Enough of Double Talk and Deception

Legitimizing Corruption

By Inder Jit

(Released on 30 September 1996)

Politics in New Delhi has increasingly become a conscious and continuous exercise in rank hypocrisy, double talk and deception. Hardly a day passes when we do not hear talk of character, probity, transparency and accountability. Yet few seldom mean what they say. This is particularly true of our attitude to the cancer of corruption, which today is playing unprecedented havoc with our country and its future. Each succeeding day spotlights a new scam. In one single generation, we have degenerated from a largely honest society to a dishonest polity.

Sadly, political corruption has lately come to be virtually legitimized, thanks to the diabolical, if outwardly fair, theory that the law should be allowed to take its own course. How? This becomes clear when seen against the backdrop of the code of conduct laid down by Mahatma Gandhi. Bapu stated: “The Ministers and the legislators have to be watchful of their own personal and public conduct. They have to be, like Ceaser’s wife, above suspicion in everything. They have not to make private gains either for themselves or for their relatives or their friends.” He wanted ministership to be viewed as a crown of thorns, not one of jewels. Indeed, he wanted the Ministers “to sit on their chairs lightly, not tightly.”

Simply put, there is a world of a difference between what the father of the nation wanted and what the Ministers at the Centre and in the States and others powers that be have been advocating in recent years. Remember, Bapu desired Ministers and legislators to be “above suspicion in everything.” All parties now take the convenient stand that they must be viewed as innocent until proved guilty. Be it the Congress, the BJP, the Janata Dal or the Left. In other words, they needed to be above proven guilt, not mere suspicion. The true implication becomes obvious when one realizes that, barring miracles, it normally takes under our judicial system a generation to prove someone guilty in a criminal case and the generations in a civil case!

Letting the law take its own course does not absolve us of the basic responsibility of taking effective steps to combat corruption. In fact, what has come to pass over the years makes our responsibility even greater. Nowhere in the wide world is corruption as naked, unashamed, public and brazen. As B.K. Nehru, one of our eminent civil servants, stated some time back, “The Governmental machinery is now fast becoming an agency not for serving the people, but for extracting money from them and distributing it to all those who exercise any kind of power…. Indeed, Chief Ministers seem to be able to survive only if they loot well and share the loot generously and wide…” No shame attaches any more to being caught. Witness how persons arrested and placed in custody gleefully look into TV cameras.

Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri showed serious concern about mounting corruption Bothfavoured a comprehensive code of democratic functioning and set up the Santhanam Committee on Prevention of Corruption. A code for Central and State Ministers was announced by the Shastri Government in October 1964. This provided, inter alia, for furnishing to the Prime Minister/Chief Minister at the initial appointment and subsequently every year by a Minister a declaration showing the details of the assets and liabilities and business interests of the Minister and dependent relations of his family. But this served at best the personal interest and politics of the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister, not the best interest of the nation.

Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi started off well rousing many hopes and expectations with their eloquent promises of cleaning up the system. But little was done. Dharma Vira, who was Cabinet Secretary and subsequently Governor of Punjab, West Bengal and Karnataka, told me the other day that he took Rajiv Gandhi’s talk of fighting sleaze seriously, He said, “I sent word to Rajiv that I would be glad to take up the job of Lok Pal and help him clean up corruption in two years, subject to one condition: I must have a free hand. I also offered to work without any salary. But I never heard from him.”

The Janata Government of V.P.Singh kept its word and came forward with a Lok Pal Bill.V.P. Singh also announced in the Lok Sabha his acceptance of my suggestion that all MPs and Ministers must be required to lay a declaration of their assets on the table of the House. But his Government was bundled out before he could implement either. Rajiv Gandhi once again talked about battling corruption and bringing forward the Lok Pal Bill. Yet, the Congress manifesto of 1991 released by him did not carry even one bare word on the subject.

In the circumstances, the Deve GowdaGovernment deserves a hand for having introduced in the last session of the Lok Sabha a Lok Pal Bill, which includes the Prime Minister within its scope. Regrettably, however, it lacks much-needed transparency. It provides that “every MP shall furnish a return of all assets owned by him and members of his family before the Lok Pal every year.” Yet every MP should be required to make a public declaration of his assets by laying a copy on the table of the House —- and not merely furnish a return to the Lok Pal. This would ensure availability, authenticity and accountability.Any wrong information would automatically attract privilege and punishment for telling a lie in the high temple of democracy.

The Prime Minister has also done well to have conveyed to the CBI his full backing in cleansing corruption and steaming the rot at all cost. Importantly, he is greatly concerned about India’s poor, very poor image abroad. But this support and public declaration of assets will not be enough. The CBI has to be geared up to wage its war on corruption. Simultaneously, many other punitive and deterrent steps need to be taken, including legal powers to confiscate ill-gotten wealth —- and more. Incidentally, many of these suggestions are part of a policy paper prepared during the time of Rajiv Gandhi. Tragically, the paper continues to gather dust.

Indira Gandhi virtually justified rampant corruption and the failure of her Government to combat it on the ground that graft was a “world phenomenon” and was not peculiar to India. True, the problem of sleaze is global. The Eighth UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders at Havana in September 1990 adopted a resolution on Corruption in Government. The Inter-Parliamentary Union has been debating graft since the 48thInter-Parliamentary Conference at Warsaw in 1959. In fact, the 94thInter-Parliamentary Conference at Bucharest in October last year, which I was privileged to attend as a delegate from India, was devoted mainly to “Parliamentary Action to Fight Corruption and the Need for International Cooperation.”

But, unlike India, many countries have exercised the required political will to combat corruption. Japan and South Korea have shown the way, eloquently and admirably. Two Prime Ministers have been forced to quit in Tokyo and three Presidents have been indicted in Seoul. All this has been made possible by a firm commitment to certain minimum norms of public morality. To mention only one more case, President Ershad was indicted and jailed in neighbouring Bangladesh.

All in all, it is time for us in India to establish healthy conventions whereunder any Prime Minister or Minister or a Leader of a party who comes under a cloud, namely suspicion, must go. Experience the world over and more especially in India shows that it is not easy to get even known criminals or corrupt publicmen convicted. Solid proof is not easy to get. On occasions, time takes its toll and key witnesses pass away. Concrete steps must be taken to cry a halt to galloping corruption and immorality. Thugs and rascals must be identified and hounded out. Enough of double talk and deception — and politricking!  — INFA