Of, by and for the Corrupt
If the Naxalites can muster 'company strength of forces' to battle with the government, it may not be without support from those who feel angry at the inaction against massive corruption and blatant nepotism of the current system
MR Sivaraman Chennai
David Thoreau mused in his masterpiece On Civil Disobedience: "I believe that government is best which governs not at all." The article, which inspired Mahatma Gandhi to get us swaraj through civil disobedience, seems to be inspiring our government again.
Any governing authority exists on the consent of the people willing to be governed by it. From Plato to John Rawls and Amartya Sen, all have acknowledged that for everyone to enjoy liberty unhindered, everyone also has to give up some rights. Some inequality in power, positions and wealth thus becomes inevitable. According to John Rawls, for justice to mean fairness, there should be equal opportunity for everyone to attain positions and partake in wealth creation. But all of this should take place within the four corners of the law as accepted by the people.
Although India got its democratic government after great sacrifices by the forgotten millions, our government does not seem to believe that the law is meant for everyone. Cases of tax evasion launched against a giant industrial house and cases against persons responsible for the massive financial manipulation that led to the loss of hundreds of crore of foreign exchange (FE) through the ineptitude of the RBI and other banks in the 1990s (the present chairman of the Economic Advisory Council was then the RBI governor) - all initiated when Dr Manmohan Singh was the finance minister - seem to have withered away. (One senior IRS officer, who had pursued the FE manipulation case and arrested a number of persons, resigned in disgust.)
There seems to be cooperation among all politicians across the spectrum as no one of consequence has gone to jail for these violations or for corruption. Even if they are sentenced by lower courts, they are set free by the higher courts on flimsy grounds. Our courts direct the CBI to conduct enquiry against anybody except the members of the judiciary, even though there are allegations of rampant corruption within the judiciary at many places. One wonders whether there is a policy of give and take between the judicial system and political executives.
We tend to romanticise our past but never in our history has reason, justice and fairness reigned supreme. Today a substantial part of India is literate, democratic institutions are in place, and we are on an upward march towards prosperity. Yet governance seems to have been the victim.
But who are really marching up to prosperity? They are mostly the top two to three per cent led by industrial houses and their cohorts. The government does not want to compute the true GDP of India which must include its vast unaccounted income. It did revise it partially in 1998 after this writer persuaded the then finance minister. A senior officer of the finance ministry conceded in a public meeting recently in Chennai that our GDP was underestimated, but revising it would have serious consequences, including exposure of the highly skewed income distribution in India. Indeed, a nation that boasts of a huge number of billionaires also has the highest percentage of the world's poor.
A few days ago, P Chidambaram laconically stated that some intellectuals are supporting the Naxalites. Has he paused to think that the unpardonable violence of the Naxalites is but an expression of anger at the corruption and moral degradation of successive governments in India?
The media has exposed the brazen aggression of the lobbyists of the industrial houses in Delhi. The truth is there are senior bureaucrats who are either direct lobbyists or have been employed by lobbyists. The telecom scandal could not have taken place had the telecom secretary refused to abide by Union Telecom Minister A Raja's wishes. Even if the minister had insisted, the secretary could have sent his opposition in writing to the prime minister through the cabinet secretary. At least one secretary has done this in the past.
It is also unheard of that a chief minister rushes to Delhi to defend his protégé against allegations of corruption. The difference in treatment meted out to Shashi Tharoor and the Union telecom minister hides more than the compulsions of coalition politics. The civil aviation ministry too has emerged unscathed from the mess. The purchase of 100 wide-bodied jets by a PSU does have its advantages. Did the government check the price at which other airlines have bought these aircrafts before giving a sovereign guarantee for the repayments by Air India?
Governance of a country can be only as good as the strength of its prime minister. Having worked very closely with Manmohan Singh, it was heartrending to see him speechless in Parliament when a furious attack was launched against his government. Did the government encourage the leakage of the taped conversation unveiled by the media? As finance minister, Singh had not brooked any interference from anybody in matters of corruption or anti-national activity. The whole nation would have welcomed a strong and determined action by him as prime minister in support of justice, fairness and integrity.
In Tamil Nadu (TN), the government has over 10,000 liquor shops - more than the number of bank branches - exhibiting its way of promoting inclusive growth, an innovative step of the AIADMK government that insiders say was not reversed by the succeeding DMK government for its monetary potential for everyone. People are being enticed into the liquor shops as most do not have to work hard, what with the one-rupee-a-kilo rice, subsidised provisions, and free TV, dhotis, saris, gas and medical aid. Of course, the common perception is that these are available only to party supporters. Now, with the offer of free concrete houses at a cost of Rs 16,000 crore, the ruling DMK has driven the last nail in the coffin of the AIADMK.
The Planning Commission has ignored the permanent damage such misallocation of resources is causing to the socio-economic fabric of the state. Contractors depend on workers from other states, while the availability of carpenters, masons, painters and other skilled workers belonging to TN has gone down. The Chennai commissioner of police said in a public meeting that there were hardly any workers from TN in the 6,000-strong labour force at the new secretariat building. While it is a tribute to the ruling party's tolerance of 'outsider' workers, the fact is the Tamil population is becoming somnolent.
One highly respected family of TN wanted to set up a college for rural women but could not do so on account of the premium that had to be paid. (Mercifully, a powerful person intervened for the grant of permission.) The same state is reported to have 456 engineering colleges with huge tracts of land under their control, but the income tax department does not seem to be probing how the owners of these colleges acquired the land and resources to construct the campuses.
Officers in TN have no hesitation in saying that the system of freebies will take the state down. Officers here acquiesce or get dumped in a corner, and their requests for central deputation are simply ignored. The prime minister had announced reforms in the posting and promotion of IAS and IPS officers, but they never took off. Officers with central government too cannot express their opinions freely.
If the Naxalites can muster 'company strength' to battle with the government, it may not be wholly without support from those who feel angry at the inaction against massive corruption and blatant nepotism. Some years ago one secretary-level officer said India was becoming a banana republic and took premature retirement.
It is high time the government woke up and stopped pushing things under the carpet of coalition politics. The present Prevention of Corruption Act lacks teeth. A joint director of the CBI lamented at a recent seminar that cases that are registered do not come up for hearing for years.
The law should make it mandatory to suspend a bureaucrat or judge, howsoever highly placed they may be, when an enquiry is initiated into allegations of moral turpitude, including corruption. Ministers facing such charges should be removed from office immediately. All assets of the accused should be frozen, except a monthly allowance based on an average expenditure of 12 months, till the assets are cleared to be self-earned or legally inherited.
Governance of a billion people, most of them poor, has to done with integrity and justice. This is the only lasting cure for Naxalism.
The writer is a former secretary, government of India and executive director, IMF