Saturday 26 February 2011

Will India’s “Culture of Immunity” end? (PO)

M D Nalapat

While politicians in India often talk about the prevalence of the “black” ( ie illegal) economy in India, especially when they are in opposition and not accessing the vast funds they used to get while in power, the reality is that the root of “black money” in India is politics. While a Mahatma Gandhi was able to persuade tens of millions of Indians to sacrifice their jobs and their fortunes to follow him in his numerous jabs against British rule,since the 1970s, those in politics expect to get compensated for their efforts,and the higher the loot,the more the rush to get on board a particular bandwagon. In urban areas,unless at least Rs 500 is paid to an individual, she or he will refuse to attend a political rally. A few months ago, two politicians in Maharashtra were discussing before an open microphone the high cost of arranging crowds to cheer Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Huge sums were mentioned in this connection,it being a given that a Sonia rally has to have tens of thousands of attendees, so that television cameras could pan the throng and give testimony to the immense popularity of the current owner of the Congress Party. That the crowds shown on television are usually expressionless - if not openly bored and fidgety - seldom gets mentioned in the media, which hungers for the access only favourable coverage assures.

Apart from the high cost of politics,what seems to be a pathological insecurity within the political class in “the world’s largest democracy” has bred greed on a scale only beaten by fund managers in Zurich, New York and London. One particular Cabinet minister began life in the family of a small farmer,but soon came to the attention of a leader from his state,who launched him on a dazzling career from his early 20s and regarded him as his “manas putra” ( adopted son). Today,Sharad Pawar is easily the most powerful politician in his home state of Maharashtra,and easily one of the ten most influential politicians in India. He is the owner of a huge empire that spawns various fields of economic activity,from viniculture to education. To his credit, and unlike those who pretend to being poor even as they salt away billions of euros abroad, Pawar is open about his love for the good life. That includes the game of cricket,of which he has been a steady patron,even rising to the leadership of the international cricketing fraternity in a worldwide election. And yet he is not the only billionaire in the Manmohan Singh cabinet.There are others,some even richer than him, as indeed is the case throughout the country. The fastest road to great wealth is politics,even though few of these lucky individuals ever come to the attention of the Income-tax department.Indeed,one particular individual, Hassan Ali (who is close to polticians) has been left almost undisturbed even after it has been revealed that he put away Rs 45,000 crores in Swiss banks. The Income-tax department is treating him with the deference shown to sons of Union Finance Ministers, most of whom quickly become billionaires while Papa is in office (again to zero media attention). Clearly,Mr Ali has friends among the powerful,else he would not have got the immunity from arrest that he flaunts.

Especially since 1998,when the BJP-led government of Atal Behari Vajpayee came to power, what has been taking place in India has been the growth of private monopolies. A favoured few control coalfields,others power plants or toll booths on highways. The revenue to the state is tiny in comparison to that made by the favoured privateer, although of course,a hidden sum must have gone - or be going - to the politicians who allocated scarce national resources to a few. Land and natural resources have become the private property of those favoured by VVIPs,and it is this small group of “Robber Barons” who are controlling politicians. As in the 1970s,state power is used to restrict competition rather than to create more of it. The result has been deteriorating service and higher costs. Even in sectors such as Telecom, coverage has become so deficient in the case of a few operators that a conversation lasts only a few minutes before it gets broken by poor reception. Corruption has rolled back the benefits of economic liberalisation,and created a system of privilege that favour a few,exactly the way it has been in Egypt. As a result, India has become a difficult place to do business in,unless one goes through the handful of “crony channels” to get clearances. Of course,every year,the permissions and sanctions needed to undertake any sort of activity multiply in sync with the bribes needing to be paid to get things done. For the honest businessperson,India has become a nightmare.

Those who have paid out huge amounts to select political leaders expect to get immunity from the numerous laws and regulations that are a feature of India’s Nehruvian system. Because of the multiplicity and complexity of the laws, the Indian legal system has become the slowest in the world, with “justice” getting denied for generations. Those with cash and connections know that they can tweak the legal system in such a way as to avoid justice for decades,if not permamently.Hence,there is zero fear of law in influential circles in India.They know that they can get away,even if caught.Even a hardened terrorist laughs at the Indian legan system,because he knows that he is safe in its lethargic ways. A huge body of vested interests has sprung up to keep the Indian legal system excruciatingly slow. Recently,a friend got a summons from a faraway court,to answer a litigant who had filed suit against a company in which this friend had last been a director in 1991. The alleged misdeed had been committed long afterwards,but that did not stop him from also being included as an accused. The harassment of editors by the filing of frivolous defamation cases is well known.

If there is access to money and good legal counsel, the legal system can be used to make an individual’s life a series of court appearances. Often,the wait is of no use,”because the case has been deferred”. Who will compensate for the time lost? Who will be held accountable for unconscionable delays? No one. Innocents who have the misfortune to get sucked into the Indian legal system know that they will most probably be dead before being cleared,if ever. The guilty with access to cash are aware that there are multiple ways of dragging out a case and tiring witnesses (when not influencing them more directly). According to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India is a country where there is the “Rule of Law”. His long years in office seem to have disconnected the PM from the reality of life for the 99.99% of Indians who are not VIPs or VVIPs.

The people of India know that there is one law for the powerful and another for them,exactly the way it is in Egypt,where today there is Mubarakdom without Mubarak. The India growth story is being held back by the pervasive stench of official corruption,and the only way out is to demonstrate that those who till now were immune from prosecution get sent to jail,and for long periods of time. The agencies have more than enough evidence against the powerful,despite years of effort by corrupt elements to whitewash the record. Sadly,whispers in Delhi say that even the present head of the so-called anti-corruption agency was appointed on the recommendation of a Congress politician whose telephone call reduces Cabinet ministers to obliging jelly,and who is the patron of the Super Rich. Unless Manmohan Singh takes courage into his hands and shows that there is the same law for those who pick a pocket of Rs 5 and those who use improper influence to grab for themselves national resources worth Rs 50,000 crores, the India that he leaves behind will continue its descent into chaos,to use the evocative title of Ahmed Rashid’s book on Pakistan.

A handful of Super Corrupt have become the arbiters of India’s destiny. The PM is not among them,but every day,he is being warned not to touch them. Till today, no PM has dared to call the bluff of those who seek to avoid the introduction of the Rule of Law into India. If in the weeks ahead,at least a few VIPs - if not VVIPs - go to prison, and that too not for token periods, India would have taken a huge leap forward. India has an honest PM, whose spirit is willing.But is the flesh too weak for him to persevere on a course that he needs to complete for India to escape the pit dug by its greedy leaders.

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