Byline by M J Akbar: From rage to outrage
Is there a tipping point to corruption, that last straw, or rupee note, on the corrupt camel’s back that ignites the dormant fuse of public response, and transforms apathy into rage? Will there come a subsequent moment when rage escalates to outrage?
Corruption has found a figleaf cover: everyone is corrupt, so why bother? This is the convenient argument that persuades some watchdogs, including within the media, to join the gang, even if their reward is marginal. Cynicism is a lucrative camouflage. If everyone is a thief, then theft becomes the law. There are no outlaws in a country teeming with in-laws.
The robber barons are too sophisticated to steal from one another. They don’t need to. That would also introduce unnecessary conflict into a cozy system. They all steal from the public, and there is so much public money available in the exchequer that even if all of them grabbed enough to satiate their hunger, there would still be something left over.
Robbery has graduated to daylight robbery. The thief of the night is apprehensive about guards, and hence seeks the protection of darkness. The daylight robber has no qualms, because the purchased sheriff is snoring at noon, and the bystanders are impotent.
Here are some facts printed on the front page of the Times of India on Saturday. This, remember, is just one day’s news; this is not the whole story. The Central Vigilance Commission has scrutinised only 16 Commonwealth Games projects so far, ranging from upgrades of stadiums, road construction, pavements, street lighting, etc., worth Rs 2,477.22 cr. Every quality certificate it examined was either forged or suspect. Each one. There is little point wasting space over details; they will be repetitive. Suffice to say that there has not been undiluted stink of this order for some time.
The odour is multinational, but naturally: this is the Commonwealth Games, after all. There is something called the Queen’s baton relay, which means that the baton honoured with Queen Elizabeth’s blessing has to reach Delhi by relay. If there is an event there must be a function, and if there is a function there must be corruption. The British authorities have provided a small glimpse into what is going on. The CWG Organising Committee sent about Rs 1.68 cr, in British pounds, to a company called AM Films UK Ltd [and is still sending 25,000 pounds every month] for video equipment in a deal where there was no tendering, no procedure and no paperwork. The office address of this company shows only the presence of an AM Vehicles Hire Ltd, and on its books it says that it hired cars, makeshift toilets and barriers, not video equipment. Its director resigned, very conveniently, on 14 July. The Organising Committee issued a brazen denial that takes about a minute to tear to shreds.
Sports Minister M.S. Gill has admitted in Parliament that the cost of the Games increased 17.5 times since the tamasha began in 2003. Repeat that sentence 17 times for better effect.
Doesn’t Prime Minister Manmohan Singh know what goes on in Parliament? Does he not read newspapers? Is he going to preside over the opening ceremony of the Games in the midst of those who should be on trial for loot? How long can he distance himself from the muck at his feet by silence? There will come a time, if it has not come already, when this silence will be heard at a volume that speech could never match.
Are we heading towards a 1973 situation? In early 1971 Mrs Indira Gandhi was re-elected by margins that surprised her Congress. She reached the pinnacle of her tenure with the military triumph in Bangladesh in December 1971. Within a year, inflation had soured the public mood. By the end of 1973 corruption had deepened the mire in which government was stuck. In 1974 Jayaprakash Narayan, whose own integrity was beyond question, challenged the moral right of Mrs Indira Gandhi to continue in office.
The one great difference is too obvious: there is no Jayaprakash Narayanan in 2010. The corrupt are comforted by the fact that the credibility of all politicians is so low that the public does not have an effective vehicle through which it can mobilise its anger. This vacuum should be of little comfort to the Government. The wrath, real or simulated, of Opposition parties is not the spectre ahead, but the rising discontent of the people. The whiplash of food inflation is harshest on the poor, those who earn around a hundred rupees a day. The poor do not protest too often, for the daily task of earning enough to eat is a demanding physical and psychological responsibility that consumes their time. But their patience is not infinite. They voted in large numbers for the Congress in 2009 because they believed in the sincerity of the party. They are beginning to feel betrayed