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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

India’s ranking in the global corruption index is disgraceful. Reforms in the police and criminal justice system have been studiously resisted for decades by all parties on account of the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime.

A Season of Corruption

There are certainly many good people at the top. However, it is enough for evil to triumph that the good remain silent. The time to act is now.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 21 November, 2010

Seldom has the nation been so stricken by corruption. Scandal after scandal has surfaced relating to the Commonwealth Games; the Adarsh housing scheme (ostensibly for Kargil war widows) in Mumbai; the shenanigans in Prasar Bharati and its controversial award of telecast rights for the CWG; the tragedy of the collapse of an illegal and sub-standard multi-storeyed tenement in Delhi that took such a heavy toll of life and limb; the inordinate delay in granting the CBI permission to prosecute a senior official charged in a scam entailing fixing a contract bid called by the National Highways Authority of India and much else. The 2G Spectrum scam crowned them all.

At the state level, IAS officers have been caught with crores of illicitly-garnered money; the Reddy Brothers, ministers in Karnataka, have defied the law and the Lok Ayukta despite mining and exporting iron ore illegally; Yeddyrurappa, Karnataka’s BJP chief minister has been exposed for denotifying land to benefit his sons and family to the extent of an estimated Rs 500 crore; about 750 candidates drawn from across the political spectrum were fielded in the just-concluded Bihar polls despite having criminal records. The list could go on. The stench is overpowering.

The fact that politicians and the media have accessed official records to nail the culprits is indicative of a growing tribe of whistle blowers within the system who are no longer prepared to remain silent in the face of blatant malfeasance. But there is a danger of this being used by disgruntled civil servants to settle personal scores and play politics. Such documents must be used with care as it is possible to wave papers bearing official seals and signatures without knowing or disclosing what was recorded on the preceding or subsequent pages that might give matters a very different perspective.

There is also a danger of such information being used principally in pursuit of political vendetta rather than in the public interest. The present ruckus over the 2G spectrum has led once again to the raucous disruption of parliamentary proceedings for more than a week thus preventing reasoned debate and constructive action. Demanding a joint parliamentary committee as the sole and supreme course of action is irrelevant – apart from the abysmal record of previous JPCs - as the Supreme Court and CBI are both seized of the matter and the CAG report is poised for consideration by the Public Accounts Committee chaired by the BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi.

Due process is necessary and important. Yet all too many political and media commentators seem to emulate the Red Queen in instantly screaming for heads. Presumptive guilt cannot be ignored but it is not conclusive. The Congress defence in the spectrum scam is that the party was quick to fix moral responsibility by getting Ashok Chavan, the Maharashtra CM, Suresh Kalmadi, Chairman Organising Committee CWG, and A Raja, Telecom Minister, to resign even as criminal investigations follow. The BJP is being pushed to act similarly with regard to Yeddyrurappa.

Raja has pleaded innocence and says he followed the rules and precedents. The CAG has cited strong reasons to disagree and this will be examined further. However, though not entirely borne out by the facts, Raja has a case which needs to be understood. This is that the notional or presumptive loss estimated at Rs 1.76 lakh crore as a result of allocating the spectrum on the basis of the previous fixed price without an auction on a first come first served basis, together with other policy changes, allowed a considerable lowering of telecom call charges leading to exponential growth in rural and urban tele-density and call frequency. Thus a huge benefit was passed on to the consumer or society by vastly improving connectivity at low call rates. This social benefit cannot be denied. Subsidies too can mean loss to the exchequer while benefiting the underprivileged. The CAG is understandably concerned with financial accounting; but can social accounting be ignored? It is perhaps in this context, that the PM stressed the need to “differentiate between wrongdoing and genuine error” keeping the overall context and circumstances in mind.

This is not a plea to extenuate Raja and the alleged improprieties and even illegalities in disregard of cautions from the PM, and the Law and Finance Ministries in order to favor a few select corporate entities, as pointed out by the CAG. Nevertheless, the matter is complex and needs close and dispassionate examination to get at the truth and fix criminality and the real quantum of loss to the exchequer.

The Supreme Court has observed that the Prime Minister remained silent for 16 months before responding to a complaint seeking sanction to prosecute Raja in the 2G spectrum allocation scam. The new Telecom Miniter, Kapil Sibal, has rebutted the charge and the Attorney General will explain the matter in Court. The Congress Party line is that the episode reflects the exigencies of coalition politics when the government’s majority is tenuous. This argument cannot be stretched too far. The practice of allowing coalition partners to bargain for portfolios and who from their ranks should fill specific positions goes beyond any reasonable “coalition dharma”, though practiced by all sides. Good governance must precede mere survival, though the ouster of a government can cause much turmoil. The stakes are high. But unless principles are firmly asserted at the start, unscrupulous partners may exploit the situation and resort to blackmail for narrow ends. Democratic traditions are most often learnt the hard way.

The other point is that corruption cannot be accepted as a way of political, corporate and social life. India’s ranking in the global corruption index is disgraceful. Reforms in the police and criminal justice system have been studiously resisted for decades by all parties on account of the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime. The Vigilance Commissioner, CBI and Lok Ayuktas have been emasculated and the single directive used to shield corrupt officials and ministers by withholding permission for their prosecution. The Lok Pak Bill was scuttled and the UN Convention on Corruption, signed but not ratified. All this has happened not by happenstance but deliberately, pious explanations notwithstanding. The Supreme Court has now directed four state Chief Secretaries to appear before it and explain why its six directives on implementation of the model Police Act handed down two years ago have been disregarded.

There is a marked lack of political will. There are certainly many good people at the top. However, as has been said, it is enough for evil to triumph that the good remain silent. The good have remained too silent for too long. But the people’s wrath is rising like an avenging tide that could sweep all before it. Beware. We need to act before it is too late.

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