Time for graft surgery
This gem of wisdom from somebody hailed as the Indian Machiavelli shows that corruption was a major issue in this ‘spiritual’ land even in ancient times. Yet, the corruption seen by India, in all its history, is unlikely to have ever been as pervasive and insidious as it is today. This is evident from the manner in which the Centre and some of the provincial governments suddenly find themselves on the defensive in the last few months for a wide range of scams.
True, politically speaking, the focus on corruption was even more intense in 1988-89 when the Rajiv Gandhi government, despite its brute majority, was embroiled in the Bofors scandal and ultimately fell prey to it. His brute majority of 400 plus MPs in the Lok Sabha emboldened Rajiv Gandhi to set up a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) under his party member B Shankaranand to probe allegations of corruption in the defence deal. But the refusal to adopt the very same JPC option by the head of the current coalition government, Manmohan Singh, to probe the 2G telecom scam has cost the nation practically the entire last session of Parliament.
The Opposition stalled all proceedings in the two Houses on 2G despite Manmohan Singh’s extraordinary offer to testify personally before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) headed by BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi. On Bofors as well as 2G, the main cause of discomfiture to the respective governments was the findings given by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). Ironically, in the ongoing season of scams, the Bofors scam has come back to haunt the Congress-led government as an income tax tribunal held that kickbacks had been paid to middlemen in the defence deal and thereby contradicted the very basis on which the CBI had obtained the closure of the corruption case in the matter.
Since the various corruption allegations have happened to surface in the very second year of its current term, the Manmohan Singh might seem to have enough time to take corrective action before facing the electorate. Sonia Gandhi’s call for a five-pronged institutional reform and the appointment of a group of ministers (GOM) on corruption might seem like steps in the right direction. But then from the aggressive manner in which Kapil Sibal sought to discredit the CAG report on the egregious violations in the 2G scam, the government’s willingness to come clean on corruption has itself come under a shadow of doubt.
Whatever the political rhetoric, the government has shown little sign of coming to grips with the torrent of scams that have engulfed almost all institutions of governance and beyond. While the Bofors scam was essentially about lapses in the executive, the 2G scam has also raised questions about the corporate sector, lobbying and media. The related Niira Radia tapes contained damaging disclosures not just about 2G but also about the manner in which the gas dispute between the Ambani brothers had undermined all the four estates of democracy. In another offshoot of 2G, the appointment of telecom secretary P J Thomas as the head of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has dragged the government before the Supreme Court for allegedly overlooking questions about his lack of suitability for playing the role of a corruption watchdog.
The current season of scams was triggered by the profligacy in the infrastructure investment in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games (CWG) and the organization of the event by Suresh Kalmadi and his cronies. The rot is so pervasive that it did not spare even the holy cows of Indian democracy: namely, the judiciary and Army. A Raja, who quit the government on account of 2G, caused much embarrassment to the former chief justice of India (CJI), K G Balakrishnan, when it was discovered that he had failed to complain against the telecom minister for trying to interfere with the functioning of a Madras high court judge. The contradiction of Balakrishnan’s claims of innocence by Supreme Court judge H L Gokhale has prompted demands for the resignation of the ex-CJI as chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). This was followed by the Kerala government’s decision to probe properties amassed by Balakrishnan’s kin.
As if the damage inflicted on judicial credibility in one scam were not bad enough, top Army officers were found in another to have colluded with politicians and bureaucrats to grab prime real estate, Adarsh Society highrise in Mumbai, that too in the name of providing housing to the widows of Kargil heroes. Besides forcing Ashok Chavan to resign as Maharashtra chief minister, the Adarsh scam led to the resignation of a member of the state human rights commission and compromised the position of an information commissioner who is refusing to quit.
The susceptibility of watchdog bodies to corruption has made it easier for the Manmohan Singh government to ride the storm of public outrage. Another comforting factor for it is, while the Centre is at least in a position to show that it sacked Raja and Kalmadi, the BJP, for all its professed concerns about probity in public life, has not been able to touch its scam-tainted chief minister in Karnataka, B S Yeddyurappa. The corruption ombudsman in the state, Lok Ayukta, is probing allegations of illegal mining by the all-powerful Reddy brothers, two of who are ministers. In the latest scam, Yeddyurappa himself is alleged to have misused his powers to enrich his family.
It is no coincidence that of all the Lok Ayuktas in the country, the one in Karnataka, headed by former Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde, is best known. For, thanks to a legislative breakthrough made in 1986 by the then chief minister, Ramakrishna Hegde, the Karnataka model has proved more effective than others. While the Lok Ayukta in the rest of the states can only make recommendations, the one in Karnataka has powers to investigate. But when it comes to prosecuting the corrupt public servants, it will need the government’s sanction.
The Karnataka model, with some improvements, is therefore being proposed by civil society as the way forward for not just other states but also the Centre. The Lok Pal Bill drafted by the Centre may prove to be an eyewash despite the radical feature of bringing the Prime Minister under the ambit of Lok Pal. This is because the alternative law drafted by Santosh Hegde himself along with advocate Prashant Bhushan and former CVC chief Pratyush Sinha contains a more carefully thought out scheme in which the Lok Pal would subsume the existing institutions of CVC and CBI. The proposed combined body will, among other things, redress the anomalous assumption that politicians and bureaucrats indulge in corruption separately.
An array of civil society stalwarts, including Arvind Kejriwal, Mallika Sarabhai, Anna Hazare, Kiran Bedi, Swami Agnivesh and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have since been campaigning for this alternative Bill under the banner, “India against corruption”. In an unprecedented initiative, they are organizing a march for an effective anti-corruption regime. The march is due on the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom, January 30, from Ramlila Grounds to Jantar Mantar in the Capital.
The alternative Bill received a boost this week as a group of 14 eminent persons, including industrialists Azim Premji, Anu Agha, Jamshyd Godrej and Deepak Parekh, economist Bimal Jalan and former Supreme Court judge B N Srikrishna, issued a statement urging the country to adopt the Karnataka model as it contains more teeth. The buzz about corruption is catching on.
It would however be simplistic to attribute this activism entirely to anger over the scams that have hit the headlines. The public outrage is also fueled by the widely felt experience of daily corruption. While scams relate to collusive corruption involving those who are either rich or influential, common people are more concerned about being victims of extortionate corruption. In collusive corruption, the bribe giver, irrespective of his economic status, tries to get something he is not entitled to. But in extortionate corruption, the bribe giver is a victim who is forced to offer “speed money” to get what is anyway his due.
Given the glaring lacunae in the present legal set-up, corruption does seem to be what former CVC chief N Vittal famously described as “a low risk, high profit business” in India. The country cannot realize its true potential unless it increases the risk for corruption by tightening its legal regime. It is as much about widening the net as about increasing the conviction rate for corruption. The legal tools developed abroad and in Karnataka promise to go a long way in helping detect corruption and punishing its perpetrators. Had such tools been available in his days, Chanakya would not have despaired over the chances of combating corruption.
- ‘Needed: a single, empowered Lokpal to fight corruption’ (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- ‘I feel let down’ (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Review the ADM Jabalpur Judgement (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Undermining Parliament won’t do (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Anti-corruption ordinance soon (thehindu.com)
- Ordinance will cover PM, Ministers (thehindu.com)