A Never-end­ing War

Right from in­de­pen­dence, scan­dals in­volv­ing cor­rup­tion in high places have come to the fore with sick­en­ing reg­u­lar­ity. It is a case of his­tory con­stantly re­peat­ing it­self.

Southasia - - Cover story - By S. Mu­rari

In Au­gust 2010, Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional came out with a re­port on the Cor­rup­tion Per­cep­tion In­dex which showed that In­dia was one of the most cor­rupt coun­tries to do busi­ness with. The re­port hardly caused any sur­prise as it came at a time when the coun­try was lurch­ing from one scan­dal to an­other.

It was not so much the mag­ni­tude of cor­rup­tion but the way tainted lead­ers brazenly tried to shake them­selves out of the ac­cu­sa­tions which shocked the con­science of the na­tion, lead­ing to an up­surge of sup­port when so­cial ac­tivist Anna Hazare launched a strug­gle to force the govern­ment to en­act a tough law for a lok­pal ( om­buds­man).

There are al­ready enough laws and more to deal with cor­rup­tion in pub­lic life, like the Pre­ven­tion of Cor­rup­tion Act, the In­dian Pe­nal Code with a sec­tion deal­ing with crim­i­nal mis­con­duct ap­pli­ca­ble to pub­lic ser­vants, the in­come tax act and for­eign ex­change reg­u­la­tions for those who se­crete their black money abroad. What is lack­ing is po­lit­i­cal will.

There­fore, the Lok­pal may not be a cure-all or a magic wand as Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh put it, which will clean the Augean sta­bles overnight. But get­ting the Govern­ment to agree to a fool-proof law was it­self an achieve­ment given that the po­lit­i­cal class had been re­sist­ing it for the past five decades.

The im­me­di­ate provo­ca­tion for the peo­ple’s cry for a lok­pal was the 2G spec­trum scam, re­lat­ing to the allotment of sec­ond gen­er­a­tion ra­dio spec­trum li­censes in 2008 at the 2001 prices to hand-picked mo­bile com­pa­nies which made a killing by sell­ing them to for­eign firms. Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion Min­is­ter A. Raja re­fused to quit de­spite a high-pitched cam­paign for nearly two years by the BJP-led op­po­si­tion, un­til the Comptroller and Au­di­tor-Gen­eral of In­dia re­ported to Par­lia­ment that there had been grave ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and an es­ti­mated loss of Rs. 1.76 lakh crore to the ex­che­quer.

The long de­lay in sack­ing Raja by a Prime Min­is­ter known for his pro­bity has given room for sus­pi­cion that his hands were tied, and Raja could not have acted alone.

Then came re­ports about grave mal­prac­tices in the award of con­tracts for works re­lat­ing to the Com­mon­wealth Games hosted by In­dia. Not just Congress MP and games or­ga­nizer Suresh Kal­madi but even Congress Chief Min­is­ter of fed­er­ally ad­min­is­tered Delhi, Sheila Dik­shit, has been in­dicted.

Take Adarsh hous­ing scan­dal in Mum­bai. Flats meant for wi­d­ows of the Kargil war mar­tyrs were grabbed by not just politi­cians, also top rank­ing de­fense per­son­nel like former army chiefs Gen­er­als Deepak Kapoor and N C Vij, former Navy chief Ad­mi­ral Mad­haven­dra Singh and Vice-Chief Gen Shan­tanu Choud­hary. They have now of­fered to sur­ren­der their flats, claim­ing that they did not know the land was meant for the wi­d­ows of Kargil war he­roes. Do you buy that?

Right from in­de­pen­dence, scan­dals in­volv­ing cor­rup­tion in high places have been com­ing to the fore with sick­en­ing reg­u­lar­ity. It is a case of his­tory re­peat­ing it­self.

The first ma­jor scan­dal was the Mundhra deal of 1957, in which Cal­cutta-based in­dus­tri­al­ist and stock spec­u­la­tor Hari­das Mundhra ma­nip­u­lated the Govern­ment-owned Life In­sur­ance of In­dia to in­vest Rs. 1.24 crores in the shares of six of his trou­bled com­pa­nies. It led to the res­ig­na­tion of In­dia’s then Fi­nance Min­is­ter TT Kr­ish­na­machari.

Fast-for­ward to stock mar­ket scams of the 1990s mas­ter-minded first by Har­shad Me­hta and a few years later by Khetan Parekh. The two were in­spired by Mundhra. Only dif­fer­ence was that the Govern­ment, then open­ing up the econ­omy, quickly made the reg­u­la­tor Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­changes Board of In­dia to come up with tough mea­sures to check such mar­ket ma­nip­u­la­tions in or­der to win back the con­fi­dence of for­eign in­vestors.

A par­al­lel to the 2G scam can be found in the Pondicherry li­cence scan­dal of the 1970s dur­ing the Indira

Gandhi reign. A Congress MP claim­ing to be close to the then Com­merce Min­is­ter Lalit Narain Mishra, got for a Pondicherry firm an ex­port li­cense, then at a premium. The firm sold it and made a pile. Like in the case of 2G, there was an up­roar in Par­lia­ment. But the case was qui­etly buried. Mishra died in a land­mine ex­plo­sion in Patna.

