Sunday, 6 September 1998

Widening the NEt - Bringing a Corrupt Elite to Book

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

India’s miserable performance in athletics reflects the national
tendency to lose steam after a good start. After the initial burst
of enthusiasm and energy, we tend to peter out and the final
result is usually dismal. This situation obtains in corruption
investigations as well. As numerous infructuous enquiry
commissions have shown, an unwillingness to concentrate on
crucial issues and delays in investigation often lead to the
punishment for graft being merely some bad publicity.

Lok Pal Bill
That the political class in India is unwilling to stem the flow of
cash in its own direction has once again become clear from the
draft Lok Pal Bill. Instead of protecting the citizen from venal
politicians, the present draft Bill will serve to gag the media and
enable wrongdoers in government to avoid accountability by
directing enquiries into other more convenient channels. As the
hawula and other scams have shown, unless there is constant
media and judicial scrutiny of cases, these will become
progressively more diffused and finally die out. Public opinion
needs to be mobilised to ensure the framing of laws—and the
creation of institutions—that can lessen, if not destroy, official

In this campaign, winning a few battles—such as sending a
Sukh Ram into custody for a few weeks—is not enough to win
the war. Only a system of checks on the political and bureaucratic
elite can do this. The main thrust should be targeting the top
echelon because corruption flows from that level to others. If the
highest level of the administration is seen to be honest, the rest
will follow suit contributing to a better regime. This was evident
in Kerala during the time (1969-77), for example, when C.
Achutha Menon was chief minister. Or, look at a wider all-India
example. Government functioning was far more honest and
transparent during the short period (1964-65) of Lal Bahadu
Shastri than it was subsequently. However, a Menon or a Shastri
are rare. And, after full-fledged "family rule" began in the 1970s,
such people foimd it almost impossible to get anywhere in durbar
politics, where what matters is to catch the eye of the ruler
through sycophancy. Small wonder then that politicians are
resisting the efforts of the Election Commission to democratise
their party structures.

Defining the political and the bureaucratic elite for purposes
of legislation is easy. The "political elite" comprises the presidents
and legislature party leaders of all recognised political formations,
both at the central as well as state level. It also includes all past
and present cabinet ministers, again at both the Centre and the
states as well as all current MPs, and MLA/MLCs. The
"bureaucratic elite" comprises all those whose salaries come
from the state exchequer and which exceeds a total of Rs. 10,000
per month, (all inclusive). This includes public sector officers as
well as those from the administration and the police. Needless
to say, this definition also includes the spouses and the children
of those listed. The judiciary and the armed forces will also need
to develop systems to identify and punish the black sheep within
them. The new legislation would cover all their actions from the
period they enter into its scope.

Apart from a Lok Pal rid of the opacity and toothlessness
patent in the current draft legislation, the CBI needs to be vested
with the same level of autonomy which the Comptroller and
Auditor-General and the Election Commission enjoy at present.
This new CBI should have as its mandate investigations into
charges involving the political and bureaucratic elite. Cases
involving smaller fry should be devolved to other organisations
set up for the purpose. At present, rather than concentrating on
major cases, the CBI has got far too much on its plate. It is no
surprise, therefore, that it has been unable to frame chargesheets
on time in several cases, thus leading to the accused being let free
on bail. Were the CBI to concentrate only on involving those at
the top, or those where the loss to the exchequer is computed at
over Rs. 100 crores, such delays would hopefully not occur.

Special Tribunal
However, investigating agencies by themselves are as useless as
water without irrigation canals to take it to the fields. The
existing criminal justice system—clearly designed for a population
the size of the British Isles—would not be able to take the burden
generated by a campaign against high-level graft. It needs to be
supplemented by a system of special tribunals which will try
such cases. These tribunals could be modelled on, for example,
the land boards set up by the Devaraj Urs government in
Karnataka during the 1970s. These boards had wide powers and
strict limits on appeal procedures. As a result, decisions were
taken and implemented speedily.

The experience gained since the investigations into the Jain
hawala case shows that there is a lack of coordination between the
key investigating agencies, in particular the CBI, the Directorate
of Revenue Intelligence and the Enforcement Directorate. In
order to investigate cases involving the elite, or those where the
loss to the exchequer exceeds Rs. 100 crores, a coordinating
mechanism needs to be set up so that information can be pooled
and duplication of work avoided. Contrary to the intentions of
the framers of the present draft of the Lok Pal Bill (which is to
prevent media scrutiny), there is need for constant monitoring
by the media of the activities of these watchdogs, so that they
themselves do not fall prey to corruption. Given that India is by 
and large a functioning democracy, the best guardian of public
standards is a citizenry kept informed by an alert press.

Two Gifts
While the British enriched themselves during their uninvited
sojourn in India, their crimes were mitigated by two gifts that
they—perhaps unintentionally—left behind. These are the English
language and the system of parliamentary democracy. Both have
resisted the efforts of Indian goons and cultural fascists to banish
them. Thanks to the two legacies, over time a vigilant press and
judiciary have also emerged that have combined to carry forward
the present drive against corruption. In particular, the present
Supreme Court has ensured its place in history by taking the lead
in bringing the mighty who have transcended the law to book.
However, an institutional framework needs to be created to
ensure that this achievement is permanent.

Only sustained public pressure can shame the political class
into setting into place systems and procedures that would deter
a member of the political or the bureaucratic elite from becoming
corrupt. A start has been made by the forced arrest of Sukh Ram
for possessing assets disproportionate to his known sources of
income. However, the politician from Mandi is not the exception
in his class, but the rule. Those in authority, however, should not
be allowed to escape by making scapegoats of a few like Sukh
Ram. The net needs to widen so that it covers the activities of all
those who have held prominent positions during at least the past
ten years. Narasimha Rao and Sukh Ram are not the only
politicians to have bent the rules. Many of those now leading the
wolf pack against them are no less guilty. At present, the "drive"
against corruption has all the orderliness of a Roman arena
where the crowd screams for the fallen gladiators to be
despatched. Such frenzy needs to be replaced with the putting
into place of new systems designed to identify and punish graft
and misuse of office.

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