Indian Scams More Heat Than Light
It seems that we Indians love scams, big or small. That is why scams keep on happening. Right since our Independence, we have had hundreds of scams. And it so happens that nearly 98 per cent of these scams surfaced under the regimes of the Congress, which, today, is at the forefront in agitating against the Narendra Modi government for its acts of omission and commission in the controversies surrounding External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the Chief Ministers of Rajasthan (Vasundhara Raje) and Madhya Pradesh (Shivraj Singh Chouhan), both belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But then, it is not surprising. When in opposition, the BJP was doing exactly this against the Congress governments. However, what I am surprised at is the fact that there is hardly any serious discourse in our polity, including the media, as to why scams keep on happening. Do scams take place because of the personalities concerned or the systemic deficiencies? It is quite possible that these two causes are interrelated, but our discourse has always targeted at the personalities rather than the systemic lapses or inadequacies.
In my considered view, this emphasis on personality rather than on the system explains why despite hundreds of scams that we have come across, there are negligible numbers of convictions of the guilty, particularly if they happen to be powerful politically and financially. One Lalu Yadav (former chief minister of Bihar), one A Raja (former telecommunications minister of India), one Madhu Koda (former chief minister of Jharkhand) one B Ramalinga Raju (founder chairman of Satyam Computer Services Ltd) may have gone to jail, but overwhelming majority of the accused has managed to wriggle out of the troubles in the face of paucity of evidence.
Admittedly, there have also been quite a few so-called scams; these were essentially political allegations, magnified by some “friendly” media houses, made against the government of the day by the principal opposition parties. The best that I can think of in this regard happens to be the so-called Tehelka-scandal and Coffin scam that marked the then BJP-led NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998-2004).
The Coffin scam was a result of the faulty approach adopted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s (CAG) report which alleged corruptions in the purchase of coffins for the dead soldiers during the Kargil war that took place in 1999 between India and Pakistan. According to the CAG, the Vajpayee government incurred a heavy loss of 1,87,000 dollars in the entire transaction. I have always argued that the CAG is prone to make blunders when it deals with military matters – for instance, once it said that the Indian Air Force was wasting money by buying fighter planes from abroad at a much higher price than what the country’s Defence Research and Development Organisations (DRDO) could spend for making these planes at home. Nothing could be more perverse than this, but then the CAG has made similar observations about the Indian Navy and Army as well. It has always overestimated the capacity of our DRDO. In this specific case, the caskets were purchased from Buitron and Baiza, a company based in United States of America, rendering funeral services. The Vajpayee government had bought 500 caskets worth $2500 each, which the CAG presumed to be 13 times the original amount. However, the Ambassadors from both the countries–India and the US–had declared in writing that those caskets had a cost worth 2,768 dollars each. But, when the issue was made a scam, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigated the case and filed a charge sheet against three Indian Army officers in August 2009. However, in December 2013, a special CBI court found no evidence and discharged all the accused. The case was closed.
The Tehelka scam has been the most ludicrous in India’s history of scandals. A highly partisan and controversial journalist, claiming to be the representative of a non-existent defence firm, traps some officials in the name of a procuring a non-existent weapon system and then generalizes that the then defence minister George Fernades and his staff are indulging in corruption, indicating that the proposed deal to buy Barak missiles for the Navy from Israel is one such incident that has witnessed kickbacks. In fact, such heat was generated in the process that the then Congress party made the life of the then Vajpayee government miserable and boycotted Fernades in Parliament. Even they, along with the partisan journalists, boycotted two commissions of enquiry that the Vajpayee government set up under two respected retired Supreme Court judges – Justice S N Phukan and Justice Venkataswami. And when the Congress-led UPA came to power in 2004, these two judicial commissions were dismissed by the government and everything was handed over for investigations to the CBI, which, in turn, filed a First Information Report (FIR) on October 10, 2006. But again, nothing concrete emerged. On December 24, 2013, after investigating for more than seven years, the CBI decided to close the matter as it did not find any evidence on the allegations.
However, in the process, what all this proves that a ruling party can be dislodged from power–which happened when the Congress under Sonia Gandhi virtually won the elections in 2004 on the basis of the two scandals of Coffin-gate and Tehelka–if the public perception is built over misleading and fabricated evidences against the government of the day. The Congress party, after losing badly in last year’s general elections, is precisely repeating the same tactics now against the Modi government and the BJP governments in the states. Whether the Sonia-led Congress will succeed this time too will be known in course of time, but the fact remains that the party seems to be on the “right” course as far as building negative public perceptions against Modi and the BJP to a considerable extent are concerned.
Of course, if eventually the current uproars against Sushma Swaraj’s links with the controversial London-based businessman Lalit Modi and Chouhan’s alleged involvement in the scandal involving dubious admissions into the professional courses and questioning recruitments into the public services in the state of Madhya Pradesh generate only heat but not light, the Congress has nothing to lose. It will wait for another “scam”, and there will be plenty of these in the remaining four years of Modi’s term as the Prime Minister. All told, the Modi government has to live with a hostile and partisan national media, which will leave no stone unturned in building negative perceptions based on these scams, even if these are manufactured or concocted. As I have always argued, the national media, the Delhi-based media to be precise, has always been more ideological than professional, overwhelmingly dominated as it is by the “Left” and so-called secular elements at the top. Naturally, therefore, the media is intrinsically hostile to the ruling BJP (assumed to be a rightist party, though actually it is not) in general and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular.
And that brings me to the point that I had made at the outset that rather than focussing on the personalities, it is more important to bring crucial systemic changes that will minimise the number of scams. Changing rulers will not end scams in India. But unfortunately, not many are talking of this, obsessed as they are on attacking some selected political personalities. After all, politicians in power implement the same policies that they were attacking during their electoral campaigns. In practice, politicians differ only in the promises they make to get in power. Once in power, their policies remain invariably the same, notwithstanding some symbolic changes here and there. And this will be always the case as they work under the same administrative system, dominated by the state bureaucracy and influenced a great deal by the big business. After all, we all know very well the so-called political-bureaucratic- corporate nexus.
Breaking this vicious nexus is the most important step towards a scam-free India. We need Police reforms. We have to bring an end to the discretionary powers of the ministers and civil servants by opting for simple but effective regulations (real end to the licence-permit raj). We should have great reforms in our tax structure, which, at the moment, makes people evade, not comply with, taxes. Above all, we require fundamental changes in our electoral system that is intrinsically linked with the black-money syndrome (the fountainhead of corruption and scams) and is becoming increasingly prohibitive for good people to enter politics. I am told that for contesting even the lowest-level panchayat elections in states like Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, one requires at least one crore of rupees.
Many Indians are (at least, were) under the impression that if there is any politician in the country who can be brave and bold to attempt these systematic changes, it is Narendra Modi. But he has been disappointing so far in this regard. Maybe, he is going to prove us wrong. After all, as the Prime Minister he has still four years to go!
By Prakash Nanda