deal with the atrocious lies that hit the headlines on a daily basis. We gathered plenty of evidence that clearly showed the loopholes and hollowness of the stories. By then, Parliamentarians had jumped into the act. Kirti Azad, former Indian cricketer and politician, and others began demanding an enquiry. It got referred to the CBI and the BCCI, when there was no definition of what constituted ‘match fixing,’ nor any laws framed around it.

Matters went into a huge spin leading to a five-year ban on Ajay which meant an end to his upward-moving career, and his one and only passion in life—cricket. I will not go into the intricate details of the wheels within wheels of what went on subsequently, starting with Tehelka’s highly questionable and spurious match-fixing story in which they used Manoj Prabhakar, a disgruntled cricketer, to damage the reputations and careers of certain top players; the lies told in the CBI report; the many loose ends in their argument; the injustice of the process that followed; and the many machinations that brought the government and BCCI’s politics to common meeting points. Fictitious bookie personas were created and false accusations of easily refutable kinds made by the CBI. A friend reported that a cousin had been shaken down by the CBI in Bombay and accused of being a bookie until he paid 25 lakhs to be let off. Such stories were utterly useless to me without evidence. An insider friend in the CBI, not involved with the case, told me that the cricket investigation was being headed by a protégée and protector of an influential political leader from Bihar.

The CBI came up with more gems that could be easily demolished by easily available evidence. But the unstoppable battle tank rolled on. There was no time for us to gather responses on one thing when something else popped up. At that point what could anyone say? We are a strong family with a very close bond between each one of us. Equally strong is our sense of values that are intolerant of deceit and dishonesty. The attack on all of us made us even more determined to stand tall and fight, looking everyone in the eye.

During harrowing moments, I would ask George Sahib, ‘Why is this nonsense never-ending?’ His answer was, ‘Never-ending, maybe, but never bending.’ He was much more interested in cricket than I was, and although he never watched television, he was up on all the scores of matches being played. There was nothing he could do to help in this case, and none of us asked him to be involved in any way.

The story ended with Ajay challenging the ban in the Delhi High Court and being exonerated fully in January 2003. Such victories never make the headlines, and it was too late to retrieve his cricketing career in India’s national team. In fact, one of the saddest moments in my life was seeing Ajay sitting silently the evening of the day the ban was announced, his eyes brimming with tears. He has always been a smiling and ebullient booster of spirits within his team, at home, with schoolchildren or on television. His open-hearted generosity of spirit makes him a friend of eunuchs, rickshaw peddlers, golf caddies and taxi drivers. That is why the memory of that day is even more poignant and my heart crumbles whenever I remember it.

Ajay has recovered from this huge hit with tremendous grace, courage and goodwill towards the world by deciding to put it all completely behind him forever and move on. It is not for anyone to speculate or re-open now the whys and hows of this tragedy, both for an individual, a family, and India’s cricketing honour. Besides, the intricate and mind-boggling details of what happened at each step and at many levels are a part of Ajay Jadeja’s own story to tell, if ever he wishes to. It is not for me or anyone else to intrude anymore, and it appears in this book only insofar as it directly encroached on my life and work.

Next, Tehelka aimed at the Ministry of Defence in which the NDA government was their prime target with George Fernandes as the intended prey. It became clear to me much later that the Tehelka journalists were a bunch of mercenaries posing as investigative journalists who were selling themselves to the highest bidder. They chose a subject that would catch the imagination of the public and turned it upside down, claiming to fight corruption. The thing was that the world of corrupt people cannot be changed by people who use dishonest means, so they eventually had no effect on anything except that they ruined a bunch of innocent lives.

This episode was clearly a conspiracy that cast a huge shadow on my political credentials, character and family. But at the time when all of this was happening, there was not a moment to analyse what was really going on or even if there were dots to connect. It is only in hindsight that the links begin to appear, by which time it is too late. The way by then had already been paved for the subsequent phase of the devilry that Tehelka was to unleash. The Tehelka journalists’ next hit followed a year later in March 2001, exactly two weeks before Ajay and Aditi were, in reality, to be married. Ironic timing again.


About the book:

Life among the Scorpions recounts the deeply fascinating and often tumultuous events that mark thirty years of Jaya Jaitly’s political journey.

From arranging relief for victims of the 1984 Sikh riots, to joining politics under firebrand leader George Fernandes, to becoming the president of Samata Party—a key ally in the erstwhile NDA Government, Jaitly’s rise in Indian mainstream politics invited both awe and envy. But the going has been far from smooth. Trouble began with George Fernandes sacking Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat in 1998. Jaitly became the target. She was soon hounded by Tehelka’s stings—first concerning her son-in-law-to-be Ajay Jadeja and then herself in an alleged bribery case. Eventually, Fernandes had to resign as India’s Defence Minister, despite being the best, and Jaitly quit as the Samata Party President. Meanwhile, she spiritedly fought booth capturing in Bihar as well as fellow party men’s egos, intervened and ensured the installation of the Samata government in Manipur. All this, even as she continued her parallel fight for the livelihood of craftsmen on the one hand, and conceptualized and ensured establishment of the first Dilli Haat (crafts market place) in 1994 on the other.

With all the backstories of major events in Indian politics between 1970–2000, including her experience of dealing with the Commission of Inquiry and courts regarding the Tehelka stings, the story of Jaya Jaitly makes for a riveting read. A powerful narrative on why being a woman in politics was for her akin to being surrounded by scorpions; this hard hitting memoir offers a perspective on the functioning of Indian politics from a woman’s point of view.

The Author:

Jaya Jaitly is the former president of the Samata Party, a key ally of the NDA Government (1998–2004), and an eminent expert in the traditional arts and crafts of India. She has worked closely with craftspeople since 1965 to sustain traditional livelihoods and preserve India’s crafts heritage. Having founded the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a body of craftspeople, in 1986, she established Dilli Haat, a permanent marketplace showcasing weaves and handicrafts, in 1994. Her work brings together rural artisans within India, and of India, with those of Pakistan, Vietnam, Iran, Eygpt and many other countries. These programs have often been supported by the Indian Government as an instrument in diplomacy.

Jaitly was educated in the UK, Burma, Japan, India and the USA. Her published works include Craft Traditions of India (1990), Crafts of Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh (1999), A Podium on the Pavement (2005), Biju Spins Some Magic (2005), Crafting Nature (2007), Crafts Atlas of India (2012), Woven Textiles of Varanasi (2014), The Artistry Of Handwork (2014), and Vishvakarma’s Children: Stories of India’s Craftspeople (2001).

Jaya Jaitly is based in Delhi.

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