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.
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.