Octopus of corruption
Tarun Tejpal deserves a Padma award for the national service he has done by exposing corrupt practices in politics, administration, even in the defence services through the Tehelka videotapes. Everybody knows that corruption has seeped into the body politic and spread to every field of public activity. But for the first time the Tehelka expose showed to the people clearly and vividly how bribes are offered and received for undue favours.
Until this episode, there had been rumours, press reports, and even public interest litigation regarding serious allegations of corruption against politicians in power and officers of the government at different levels. But given the enormous delay in booking the culprits as also launching prosecution against them and the cumbersome judicial process, there were few convictions. In any case, by the time the final verdict was announced by the highest court of the land, people would have forgotten the case, and the final conviction if any would have little impact on the public. Tehelka helped the people to identify the culprits and know the modus operandi in corrupt deeds so that they could come to their own judgement.
The NDA government had taken many welcome economic and political measures, despite ideological incoherence and several internal contradictions in its composition. But in one vital area the government conspicuously failed in taking firm steps, that is, eradication of corruption. The NDA committed to the people through the National Agenda for Governance that it would ensure an honest, corruption free and transparent administration. So far it has not even been able to establish a Lok Pal. Scams and cases of corruption tumble out of ministries with regular frequency. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s encouraging assurance that there would be zero tolerance to corruption was not followed by any positive action. On the contrary the government has betrayed its unwillingness to act even when situations warranted swift action.
One such act of omission nearly destroyed the credibility of the government and that is the hesitation of the government to take prompt action against the Tehelka accused. It took four days to announce the resignation of the Defence Minister, George Fernandes and the appointment of a judicial commission of enquiry. It looked comical that soon after George Fernandes was relieved of his portfolio and a judicial enquiry announced, three ministers of the government were seen on TV declaring that he had done nothing wrong, that he was the greatest defence minister of independent India, that in a few months he would be back in the Cabinet as defence minister. How could the Chief Justice of India agree to spare the services of a sitting judge of the Supreme Court to hold an enquiry into the allegations when the government itself had declared the accused not guilty. Any judge appointed to enquire into the allegations was bound to feel that he would be doing a futile job since the government had already announced its judgement.
The President of the ruling party was asked to resign immediately after he was caught receiving a bribe from persons who were supposed to be arms dealers. Four officers of the defence services were immediately suspended after the Tehelka exposure. But why did the defence minister and his party president not resign immediately? Their refusal to step down itself created grave suspicion about their involvement in the deals exposed by Tehelka. This has not only tarnished the image of the government but also cast a shadow on the personal credibility of the prime minister.
The first Lokayukta with powers to enquire into allegations of corruption against public servants, including the chief minister, was established in Karnataka in 1984 when I was the chief minister. Setting up of an Ombudsman or Lok Pal has been under consideration of the Government of India for decades and finally a bill drafted six years ago was introduced in Parliament in its last session. But what is shocking is the lack of consensus on whether Members of Parliament should come within the purview of the Lok Pal for investigation. As the honourable representatives of the people, MPs who are supposed to be public servants, should offer themselves for enquiry into allegations against them – otherwise how can they profess probity in public life? It is distressing that our law makers – MPs, MLAs and so on – do not even submit an annual statement of assets and liabilities as required by law.
It is a matter of great national shame that India has become a member of the club of most corrupt countries in the world. In terms of integrity in public life, India’s position is as low as Venezuela and Cameroon. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 1999, while Denmark scores 10 out of 10 for honesty, India’s score stands at 2.9 out of 10. What a reputation to earn for the land of Harishchandra and Mahatma Gandhi!
Undoubtedly there was corruption in our country before Independence and to some extent even after Independence for about a couple of decades. But corruption then was largely confined to the administrative services. Rajaji once called the Public Works Department as enemy number one of the people because of prevalence of bribery in that department. But in those early days cases of corruption were an exception rather than the rule.
Even in political circles there were only a few cases of corruption that came to light. There was a method in the collection of party funds for elections and other expenses. Particular persons were appointed by the ruling parties as fund collectors and every rupee collected had to be accounted for. Those who were entrusted with the job of collection of funds were persons of great personal integrity like S.K. Patil, C.B. Gupta and Atulya Ghosh. There were no deals in terms of issuance of licences, permits and quotas for the contributions made by business houses. There was no harassment of businessmen to compel them to contribute, and there was no revengeful action against those who did not donate the amount expected or those who expressed their inability to contribute. But unfortunately, from the beginning, no rules were formulated in regard to contribution to political parties by the business community in terms of transparency and accountability.
The whole scenario underwent a change after 1971. The reliance on voluntary contributions to political parties changed into business deals. It became common practice to collect funds through commissions and cuts on percentage basis in all business deals, including defence deals. Fund raising by a party on a special occasion for a specific purpose changed into a regular and on-going practice of extracting money by those in power.
Elections became both an excuse and a justification for the collection of funds. After 1971, elections became more and more expensive because they were no longer fought on the record of service and performance, and promises for the future, but on the strength of money and muscle power which resulted in a distorted verdict of the people. The permissible limits on electoral expenditure prescribed by the Election Commission were never adhered to. In the Lok Sabha elections held a few years ago, a chief minister reportedly gave a minimum of Rs 50 lakhs to every candidate of his party. And even more – up to Rs 2 crore depending upon the candidate’s personal loyalty and caste affiliation. Where did this money come from?
