Byline by M J Akbar: Out of Balance
The last SMS on my mobile as I left Delhi was from a friend who has been watching cricket — on the field, not in the drawing room — for more than four decades. His SMS was either a cry from the heart or a joke, or possibly a cry from the heart disguised as a joke. It will be safe, he wrote, to conduct the IPL tournament during the elections as almost all the criminals in India will be busy contesting the elections.
Without dissecting the pleasantry with the heavy scalpel of bombast, consider this: if there was a vote on whether the cricket should be postponed or the elections, which way would the electorate go? Why miss out on a contest of skill and transparency when all we get in return is a murky game where a tribe of varied characters spend dubious money in a process that may not even declare a clear victor? At least the 20-20 rules do not permit indecision.
To be fair, democratic politics always needed money as a part-time servant. Unfortunately, the dependency has been reversed. Money now needs politics at its beck and call.
The most powerful people in India used to be elected politicians and the institutionalised bureaucracy. They were not well paid. Salaries have improved of late but are nowhere near private sector scales. However, authority was a proud compensation. There was some vicarious pleasure in seeing the fattest of cats purr before a joint secretary and meow piteously before a minister. Ministers would not deign to give appointments too readily. But equations have changed. Money has become an independent power. Ministers now seek appointments from fatcats in the guise of socialising. The business-political nexus is now celebrated over pleasant evenings. Business expect and get decisions tweaked to suit their interests as a price of their contribution to the political kitty. If there is nothing called a free lunch there is nothing called a free general election either.
Uncertainty over results has fuelled inflationary pressures. The present government purchased an extra year of life by buying MPs during the nuclear debate. The current talk in Delhi is that the next government may need a hire purchase system from inception.
If neither the BJP nor the Congress has enough seats to provide a stable core to the next coalition, Delhi could well become, at least temporarily, the most exciting auction house in the world.
Dr Manmohan Singh is said to have despaired privately of the amount of leeway he had to give his ministers, both in his party and among his partners, to keep his government afloat. But he did nothing about it. I wish I was able to use, at this point, a hapless pun and note that there was no check on cheques. But politicians do not deal in cheques. All transactions are in cash.
A friend has suggested a solution. The only way to kill, or maul, this chequeless corruption is to demonetise all bank notes above 100 rupees. His point, and a valid one, is that if the American economy did not need a currency note above 100 dollars why should the Indian economy? All high value transactions would be by either credit card or bank transfers. High denomination notes had been introduced to facilitate the cash-driven black economy.
The argument demands attention. Sudden demonetisation would, for a start, bring down the circulation of black money since you would have to explain to the authorities how you came into possession of the cash you wanted to exchange for new legal tender. Additionally, bribes in crores would become more inconvenient. You would need trucks for transport and godowns as private safety vaults.
Why do I think there will be no takers for such logic?
Corruption has become a devilishly tangled knot. There is no option except Alexander’s system. You cannot untie its strands. You have to cut with a slash of the sword.
The odour of crime pervades over all systems, but the definition of crime changes. The whole of America is currently enraged at the unthinking greed of the executives of American International Group, the biggest culprit in the financial meltdown. It has decided to pay $165 million in bonuses to executives primarily responsible for the massive mismanagement. The company survives only because it has been gifted $100 billion of taxpayers’ money. The House of Representatives has approved legislation that would impose a 90 per cent surtax on the bonuses. The Senate could get more punitive. All America believes this to be a crime.
And so it is. But it is, to resort to an oxymoron, a legal crime. The bonuses were part of a contract and all payments will be by cheque which is why they can be taxed.
The greed in Delhi is within the safety zone of privacy. There is no tax on Indian corruption.
Our notes proudly flaunt the image of Mahatma Gandhi. Is this the highest form of insult to the Mahatma?
At least Vijay Mallya bought the Gandhi memorabilia with a cheque. There is, I know, an incendiary and possibly unacceptable SMS doing the rounds: Gandhi’s samadhi will now read ‘Hey Rum’, and he will be known as the Old Monk who walks with an air hostess on either side. But I suspect that the old saint in heaven must be blessing Mallya with a toothless grin. At least the money was white, not black.