Crime, politics and governance


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‘THE great difficulty with politics,’ according to Napoleon, ‘is that there are no established principles.’ Politics and principles have seldom gone together. If at all they did, it was generally in the nature of an exception, or that the principle itself was distorted to suit the political objective. However, Napoleon could not have visualised that politics would become as murky as it has today, or that the dividing line between politics and crime would get as blurred.

Historically, it has been like the unfolding of a Shakespearean tragedy. Act one was characterised by a pursuit of politics bereft of principles. Power became an end in itself. Act two was marked by politicians taking the help of criminals to capture power. Act three witnessed criminals making a foray into politics. The striking feature of Act four, the stage we are passing through, is criminalisation of politics and politicisation of crime. One shudders to think what the final denouement might be.

The deterioration was noticeable even during Jawaharlal Nehru’s tenure as prime minister. Though personally above board, corrupt politicians flourished under his protective umbrella. Krishna Menon, as India’s High Commissioner in London, was involved in what was then known as the jeep scandal. Pratap Singh Kairon, then chief minister of Punjab, was guilty of abusing power and influence for his own benefit and that of his sons and relatives. K.D. Malviya was indicted by a judicial commission for showing undue favours to a mining magnate of Orissa. T.T. Krishnamachari, then Union finance minister, was blamed for LIC’s investments in concerns controlled by Haridas Mundhra, a Calcutta businessman.

This trend, unfortunately, took a nose dive during the period of Indira Gandhi. She injected the concept of ‘commitment’ in administration and applied it to subvert the established institutions. Officers were elevated and given key assignments, not in recognition of their merit but for their affinity and loyalty to the ruling party and its political philosophy. The disastrous consequences of this were seen during the Emergency (1975-77) when, as observed by the Shah Commission, ‘...the police was used and allowed themselves to be used for purposes some of which were, to say the least, questionable. Some police officers behaved as though they were not accountable at all to any public authority. The decision to arrest and release certain persons was entirely on political considerations which were intended to be favourable to the ruling party. Employing the police to the advantage of any political party is a sure source of subverting the rule of law.’

Mrs Gandhi also patronised politicians against whom there were proven charges of corruption and mismanagement. These included Gundu Rao, L.N. Mishra, J.B. Patnaik, Jagannath Mishra, Kedar Pande, A.R. Antulay and a host of others. As stated by Hiranmay Karlekar, ‘Her tenure saw the criminalisation of politics and the lumpenisation of the Congress.’ The entire system became so degenerate that there was no stopping the slide downhill. Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure was marred by the Bofors scandal, the HDW submarine case, Fairfax, and so on. Narasimha Rao presided over a thoroughly corrupt and effete establishment and his tenure was blotted by the Jain-Hawala case and the fiasco at Ayodhya.

And now we have the Tehelka tapes which have caused tremors at the highest level and disturbed public opinion all over the country. Not that they have revealed anything that was not known earlier. It is the audiovisual proof over the electronic media which has generated utter contempt among the people for the political masters and the bureaucrats interested in lining their pockets rather than giving the best equipment to the jawan who is expected to stake his life under the most inhospitable conditions. The shocking part is that what the tapes have shown is only the tip of the iceberg.



Under ideal conditions, politics should aim at good governance and good governance would essentially imply containment of crime. The best of societies have to contend with crime in some form or the other. Even Ram rajya was not immune from it. But so long as crime is kept under control and within limits, it can be said that society is getting good governance. In India, unfortunately, crime is on a spiral and the law and order situation seems to be getting out of hand.



Statistics compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau show that violent crimes against life are showing an upward trend. The incidence of murder went up by 31.7 per cent during the decade 1987-1997. What is more disturbing, however, is that organised crime on the pattern of Japanese Yakuza or the Chinese Triads is also beginning to appear in India. There are contract killings, kidnappings for ransom, trafficking in women and children, counterfeiting of currency, arms trafficking, money laundering, drug trafficking, and so on. Mumbai has emerged as the nerve centre of organised gangs in the country. External forces inimical to the country are ever ready to fan the embers. The Pakistan ISI used the mafia dons of Mumbai to cause serial blasts in Mumbai in March 1993 in the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque.

Tragically, the existing laws are hopelessly inadequate to tackle the menace in different parts of the country. Maharashtra has the Control of Organised Crime Act and Andhra Pradesh is planning a similar enactment, but other states have yet to show the political will to deal with the problem. The CBI had recommended that organised crimes which have an all-India spread should be classified as ‘federal’ crimes and a nodal agency created to investigate them. The provincial satraps are, however, opposed to what they look upon as an encroachment on their autonomy. Their reasons are more political than administrative.

