His journalistic practices have raised questions among his targets. But no one can dispute that Tarun J. Tejpal's New Delhi-based online journal, Tehelka.com, lives up its name in Hindi--"sensation." In March, Tehelka almost brought down the government.
The instigation was an expose in Tehelka charging leading members of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's ruling coalition with accepting bribes for approving a fictitious arms deal. Tehelka itself concocted the sting operation, then secretly filmed the money transactions and handed the footage over to TV stations. Defense Minister George Fernandes and Bangaru Laxman, president of Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party, resigned within days of Tehelka's report. "A few more stories like this in a year, and this country can be cleaned up," says Tejpal.
Tejpal, 38, created Tehelka on a shoestring a year ago with his brother and a journalist colleague, Aniruddha Bahal. Many ordinary Indians, judging from the crowds at Tejpal's public speeches, regard him as a champion. Tejpal believes he has helped his much maligned profession in India. "The explosion of consumerism since economic liberalization in 1991 created a journalism of public relations," he complains.
That's changing. Ever since the bribery scandal, Tehelka has been awash in resumes from journalists, and receives scandal tips daily. Besides the resignations, the defense expose prompted New Delhi to adopt new procurement rules. A Punjab University economics graduate and veteran newspaperman, Tejpal has recruited some of India's best political columnists. Author V.S. Naipaul is on its board. Says Vinod Mehta, editor of the newsweekly Outlook, where Tejpal once worked: "Tehelka has been an earthquake in Indian politics."
Finances are a problem, though. The Web site spends $85,000 a month on overhead and staff, but takes in only $8,000 a month in advertising. The defense expose was cut off when Tehelka, after handing over $23,000 to politicians, ran out of money. "So we just went public with the story," Tejpal says. But in February, broadcaster Zee Telefilms expressed interest in buying a stake. Also, Tejpal is raising money from Indians in the U.S.
After a failed assassination attempt in April, Tejpal is now trailed by six bodyguards from the government. But don't think he'll stop raking the muck: "India needs professional dissenters," he says.