Sunday, 7 June 2020

Curbing Corruption? Get Real!

Updated: May 7, 2011 1:08 pm

To substantially remove corruption from India’s political system calls for such drastic reform as would usher a full blown cultural revolution. To achieve the reform of a sick political system requires an approach no different from bringing about the recovery of a sick patient. The first step is to make a proper diagnosis of the sick patient’s system. The second step is to discover the flaw in the system. The third step is to prescribe a medicine to cure the flaw. The final step is to administer the medicine to achieve the patient’s full recovery.

                In the midst of the clamour surrounding the Lokpal Bill has the nation made a proper diagnosis of the problem? Clearly it has not. For starters, a proper diagnosis must insist upon the truth. Otherwise the correct medicine cannot be prescribed. India is like the proverbial ostrich with its head stuck in the sand refusing to see the truth. I recently wrote a short piece criticising Anna Hazare for questioning the integrity of all critics expressing reservations about the Lokpal Bill. In it I made an indirect allusion to his misdemeanor of diverting money from a trust fund for his birthday celebration. He made a mistake. All humans make mistakes. He apologised for his error. Nothing therefore should be held against him. But should he criticise the integrity of those who differ from him? An irate letter criticised me for refusing to separate the wheat from the chafe. He wrote that Hazare misused a mere two lakh rupees while corrupt politicians are looting billions. Good point. But who are these corrupt politicians? Are they not the ones with whom Anna Hazare is collaborating to draft his Lokpal Bill?

                That brings us to the first harsh truth in our diagnosis. All politicians ranting against corruption are probably tainted because the system can only operate through corruption. Hazare exchanged letters with Sonia Gandhi who is credited with being the biggest political patron of the Lokpal Bill. Mrs Gandhi wrote to Hazare: “You should have no doubt of my commitment in the fight for probity in public life.” In pursuance of that commitment should not Mrs Gandhi demand a retraction and apology from author Yevgenia Albats, former member of the Soviet government’s official KGB Commission, who in her book furnished details, citing files, related to the money paid by the KGB to her family? Should she not sue Schweitzer Illustrate, the reputed Swiss journal, which alleged that she operated a secret bank account of over two billion US dollars? Should not the Indian government seek explanation and apology from the Russian government for its assertion through an official spokesman reported in The Hindu confirming that the Soviet government paid money to Mrs Gandhi’s family in order to protect its foreign policy? Repeated requests to Mrs Gandhi to refute these allegations have resulted only in deafening silence. If Mrs Gandhi and Anna Hazare genuinely seek an end to corruption they must confront the truth. Then alone might we proceed with a successful fight against corruption.

                Let us hypothetically assume that the allegations against Mrs Gandhi are valid. How would that help us get at the root of corruption? First of all, we would have to recognise that Mrs Gandhi did not initiate corruption but inherited it. She did not seek KGB money but was voluntarily paid by the Soviets because she belonged to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that rules India. How might it be said that she inherited corruption? Quite simply we should recall that Pandit Nehru himself clandestinely received money from the Soviet Union purportedly as royalty for his books which he deposited in the foreign Bank of China concealing it from the Income Tax Department. This fact came to light after the 1962 hostilities with China when the Bank of China in Kolkata was seized by the government. The scale of corruption may have grown exponentially, but its seeds were sown in the halcyon days of early independence.

                The truth we must accept is that the entire political class containing many honourable people is corrupt because the system is corrupt and permissive beyond measure disallowing honest functioning. Very recently, Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya accused the Trinamool Congress of using black money in the ensuing assembly elections. This was laughable! Had he said that Mamata Bannerjee was buying voters with cash as has been done in Tamil Nadu he might have been heard with some attention. But using black money in elections? Is CPI-M using white money? Is any single party in any election anywhere in the country using white money in elections? Do donations to political parties come through cheques? Get real Mr Bhattacharya! Only the late Chandrashekhar in a rare moment of candour admitted once that all elections were fought with black money. But he did precious little to rectify that. One doubts if he wanted to rectify that.

                These days all manner of charges are being leveled against certain members of the Lokpal Drafting Committee. But who among the VIPs is not tainted? Is not President Pratibha Patil tainted for having been allowed to contest for the President’s post despite an ongoing CBI inquiry against her for misusing her office as Governor to protect her relatives charged with murder? Having become President the CBI probe was aborted. Is not Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh tainted for having filed a false affidavit that he was a permanent resident of Assam in order to be elected to the Rajya Sabha from that state? One can go on. The point is that unless we recognise that the malaise of corruption and impropriety has gone so far beyond normalcy that indulging in name calling is futile. In differing degrees we are all corrupt. If we don’t practice corruption we indirectly abet it. The system is corrupt. So let’s consider the system.

                Our system is corrupt because the checks and balances contained in the Constitution have been upset by ignoring its provisions. Establishing a Lokpal will offer no solution. It will merely compound the confusion. Why will Lokpal function any better than the Central Vigilance Commissioner? The solution lies in what the Constitution has explicitly written. It has given us a President elected indirectly by the entire nation, empowered to protect all laws and the Constitution, to monitor and guide the functioning of the Union Cabinet, and to proffer advice to either or both Houses of Parliament. If it is preferable for the President to be elected directly by the people, that can be done, by an amendment that does not violate the basic structure of the Constitution the change can be effected. Only a President acting as the super ombudsman of the nation elected by the people offers a realistic hope for a systemic change without a Constitutional change to curb corruption and restore governance. The proposed Lokpal is a non-starter.

                If and when such revolutionary reform does occur in India we would have to offer an amnesty scheme that allows the guilty politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen to retain only a fraction of their illegally earned wealth and deposit the rest with the state. They should be allowed to keep their identities secret if they willingly cooperate. If they do not comply they might be severely prosecuted. This would be the only realistic solution. With zero tolerance after a cut-off date they would reform themselves. We would have to give opportunity to the guilty to be reformed because while they corrupted the system, it is equally true that the system corrupted them.

By Rajinder Puri

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