The will and won’t of corruption
A neuroscientist of Indian origin, V.S. Ramachandran, has noted that the human brain might get lost in variations of “free will”, but can certainly be clear about a “free won’t”. Mr Ramachandran should start classes for powerful Indian politicians. Dangle a temptation before them, and stick to “will”, rarely opting for “won’t”.
One sign of the march of Indian democracy is creative progress in the science of corruption. In the shoddy old days, someone took a bag stuffed with cash, a flunky counted the rupees and took it to the master’s bedroom. A high dignitary like a Prime Minister would get more respect; his cash came in a proper suitcase. A bull operator on the Mumbai stock exchange claimed in the early 1990s that he had gifted P.V. Narasimha Rao with a suitcase packed with Rs 1 crores in neat bundles. These days, of course, such a pittance would be below the dignity of even junior Cabinet ministers. You will recall that last year Beni Prasad Verma, a proud member of Dr Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet, laughed when his colleague was accused of skimming Rs 70 lakh. Too small a figure to be credible, Verma chortled. Did Dr Manmohan Singh frown? Not at all. Verma is still a Cabinet minister.
Perhaps suitcases are passé, perhaps not. More sophisticated politicians use a brilliant variation. They pick up loot through a relative, as payment for services rendered. And so a minister’s wife gets crores in legal fees for a transaction worth possibly lakhs, if worth anything at all. How can you argue with that? Value, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. If a chit-fund businessman treats your wife’s legal acumen at such worth, who are we to argue? Has Dr Singh done anything? Silence remains his only answer.
One great illusion of the last decade has been our belief that Dr Manmohan Singh would ensure corruption-free governance since he himself was above board. The latest expose in the spectrum and coal mine scams proves beyond any argument that his personal reputation provided cover for massive theft by his ministers. He knew, and did nothing about it, because his own survival as PM was at stake. The CBI affidavit to the Supreme Court in the coal scam is a devastating indictment of his government. It proves that CBI and law officers lied to Court earlier to protect the government. It admits that its affidavit was vetted by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Law Minister, Ashwani Kumar. The explanation that Kumar was making only grammatical corrections is not only stupid, but also arrogant. It assumes that the rest of us, including justices of the Supreme Court, are fools. The joint secretary in PMO, who got in touch with CBI, reports directly to the Prime Minister. Dr Singh made Ashwani Kumar Law Minister not because he delivers zillions of votes to the Congress, but because of his proximity to the PM.
Mrs Indira Gandhi once dismissed corruption as an international phenomenon. She was right. The nexus between politicians, big business and a few useful friends in media is also an old story. Witness this report, datelined Berlin, first published exactly 100 years ago and reproduced in the International Herald Tribune of 22 April 2013: “The charges of bribery of Government officials by members of the Krupp firm have momentarily sunk into insignificance compares with new charges launched against German armament interests of fomenting international rivalries and ill-feeling. Selecting France as a fertile field for these machinations, the armament interests endeavoured to circulate false reports in the French press with a view to frightening Germany into buying large supplies of arms. The false announcement that the French army intends to double its supply of machine was evidently intended to spur the Germans on to double their own supply.”
But neither age nor global expanse makes corruption a virtue. The difference between Europe and India a century later is that Europe reveals names of those who hold secret accounts in Swiss banks. In India we specialise in creating escape routes for the unlucky few who are discovered with their hands in the nation’s treasury.
There is a saving grace. India is a democracy. When Indians get angry on an epic scale, they rise with a fury that ravages the ruling party.
Whenever corruption tops the voters’ agenda, the establishment is reduced to roughly half its previous strength in the Lok Sabha. In 1974, the late Jayaprakash Narayan led an unprecedented stir against corruption. A desperate Mrs Gandhi was forced to declare an Emergency in 1975. In 1977 Congress lost over 200 seats, ending up with only 150 MPs. In 1989, Bofors allegations slashed Congress from 420 MPs to less than 200. Narasimha Rao, who had more than corruption to worry about, was similarly mauled in 1996. If the pattern persists, Congress could drop to around 100 after the next general elections.