Burgeoning crime is only one aspect of politics becoming unprincipled, corrupt and criminalised. Some of the other glaring manifestations which adversely reflect on the governance of the country are separatist/ secessionist movements in different parts of the country, a gradual collapse of the criminal justice system, and all pervasive corruption in the different walks of life.

It is a sad commentary on our handling of ethnic groups and other minorities that every decade has witnessed the eruption of political turmoil in some part of the country or the other. The fifties saw the Naga Hills going up in flames – and the insurgency continues to date. In the sixties, the fire spread to Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura. There were stirrings in Naxalbari as well. The seventies witnessed turmoil in Assam over the infiltration of foreigners. The eighties saw dark clouds of terrorism over the Punjab. In the nineties, Kashmir occupied centrestage – and it continues to pose the biggest challenge to the integrity of the country.



The Government of India talks of ‘zero tolerance’ of terrorism but the general perception is that we are giving all the latitude to militants. The non-initiation of combat operations (NICO) in Kashmir, as the government calls it, is being fully exploited by the militants to consolidate their position, augment their strength and replenish their arsenal. Brahma Chellaney has expressed misgivings that our present policy could set in motion the ‘Indonesianisation of India, with Kashmir serving as the East Timor-style trigger.’

Strangely, we have no law on the statute book to deal with terrorism. The government’s efforts to pass the Prevention of Terrorism Act have been repeatedly stalled by the opposition for short-sighted political reasons. Countries like the USA and UK, where the problem is hardly one-hundredth of what confronts us, have elaborate laws to deal with terrorists. The US has an Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 1996 which gives broad federal jurisdiction to prosecute anyone who uses that country as a staging ground for attacks overseas. The UK recently passed a new Terrorism Act banning as many as 21 terrorist outfits including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Babbar Khalsa and the International Sikh Youth Federation, all of which were targeting India.

The problem in India is further compounded by the fact that we have no well defined principles to deal with terrorism. The US State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism lays down three fundamental tenets: (i) make no concessions to terrorists; (ii) bring terrorists to justice for their crimes; and (iii) isolate and apply pressure on states that sponsor and support terrorism. We have no such formulation. Successive governments have their own appreciation and the party in power responds to a situation in an ad hoc manner. And so, without any law to pin down the terrorists and without any policy to deal with terrorism, the country hobbles from crisis to crisis.



The criminal justice system of the country appears to be crumbling. Its four pillars – police, prosecution, judiciary and jails – are in bad shape. The Government of India had appointed a National Police Commission in 1977 as it felt that ‘far reaching changes have taken place in the country’ since Independence and ‘there has been no comprehensive review at the national level of the police system after independence despite radical changes in the political, social and economic situation in the country.’

The Commission submitted eight detailed reports between 1979-81 which contained comprehensive recommendations covering the entire gamut of police working, but these received no more than a cosmetic treatment at the hands of the GOI. The political leadership is just not prepared to give any functional autonomy to the police because it finds this wing of the administration a convenient tool to further its partisan objectives.



The judiciary is clogged with arrears. The Union Law Minister, Arun Jaitely, recently stated that, as on 5 July 2000, the Supreme Court had 21,600 pending cases. The high courts had a pendency of 34 lakh cases. The subordinate courts had a staggering figure of two crore pending cases. No less a person than the President of India warned that if the people did not get speedy, cheap and unpolluted justice, they might resort to extra-judicial measures to settle their disputes outside the courts.

Frequent adjournments are a great obstacle to the speedy trial of cases. ‘Witnesses tremble,’ the Supreme Court recently observed, ‘on getting summons from courts in India not because they fear examination or cross-examination but because they fear that they might not be examined at all for several days and on such days they would be nailed to the precincts of the courts.’ The lawyers go on strike on the most frivolous grounds. There is also inexplicable delay in filling up vacancies in the high courts. The Law Commission Chairman (B.P. Jeevan Reddy) deplored that corruption had crippled the Indian judiciary.

The prosecution machinery is in doldrums. Jails have become dens of corruption from where the mafia dons are able to operate with impunity. All this is having a deleterious effect on the crime and law and order situation. Criminals are having the last laugh.



Corruption seems to have become a way of life in the country. Transparency International, the Berlin based NGO, has rated India as the 22nd most corrupt country in the world in its Year 2000 Corruption Perception Index. Among the Asian countries we are at the bottom, ranking near Vietnam and Philippines and better only than Indonesia. (Singapore is the least corrupt Asian nation.) We have had scandals associated with telecom, urea, oil imports, vegetable oil purchase, food corporation transactions, among others. Corruption starts from the top and filters down to the lowest formations of all wings of administration.

