Corrupts Made Accountable
MA Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a tactical genius who succeeded in dividing the subcontinent in two. Unlike the Congress leadership, Jinnah understood that World War II would have so weakened the UK that freedom for India would be inevitable, even without the exhaustive—and exhausting—agitations launched by the Congress Party. After the fatal tactical error of withdrawing from government both nationally and regionally in 1939, the Congress Party began to rapidly lose the support that it had hitherto enjoyed within the British establishment. In contrast, the Muslim League under its leader MA Jinnah supported a British establishment that he knew was in a severely weakened state. Jinnah kept away from the freedom struggle because he saw that independence was a foregone conclusion. Instead, through gaining the goodwill of London, he ensured the backing—both open and quiet—of the British government in his single-minded pursuit of Pakistan.
Interestingly, as soon as the Union Jack was pulled down at midnight of August 15, 1947, the new government of “free” India retained the entire framework of colonial rule. It retained the colonial administrative structure and the legal framework of the colonial past. Indeed, within five years of gaining control, Nehru began to introduce more and more restrictions on the non-governmental sector in India. Much of private industry—which had flourished during World war II as a result of military orders—was nationalised. Tax rates were brought up to absurd levels, reaching 97.75 per cent by the 1970s. After three decades of Nehru family rule, almost any activity needed prior governmental permission. Finally, in 1977, in a reaction to such colonial-style control, the electorate reacted and threw out the Congress party led by Indira Gandhi. Since then, no subsequent government dared to add on to the web of regulations and prohibitions, or to once again show the contempt for public opinion that was demonstrated by Indira Gandhi during 1975 and 1976, a time when several citizens (including this columnist) faced police incarceration. Of course, it was only in the 1990s that a few steps were taken to liberalise the economy, steps that were added on to till 2004, when the Congress party once again came to power as the lead actor in a coalition.
From the final decades of the 18th century to almost the first half of the 20th century, a small number of British and other colonialists skimmed the cream from the Indian national product. Several stately homes in the UK were built out of the money gained from stints in India. Even jewels of historical value, such as a Koh-i-noor, were taken away and made the property of inhabitants of the conquering power. This loot by a relatively small and distinct segment of society finally roused tens of millions in the subcontinent to protest, and to revolt. Even in the armed forces, anger grew at the double standards practiced on those not of the “Master Race”. The career prospects and salaries of those from the UK were way higher than that given to those unfortunate enough to have been born in India.
Since 1947, has there really been a change? In 2011, it is clear that once again, small elite is monopolising the bulk of the economic benefits accruing within the country. Less than fifty thousand politicians, businesspersons, officials and yes—even some media persons—with their families have formed minuscule elite that are behaving with impunity and arrogance. In the process, they use every means available to make money and to gain further advantage. Harsh laws that have been faithfully retained in “free” India by “Super Democrat” Nehru apply only to the other 99.995 per cent of the population, not to these elite. The businesspersons become politicians and vice-versa, and both marry their sons and daughters off to the children of high officials.
Since 1947, a cosy fraternity of privilege has come up in India, which resembles the elite that bled the country dry during the period of frank colonialism in every way except skin colour. Why has the population of the country finally reacted in fury to such a colonial-style loot of the country? The explanation lies in the fact that the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi has added substantially to the regulations and prohibitions that fetter those in India who fall outside the Fifty Thousand Families. These days, unless some government agency gives permission in writing, a citizen of India is barred from holding a protest or even a conference. Since 2004, the grip of the government has spread in a fashion not seen since the 1970s heyday of the Nehru dynasty. After thirteen years of slow but steady liberalisation, the rollback of this process by the Congress-led government over the past seven years has resulted in a slowdown in economic growth and in increasing frustration at the growing corruption and incompetence that has been the hallmark of Sonia Gandhi’s administration. This return to the colonial past through the introduction of new regulations has led to harassment and intimidation by officials and politicians. It is this increase in the arrogance of those holding power that has created the reaction that we are seeing in India, where an increasing proportion of the population looks upon the government with loathing.
Till Prime Minister Manmohan Singh abandoned his earlier tolerance of corruption in 2009, the Fifty Thousand Families were confident that the immunity from accountability that they and their predecessors have enjoyed since 1947 would continue into the indefinite future. They went about funnelling cash into hawala networks (many run by narco traders or practitioners of terrorism) so that the bundles of currency could get converted finally into deposits in offshore banking havens. They went about forging paper records and destroying inconvenient evidence against them. They warned likely whistle-blowers and where such warnings did not work, resorted to murder. And they would vacation together in the most expensive locations in Europe, those from the ruling and opposition parties mixing together in the bonhomie provided by the fusion of power with money. In India, the anti-corruption agencies usually get staffed by the most corrupt elements in officialdom. These individuals go about their dirty work confident of backing from the highest levels of government.
Throughout the five years that ended in mid-2009, they continued to bend and break the rules to favour the Fifty Thousand Families, among whom several key officials were themselves included. The Prime Minister has slept, seemingly unaware that his team was wallowing in graft in the manner of pigs enjoying themselves in dirt. It is only after the public finally exploded in anger and bypassed the official structure—knowing that it was useless to expect such a corrupt entity to ever clean up the system—that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally woke up to reality. He was helped in this by the fact that in 2010, the new Chief Justice of India made it a priority to beat back the tide of corruption that was destroying the future of the 99.995 per cent of the population of India that was outside the Fifty Thousand Families.
All of a sudden, members of the Fifty Thousand began to be held accountable for deeds that they saw as mere trifles, such as stealing millions of dollars or taking control of an enterprise through forged documents. One by one, they started to go to jail. And unlike in the past, when judges would generously grant them bail without even a single night being spent on prison, this time the example set by Chief Justice Kapadia has prevented such miscarriages of the judicial process. The elite who have been caught are staying in jail, suffering the heat of Delhi in jail, without the luxuries that they till then saw as natural to enjoy. Can the PM survive such a bringing to book of elements of the Fifty Thousand? Or will they unite to throw him out? Even if they do, something has changed in India. No longer are people ready to remain slaves to the corrupt. They are angry and they demand the right to not only get heard but obeyed. Although 5000 policepersons broke up peaceful anti-corruption protestors in Delhi in a fit of brutality, this time around—despite manipulating vast sections of the media—public anger has refused to abate. Will India at last throw away the shackles of colonial rule, shackles that continued even after the country became independent in 1947? Should it do so, then the India of today can be compared to the US of the 19th century. A giant that is finally unchained. Should the anti-corruption campaign fail and the Fifty Thousand Families continue to be immune to punishment, then the India of tomorrow will become a failed state.
By MD Nalapat