Ours is the largest democracy in the world and we are legitimately proud of it. Elections are no doubt held regularly and in accordance with the law but can we say that elections are held in a free and fair atmosphere? As democracy matures, the legislatures and houses of parliament should increasingly reflect the will of the people. But when elections are fought on the basis of money and muscle power the environment is so vitiated that people cannot express their will freely and fully.
There are political parties that try to subvert the verdict of the people by engineering defections. A ruling party, though in minority, spends crores of rupees to stay in power by bribing the so called representatives of the people. Similarly a party in opposition bribes the ruling party members to topple a government elected by the people. Are the elected representatives of the people commodities in the marketplace? Why don’t our political parties gracefully accept the mandate of the people and play the role assigned to them. There cannot be a greater injury to our democracy and insult to our people than to negate or manipulate the people’s verdict.
These days it is common to see prospective candidates bribe their local leader to get a party ticket. ‘B’ Forms are auctioned. Even in local elections to the municipal bodies, to get a ticket to contest in a ward with six to seven thousand voters, an aspirant of the ruling party pays Rs 5000 as a bribe. How can he be a honest member if elected?
The cancer of corruption has permeated the entire administrative system with the politicisation of administration. When ministers take huge bribes for the transfer of officers to and from important posts supposed to be lucrative right down to the lowest level, the officers have to make up for the bribes they give their bosses. Ultimately it is the people who suffer because they too are made to pay bribes.
Indira Gandhi scoffed at allegations of corruption in her government by stating that corruption was a global phenomenon. In a sense this may have been true, but is no excuse for the rampant and all-pervading corruption that we have in our country which has crippled the whole political and administrative system. In other countries corruption is limited to certain levels and ordinary citizens are not affected. They do not have to pay bribes for every little thing they need from the authorities.
But in our country a citizen has to bribe for everything, however legitimate his demand is and however duty bound the administration is to fulfil the demand. You cannot take the dead body of your relative for the funeral if he or she dies in a government hospital unless you pay a bribe. It is unlikely that such a situation exists even in some of the most backward African countries.
Democracy means rule of law and it is the primary duty of the government to ensure that the rule of law is obeyed. Wherever rule of law is broken, corruption and injustice will flourish. Every unpunished crime will give birth to a thousand new crimes, creating conditions of anarchy. Daily papers are replete with reports, sometimes with telling photographs, on corruption, injustice, atrocities and violence. But there is hardly any report of prompt prosecution and adequate punishment. Forget about Bofors where government after government failed to punish the guilty. What about cases where politicians and others were caught redhanded? Whether it is Sukh Ram, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Jayalalitha, Narasimha Rao or any other political leader or businessmen like Harshad Mehta or senior officers like B.P. Verma – all have behaved as if they have not done anything wrong. Only in one rare case, that of Balakrishna Pillai, was a former minister in Kerala convicted for corruption. Yet, even he was allowed to contest in the last election in Kerala on grounds that his appeal to a higher court was pending.
The problem of corruption cannot be solved unless prompt and effective action is taken to enquire into the allegations and the guilty punished without delay.
Political corruption is the mother of all corruptions. ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ because the temptation to misuse power is irresistible. Unless there is fear of speedy enquiry and deterrent punishment of the guilty, corruption cannot be eliminated from public life.
Several committees have been appointed by the government to suggest ways and means to tackle the problem of political and administrative corruption. The first one was appointed by Lal Bahadur Shastri, that rare epitome of probity in public life and a shining example of personal integrity. The committee was headed by Santanam, a veteran leader and parliamentarian, and consisted of several eminent people. But the tragedy in our country is that despite good reports and excellent recommendations by numerous committees no action is initiated to implement them.
There is a popular belief that the root cause of political corruption is the present electoral system which is substantially true. Greed for money also breeds corruption as is seen in countries with authoritarian system where no elections are held. However, it must be admitted that in our country the present electoral system and electoral malpractices where limitless expenditure is incurred by candidates and parties has provided vast opportunity for unscrupulous players in the game to indulge in unbridled corruption.
Several committees – official, non-official and parliamentary – were appointed to look into electoral reforms. The Election Commission itself has from time to time suggested many important steps in regard to electoral reforms for ensuring free and fair elections. But here again, apart from certain peripheral measures, no concrete action has been taken. Unless there is a strong will and determination to eradicate corruption and malpractices in elections, no amount of glib talk will help.
What a cruel irony that political parties when in opposition loudly profess their commitment to electoral reforms and the eradication of corruption in public life, but once in power the same parties feel shy of taking any concrete action. Is it because of vested interest? All political parties had agreed to adopt a code of conduct for the elected representatives of the people and a code of ethics in politics. But where are they? What happened to them? Unless drastic and radical steps are taken to cleanse public life by the government, political parties and people at large, corruption will continue to corrode the vitals of the country. A corrupt country is a weak country even if it is seemingly economically strong. Can we free our nation from the stranglehold of the octopus of corruption?