It was rightly observed by K. Subrahmanyam that ‘corrupt politicians are not interested in curbing the corruption of the bureaucracy, especially at levels where its cooperation is vital to sustain political corruption.’ That explains why the political parties are opposed to the Central Vigilance Commission being given powers to take action against officers of the level of joint secretary and above without prior permission. That also explains the delay in the passage of the Lok Pal Bill. The bill contains provision for the declaration of assets by all MPs. Once that happens, people would know the source of their wealth and there are bound to be inconvenient questions.

The observations made by Harvey Stockwin are worth quoting: ‘The harsh fact remains that Transparency International indexes, together with the Tehelka scoop, confirm that India faces a massive problem: Indian democracy is being subverted by corruption, and there is a dearth of action to truly remedy the situation.’ According to another analyst, ‘Corruption and the accompanying misgovernance have created the militancy in Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East.’ The statement may appear an over-simplification, but it has substantial truth in it. Corruption poses a serious danger to the Indian Republic – to its political system and its economic development.

This leads us to the reductio ad absurdum of politicians with shady background managing to reach the top. We have an ex-prime minister convicted of offering bribes and there are several former prime ministers and ministers against whom proceedings are pending for misuse of air force aircraft and encroachment over public land. There is a chief minister convicted on two charges of corruption while some others are pending against her. Yet another ex-chief minister is being tried for ‘eating’ the proceeds of fodder meant for cattle and, strangely, he continues to rule the state by proxy through his wife. Jayalalitha and Laloo Yadav epitomise the corruption in public life today; they demonstrate the durability of the corrupt and the ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system to bring the corrupt politician to book.



What is even more pathetic, the state shows helplessness even in dealing with bandits. Veerappan’s is a classic example. The forest brigand responsible for killing more than 100 persons, destroying about 2,000 elephants for ivory and looting sandalwood worth about Rs 100 crore was able to cock a snook at the law for more than a decade by virtue of his close links with several important politicians of South India. But for the intervention of the Supreme Court, the state governments of Karnataka and Tamilnadu were prepared to surrender before Veerappan in the wake of the kidnapping of Rajkumar. The Apex Court pertinently asked whether the actions of the state governments would not ‘breed contempt for law’ and ‘invite citizens to become a law unto themselves’ and criticised the state authorities for ‘compounding negligence upon negligence upon negligence.’



National security is one area which should have received the highest priority and its management should have reflected governance par excellence. Tragically, even this is an area of darkness. We have no long term strategic policies. After a lot of dithering the National Security Council was formed, but it has yet to evolve a working philosophy and formulate doctrines for internal and external security. Kargil showed our unpreparedness. As the Kargil Review Committee Report conceded, ‘The Pakistani armed intrusion in the Kargil sector came as a complete and total surprise to the Indian Government, Army and intelligence agencies as well as to the J&K state government and its agencies.’

The committee deplored that there were ‘grave deficiencies in India’s security management system’ insofar as there had been ‘very little change over the past 52 years despite the 1962 debacle, the 1965 stalemate and the 1971 victory, the growing nuclear threat, end of the Cold War, continuance of proxy war in Kashmir for over a decade and the revolution in military affairs.’ And now Jane’s Intelligence Review tells us that Pakistan has edged past India in nuclear weapons capability since the two countries conducted nuclear tests in May 1998. We seem to have moved at a slower pace in deciding and completing delivery systems, evolving procedures, tactics and doctrine for nuclear use as well as for ensuring effective control over nuclear forces.

Is there no hope for the future? There has to be a way out of this impasse. It should be possible to break the nexus between politics and crime. Governance could definitely improve. A comprehensive set of measures are called for. Only the important ones are briefly mentioned here.

We shall have to start with electoral reforms. Those with criminal antecedents must be barred from contesting elections, let alone enter the legislatures or the Parliament. It should be mandatory for the elected members to declare their assets at periodic intervals. The party funds should be regularly audited. This should be followed by strengthening of the criminal justice system. Reforms recommended by the National Police Commission – setting up State Security Commissions, making the investigative functions of the police completely independent of any extraneous influences, prescribing a procedure for the appointment of a police chief and giving him a minimum statutory tenure and formulating a new Police Act – should be implemented without any further delay.



The judicial processes should be expedited by simplifying court procedures, limiting the time for arguments, hastening the recording of evidence and making it obligatory for judgements to be delivered within thirty days of the hearing. Fast track courts are already being set up in the districts. Laws necessary to give greater teeth to the enforcement wings – Prevention of Terrorism Act, Money Laundering Bill, the CVC Bill, the Lok Pal Bill – should be expeditiously passed. The National Security Council will have to be energised and allowed to play its mandated role. These measures would require a tremendous amount of political will. Our leadership will have to demonstrate that it places the country and its interests higher than all other regional or sectarian considerations. Surely, this is not asking for too much.