Common man and corruption

By Anirudh Prakash

India has been the victim of a number of scams in the past, but none of them, not even the Bofors payoffs, created such a sustained furor. I can only think of two explanations. First, the scale, the spread, the reach and the technological, financial and manpower resources of the media cumulatively enable them nowadays to keep feeding the public frenzy for days on end with breaking news, commentaries, talk shows, leaks, debates and what-have-you and make even a whisper sound like an unending roll of thunder. Second, the amounts involved in loot and plunder in old-time scams were peanuts compared to the present-day sky-rocketing magnitudes.

Even a thousand crores are so ludicrously and unmentionably low that it is not even a blip on the radar screen. Indeed, even the presumptive loss of Rs. 1.76 lakh crore, purportedly caused by the 2G telecom scam, comes nowhere near the outflows of illegal funds from India brought about by the collusion of industry, business and the political and governing classes.

A study by Global Financial Integrity, puts them at $213 billion (roughly Rs. 9.7 lakh crore) between 1948 and 2008, over $125 billion (Rs. 5.7 lakh crore) in the period 2000-2008, and Rs. 4.3 lakh crore β€” or two and a half times the telecom scam figure β€” in just five years (2004-08) alone. So, what’s the big deal, the fraudsters might well be tempted to ask. An annoying part of the entire process of pulling the wool over the people’s eyes is the rampant holier-than-thou, pot-calling-the kettle-black, syndrome.

The Supreme Court, presiding over a Himalayan backlog of cases in the judicial branch and taking its time to boot out venal judges, many of whom are putting politicians in the shade in chicanery and rapacity, finds fault with the Prime Minister for delaying the sanction sought by Dr. Subramanian Swamy for prosecuting A. Raja.

The commotion has instilled courage in the former Secretaries in the DOT who, having remained tight-lipped all these months, have suddenly emerged from the woodwork to offer self-serving excuses and blame their erstwhile boss for evading their own responsibility of safeguarding public interest.

The BJP goes on a righteous rampage – pardon the oxymoron β€” unable to bear the enormity of the malfeasance, and brings the functioning of Parliament to a halt for days, unmindful of the drain of lakhs of rupees of taxpayers’ money, while soft-pedaling the brazen land-grab worth hundreds of crores of rupees by the Karnataka Chief Minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa, who, for his part, never fails to visit, with extreme piety, every temple in sight.

Meanwhile, the CBI, in its own ponderous and circumspect manner, goes about “grilling” the suspects, who are politically safe, prolonging the investigation sufficiently for the culprits to destroy the evidence and suborn witnesses, and for the scandal to fade from memory.

The print and electronic media has been screaming blue murder about the spectrum scandal from the time it was perpetrated in broad daylight, nearly three years ago. Not only did nothing happen, the man at the Center of the scandal retained the telecom portfolio when the second UPA government was sworn in, last year. The story with the Adarsh building scam was no different; there were newspaper reports on the subject several years ago, even as it was happening; again, no one took notice and a 31-storey building went up – again in broad daylight. As for the third scandal to occupy the public mind in recent weeks, the Commonwealth Games, the press kept pointing fingers for many months; yet those in-charges continued their merry way. So what is it that has brought scams to the boil suddenly, and caused powerful heads to roll? For an answer, go back to Watergate and the early 1970s.

The Washington Post and The New York Times went after the break in into the Democratic Party office in Washington’s Watergate building, and linked the burglars to the Nixon campaign committee and the White House. The Post reporters were subsequently lionized in a film All The President’s Men. But if you think that President Nixon was brought down by just journalistic heroics, you would be dead wrong, because reporters could only take the story up to a point. Bringing down the US President needed the combined efforts of people empowered to summon witnesses and demand evidence like the incriminating tapes of presidential conversations: Judge John Sirica, Senate Committee Chairman Sam Ervin, and Special Prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski.

The parallels with current events in India are obvious. What has got the spectrum scam to boil over, and force the resignation of A. Raja as Telecom Minister, is the damning report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). What got the Organizing Committee of the Games into trouble was the concurrent audit of expenditure by the CAG, ordered as it happens by Mani Shankar Aiyar when he was the Sports Minister; the CAG reports confirmed, even before the Games were held, that something was seriously amiss. The Prime Minister himself is now in a spot because the apex court has asked some questions. In other words, however much the media may bark, it usually has no bite; that has to come from suitably empowered institutions.

There is no shortage of scams in India. Indeed, they unfold every day β€” the Yeddyurappa land grab in Karnataka; the collapse of an illegal building in the Capital and the bribe taking that permitted its construction; the real estate hijack being scripted even as one writes, by Delhi bureaucrats, legislators and others who want to gift themselves Games Village flats at less than market rates… It is easy to respond to all this with a resigned shrug of the shoulders (corruption is everywhere, the coalition has to survive, etc.), and ignore media reports that act as warning shots. But as the Prime Minister must now know, that can be a dangerous course.

The purposeful response has to be to work for systemic solutions to the country’s No. 1 scourge. Some have already been put in place, like the Right to Information law. The courts encourage public interest litigation, and sector regulators, at least sometimes, act as a check on Ministerial arbitrariness. But also needed is a Central Bureau of Investigation that is independent of the government of the day, a properly led Central Vigilance Commission, but unfortunately both they act as desired by the government of day. The speed with which the spectrum scam has snowballed should spur even those in office to see the merit of such safeguards; they will prevent a whole government, including honest men in it, from being engulfed by scandals.

Where does that leave you and me and the people of this great country? Why, in the lurch, of course, and that too, after making suckers of us all.

Courtesy: Daily Excelsior

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