Congress gleefully milked Kargil ‘coffingate’
With the Supreme Court dismissing the last set of appeals for yet another investigation into the so-called Kargil coffin scam, the matter has now effectively been closed and the final word is out: There was no scam. The Central Bureau of Investigation found no evidence of any wrongdoing, and all the accused in the case, including senior military officials and a US citizen, have been acquitted. This comes as a relief to the BJP-led NDA, under whose watch the ‘scam' had erupted. At the time, it was a major setback to the Government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee which had just emerged from the Kargil conflict. However, instead of being able to celebrate the victory and honour those who had made the supreme sacrifice for the country, the Government found itself entangled in a web of corruption charges, which included allegations that senior Ministers including Defence Minister George Fernandes and members of the ruling alliance had made loads of money in the purchase of aluminium coffins, hand-held thermal imagers and snow suits. With regard to the coffins, it was alleged in a report prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, that the purchases had been made at exorbitant rates from an American vendor. This charge — that the establishment had fattened its pockets in the name of soldiers who had been killed in their line of duty — struck the Vajpayee regime especially hard. Even for the Indian public which is accustomed to corruption across the board, this was a bit too much. The Congress-led Opposition had jumped on the issue and party president Sonia Gandhi led the charge with her “kafan chor” call. This was ironic because the Vajpayee Government was, in fact, trying to do quite the opposite: Previously, the mortal remains of soldiers were transported in a shabby manner in wooden coffins. After the Kargil conflict, the NDA Government purchased better quality aluminium coffins. However, a typographical error led to a miscalculation of costs — and soon enough, a mountain was made out of a molehill. So much so that Mr Fernandes was forced to quit his office, even though he was reinstated later.
All this controversy stemmed from what was, at best, a clerical error. But facts often matter little in politics, more so in the run-up to an important election. The Kargil coffin scam was an important weapon in the Congress's arsenal for the 2004 lok Sabha poll, and it caused damage to the BJP's prospects, especially since the latter had traditionally taken pride in its nationalist credentials (and continues to do so). Notably, less than a year after the election, which the NDA lost, the Congress-led UPA Government quietly changed its stance on the coffin issue. In April 2005, it told the Supreme Court that purchases made during the Kargil war were, indeed, above board. later, when the CBI filed its charge-sheet, there was no mention of the NDA’s Defence Minister.