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Between the line

India rocked by scams
November 24, 2010


Every time a scam tumbles out of government’s almirah, there is a familiar exercise that follows. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an official agency, is asked to hold an enquiry. The Economic Enforcement Bureau gets ‘into action’. Home Minister and some other senior cabinet ministers say in a press interview that the guilty will not be spared. Soon it is business as usual. But the exercise begins again when another scandal rocks the country.

To the misfortune of the ruling Congress, three scams have come to light in a row. One relates to the Commonwealth Games which has cost nearly Rs. 70,000 crore. The second is about the Mumbai Housing Society building where former Chief Minister Asok Chavan allotted a flat to his mother-in-law. The land was given to the society on the clear understanding that it would be used to house the victims of the Kargil war.

The third scam takes the cake. Telecommunications Minister A.Raja, who is from the Dravada Munnetra Kaghgam (DMK), an ally of the Congress, has given 2G spectrum licenses to some 85 firms at a throw-away price, making the exchequer lose one lakh and seventy thousand crores of rupees. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has said in its report that the minister knowingly flouted all rules and procedures to give licenses even to the companies which had no experience in telecommunications. The price he preferred to charge was what prevailed in 2002.

Not that the Prime Minister was not in know of his cabinet colleague’s misdoings but his compulsion was that he could not afford to displease the DMK which sustained the government. The party’s 18 votes in the Lok Sabha are crucial for the coalition to survive. The prime minister would not have probably taken the call even this time if all opposition parties had not joined hands to demand the ouster of Telecommunications Minister. After all, PM did not give permission to former Law Minister Subramaniam Swami to prosecute Raja. The petition remained pending for 15 months.

The matter is far from settled even after the minister’s resignation because the opposition wants a Joint Parliament Committee (JPC) probe. Both houses have not been able to transact any business this week due to the demand.

The government is reluctant to open doors too wide because a JPC can go beyond the CAG report which the Congress is willing to discuss in the Public Accounts Committee, even though it is headed by a BJP leader. If the past is any experience even the JPC findings have not come to much. In any case, the JPC the opposition has demanded is for all the three scams.
The fact remains that the entire system is rotten. Whether the Congress or the BJP government has the courage to overhaul it remains to be seen. The bureaucracy is too strong and too united. Once I asked Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee why his government made no mark. He said that the bureaucracy did not allow them to function.

The Manmohan Singh government has, no doubt, made Suresh Kalmadi heading the Commonwealth Games resign from the office of Secretary of the Congress parliamentary party and Chief Minister Asok Chavan from his office because of faulty allotment of flats by the housing society. Yet the system has not changed and no top bureaucratic has been ever touched.

The problem with India or, for that matter, the countries in South East Asia is that the governments either at the Centre or in the States are reeking with corruption. No government file moves until a babu’s palm is greased. Administrative reforms mean little when there is a nexus between the executive and the bureaucracy.

Top industrialist Rattan Tata has given an example of corruption in the executive. He said at a recent meeting that he wanted to start an air service with the collaboration of Singapore. But the minister then in charge of Civil Aviation wanted Rs. 15 crore. He abandoned the venture because he did not want to give bribe. .

The Tatas have an unsullied reputation. It was expected of Rattan Tata to act as he did. But this cannot be said of many others in the corporate sector. Some leading names are involved in the Telecommunications scam. The CAG report has named them. They should voluntarily return the money which they earned through the minister’s munificence. Otherwise, the government should have the guts to prosecute them.

Take another example of the private sector. The government has arrested the builder of the unauthorized house that caved in Delhi this week resulting into death of 70 persons. But is he alone responsible? The Municipal Corporation Department, the Delhi Development Authority and many other offices are as guilty because they authorize houses and colonies.

The credit of exposures goes primarily to the media which followed relentlessly a few leads and brought out most of the information. The government was at first reluctant to admit the scam. Later, when political parties added their voice to the media’s demand for a probe, the government was forced to take action.

Scams have damaged the reputation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the most. Nobody says he makes money. His own credibility has never been questioned. The inference is that he loves power more than his image. He had retained a corrupt minister for political compulsions till he became a liability. The Supreme Court has questioned the reason for the Prime Minister’s silence and inaction.

That he presides over a corrupt system is the talk of the town. Does the office matter to him so much to him? Everybody remembers how Manmohan Singh had to “buy” the support of some MPs to get the controversial Nuclear Energy Bill through parliament.

May I remind Manmohan Singh or, for that matter, Sonia Gandhi about the standards set by Mahatma Gandhi? Ishwar Singh Keveshwar, a Forward Bloc member, was included in the Congress Working Committee. When the list reached the Mahatma for approval, he put a question mark against Keveshwar’s name. He went running to Gandhi and asked what his fault was. Gandhi brought out a postcard from his almirah. The card was a complaint against Keveshwar for not returning the borrowed amount of Rs 500. “Bapu, this is time barred,” Keveshwar said in his defence. Gandhi said: “The question is not legal, but moral.”

Undoubtedly, the Congress has a secular face compared to the BJP’s communal credentials. But corruption has eaten into the Congress support base. I am worried about Manmohan Singh’s reputation. It is up to the Prime Minister how he wants posterity to remember him. He cannot run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. This parable should make him introspective.

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