With no regime free from cor­rup­tion, the Lok­pal bill was never made into law since the first at­tempt was made way back in the late 1960s. Wasn’t it Indira Gandhi who said cor­rup­tion is a global phe­nom­e­non?

The 70-plus ex-ser­vice man Hazare should have re­al­ized when he launched his strug­gle last April for a strong lok­pal that he was tak­ing on the might of the state and a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem steeped in cor­rup­tion. But he sol­diered on, as­sisted by em­i­nent civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists like Supreme Court lawyers Shan­thi and Prashan Bhushans, former bu­reau­crat Arvind Ke­jri­wal and former top po­lice of­fi­cer Ki­ran Bedi. What fol­lowed was a high­pitched drama with the Govern­ment vac­il­lat­ing be­tween talk­ing to the ag­i­ta­tors and us­ing strong arm tac­tics like jail­ing Hazare, thereby mak­ing him a mar­tyr. Faced with over­whelm­ing sup­port for Hazare, the Govern­ment caved in even­tu­ally by agree­ing to re­fer the of­fi­cial bill (re­jected as tooth­less by Team Anna) as well as the Jan Lok­pal (the team’s ver­sion) both to the Par­lia­ment se­lect com­mit­tee. The Govern­ment also agreed to con­sider Anna’s three other de­mands – in­clud­ing the lower bureau­cracy in the Lok­pal’s purview, a cen­tral law for cre­at­ing Lok Ayuktas in states and a cit­i­zen’s char­ter for govern­ment de­part­ments pro­vid­ing pub­lic ser­vice. This fi­nally en­abled Anna to end his 12-day fast on Aug 28.

Only when the bill takes fi­nal shape, may be some months later, will it be known whether the law will cover the Prime Min­is­ter and the ju- di­ciary, two cru­cial de­mands of the cru­saders.

Even at the con­sid­er­a­tion stage be­fore the se­lect com­mit­tee, the Cen­tral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion has said that both the bills are un­work­able. The Govern­ment pro­vides for two in­ves­tiga­tive arms, one by the CBI and the other by the Lok­pal. The CBI has said as per a Supreme Court rul­ing, it is the premier in­ves­ti­gat­ing agency and two agen­cies will lead to con­flict over ju­ris­dic­tion, more so when crimes over­lap, like for ex­am­ple in the case of whis­tle blow­ers who were killed when they sought to ex­pose big ticket cor­rup­tion. More over, the cor­rup­tion wing should not be sev­ered from the agency and at­tached to the lok­pal as pro­posed by Team Anna, it has said.

Crit­ics say the Govern­ment has set a dan­ger­ous prece­dent by giv­ing in to Team Anna and thereby in­fring­ing upon Par­lia­ment’s sole pre­rog­a­tive to make laws. This is mis­placed

crit­i­cism. What Team Anna has of­fered, af­ter study­ing the UN char­ter and other model laws, is only a draft, though in its en­thu­si­asm it may have said it should take “our way or the high­way.”

Jeal­ous guardians of Par­lia­ment’s sovereignty for­get that it was the very same Par­lia­ment which was used by Indira Gandhi to im­pose emer­gency in 1975 and rule for 19 months, well be­yond her five-year man­date. A case of tyranny of the ma­jor­ity.

De­trac­tors also say it is wrong to call Anna Hazare’s a mass move­ment. The only truly mass move­ment is the pe­ri­odic elec­tion in which peo­ple stand in long queues and elect a govern­ment they come to hate. Elec­tion af­ter elec­tion, peo­ple vote out one cor­rupt regime only to find it re­placed by an­other. Only when a govern­ment to­tally loses touch with the peo­ple like the present one, does a mass move­ment be­come nec­es­sary. So the fault is with a sys­tem that in­sti­tu­tion­al­izes cor­rup­tion and al­lows tainted po­lit­i­cal masters and pli­ant bu­reau­crats to get away with loot.

To whom the peo­ple can then turn when even the ju­di­ciary is not clean. Two high court judges have just es­caped im­peach­ment by re­sign­ing. Kin of a former Chief Jus­tice of In­dia K G Balakr­ish­nan, face charges of hav­ing amassed wealth.

To en­sure the in­de­pen­dence of the ju­di­ciary, the Govern­ment has promised a ju­di­cial ac­count­abil­ity bill pro­vid­ing for a high-power over­sight com­mit­tee to look into com­plaints against judges.

The pro­posed lok­pal is only the first step. Laws should be amended to pro­vide for more strin­gent pun­ish­ment for the cor­rupt and con­fis­ca­tion of their ill-got­ten wealth. Steps should be taken to get back tril­lions of dol­lars of black money stashed abroad by In­di­ans. You can­not fight cor­rup­tion with­out pun­ish­ing and ex­pos­ing the cor­rupt in high places.

Money power in elec­tions should be curbed as it is the root cause for po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion. There should be state fund­ing of po­lit­i­cal par­ties, fail­ing which fund­ing by cor­po­rate should be made trans­par­ent. Steps should be taken to tackle cor­po­rate cor­rup­tion also.

Yes, a long march is ahead. But then, all long jour­neys be­gin with a small step.

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