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Bangaru stunned, BJP red-faced
- Guilty in Tehelka case, former party chief sent to jail; sentencing today

New Delhi, April 27: Former BJP president Bangaru Laxman was today convicted for accepting a Rs 1-lakh bribe from Tehelka journalists masquerading as arms peddlers in a fictitious defence deal 11 years ago.

The 72-year-old leader, who looked ashen-faced and “shell-shocked” in the witness box as a Delhi trial court gave its verdict, has been arrested and lodged in Tihar jail. He has to be present in the courtroom at 10.30am tomorrow when the court hears arguments on his sentence.

In 2001, Laxman was caught on camera accepting wads of money from the “arms dealers” and tucking them into a drawer in his chamber at the BJP’s Ashoka Road headquarters. He was heard telling them that he would recommend to the defence ministry their proposal to supply hand-held thermal imagers to the army.

A red-faced BJP, which has been running an anti-corruption campaign against the Centre, sought to distance itself from Laxman. “The party has nothing to do with this case that concerns an individual,” party spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said.

“We took prompt action against him when he was caught on camera. Let him go to court as an aggrieved party.”

Laxman sat silently in the witness box for a while after additional sessions judge Kanwal Jeet Arora convicted him under Section 9 of the Prevention of Corruption Act for misusing office for personal gratification and for attempting to influence public officials. His daughter was present in court.

The judge refused to hear his bail plea, saying he would consider it only after sentencing was over. He also refused to make Tehelka an accused in the case saying the scribes, who posed as agents of fake UK-based company West End International, had “acted as whistle blowers”.

“I am of the opinion that the method adopted by Tehelka people may be objectionable but their purpose was not,” the judge said.

“Evidence on record establish that it was not the idea of crime which originated in the minds of Tehelka people. The origin was of the idea of exposure of corruption in the procurement of defence-related products. They had acted as whistle blowers only.”

The day Tehelka released the tapes in 2001, then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee ordered Laxman to step down as BJP boss. He was never rehabilitated, although he did try periodically to use his caste antecedent as a Dalit to make a comeback.

BJP sources said Laxman’s conviction had “somewhat impacted” their anti-corruption offensive against the Congress and the UPA. In the last two days, the party has raised a furore in Parliament over the Bofors case, demanding that the case be re-opened and an independent inquiry instituted. Veteran leader Jaswant Singh has been leading the attack.

Soon after Laxman’s conviction, the Congress turned the tables on the BJP. “The BJP has made history and its (former) party president stands convicted of corruption,” said human resource development minister Kapil Sibal.

“I was sad when Jaswant Singh called for a judicial commission on Bofors. I wish he would ask for a judicial probe on the Tehelka sting. I wish no more Laxmans should emerge either on camera or off.”

Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari counselled the BJP to “introspect”. He said: “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others. Only yesterday the BJP had raised the Bofors bogey.”

According to the CBI chargesheet, the Tehelka scribes met Laxman eight times between December 2000 and January 2001. Laxman’s former personal secretary T. Satyamurthy was a co-accused in the case but the court granted him reprieve after he turned approver.

BJP spokesperson Hussain said the CBI, which probed the case, should display the same “speed” while investigating other matters.