Friday, 15 April 2011

Judges make India proud (PO)

M. D. Nalapat

This columnist switched from journalism to academics in 1999, by which year it was more important for newspapers in India to carry details about the vital statistics of fashion models than it was to investigate the illegal activities of VVIPs. Small wonder that in a country where 300 million people go to bed hungry each night, and 460 million do not have a weatherproof roof over their heads, weeks are spent by newspapers and television channels dissecting the Cricket World Cup series. Soon, Sachin Tendulkar is expected to be given India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, for his skill in using the willow to nudge a ball towards the boundary. A feat that has indeed ended poverty, but only in his family. During the many days when a cricket series gets played in India or even outside, it is torture for television viewers interested in matters other than eleven men staring at the two behind the crease. That the media in India has followed the Rupert Murdoch formula of dumping down its message to as to reduce events to entertainment is clear from even a cursory perusal of column inches or television time in the world’s most populous democracy.

In all the fuss about cricket, the media seems to have paid much less attention to the individual who most deserves the Bharat Ratna, which is Chief Justice of India S G Kapadia, who took office a year ago. Few who knew the courtly Parsi jurist of 63 would have guessed that he would prove so spectacularly wrong those who were confident that the high-octane legal team of the Government of India ( led by Attorney General of India Goolam E Vahanvati, who - like the Chief Justice – cut his legal teeth in Mumbai) would ensure that the Supreme Court would remain passive in the face of the huge increase in corruption that has been witnessed in the country since 2001. Indeed, in India, history seems to move around in circles. During the Vajpayee era, it used to be said that the Sangh Parivar or family (including the RSS) had far less influence over the PM than the “Vajpayee Parivar”. His close friend Brajesh Mishra and his “foster” son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya had the run of the government, throwing into the shade senior ministers such as Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh. These days, it is Sonia Gandhi’s turbocharged son-in-law, Robert Vadra, who is said to be playing a key role, especially in matters involving land in and around the vicinity of Delhi, together with relatives of Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit.

Altogether, and to almost complete silence by India’s “free” media, the sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, nephews, nieces, brothers and sisters of key members of the Manmohan Singh cabinet have soared in wealth since the team came to office in 2004,even according to their Income-tax statements, which in the case of VVIPs, conceals far more than they are made to reveal. While the Prime Minister is himself honest,as is - most unusually for India - is close family members, the sad truth is that Manmohan Singh has been singularly inept at tackling corruption in his own alliance, many of the leaders of which are wallowing in money-making schemes. Even after accidental disclosures revealed the dry rot that has spread throughout the establishment, the PM seems unable to take the decisive steps needed to redeem his reputation as a reformer and as a man who is not merely honest but effective in tackling graft. All his perambulations in world capitals ( and as this is written, he is in Beijing for the BRICS summit) cannot disguise his failure thus far in bringing to book the Big Fish responsible for the sorry state of the country.

When the case involving the 2G spectrum scam landed in the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Kapadia entrusted the hearings to a bench comprising of two judges as shy of publicity as himself, Justices A K Ganguly and G S Singhvi. It seems to have been an inspired choice. Since the hearings began, the two have made mincemeat of the numerous clandestine efforts of key Cabinet ministers to ensure that the high-level guilty escape, and that only the minnows get caight. Indeed, this has been the norm in India, and if the CBI and other investigating agencies had theor way, would have taken place in the case of the 2G scam as well. By a series of far-reaching decisions that have more than justified Chief Justice Kapadia’s confidence in them, Justices Ganguly and Singhvi have steadily been nudging the case towards its concluding act, which is the bringing to justice of the actual masterminds of the scam. Small wonder that several super-powerful and also super-rich people in Delhi and Mumbai are praying incessantly that the two be shifted from the Spectrum bench! Every now and again, gossip to this effect sweeps across the VVIP quarter of Delhi, only to die down once the next hearing commences.

Although much is - correctly - written about India’s corruption, the fact remains that more than 70% of officials in India remain honest even while the political class swims in muck the way pigs do in dirt. Only about 10% are corrupt, while the remaining 20% are do-nothings, making zero impact for good or ill. Since the end of the 1950s,and especially since the 1970s,when Indira Gandhi centralized power to a degree not seen even in British India, the tenth of the civil service who are corrupt has been the segment that grabbed most of the promotions, thrusting to oblivion the Honest Majority. Should Chief Justice Kapadia and the Singhvi-Ganguly bench succeed in nudging Prime Minister Singh to finally take action against the top politicians, officials and businesspersons guilty in the $ 45 billion Spectrum scam, they would create a revolution in India. The 10% of civil servants who are crooks would at last be on the defensive, and the honest 70% would finally get their due. After all, change starts at the top. In the case of India, the relative absence of corruption in Bihar and Gujarat can be explained by the honesty of chief ministers Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi, a fact that has been affirmed even by Gandhian reformers who have distaste for the fact that Gujarat saw a slaughter of innocents following the killing of some passengers of a pilgrim train in Godhra in 2002, a series of events that brought shame to India. Despite its fascination for the physical attributes of stars and starlets (and who can deny the attractiveness of these?), the media in India have finally been forced to give prominence to the war on corruption that is being waged across the country by a growing number of volunteers, including two former Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of India, Justices Verma and Venkatachelliah. How has this storm broken out? In the opinion of this columnist, the unsung hero of this change is Chief Justice Kapadia, who through the Singhvi-Ganguly bench has finally given hope to citizens that change is on the way. Unless there be hope of victory, few would be willing to fight. The daily spectacle of corporate, political and administrative bigwigs going to jail in the 2G scandal has electrified the country, and made millions believe that corruption can be defeated. Of course, as yet only the second rung has been touched. The top rung is still escaping, thanks to the diligent efforts of the CBI and other agencies to rescue them, efforts that have in the past proved successful in allowing known scamsters such as the influential Italian businessman Ottaviano Quatrocchi to escape from India. During the court hearings for his extradition in Malaysia and Argentina, it was widely said that the legal briefs of the prosecuting team used to first get vetted by Quatrocchi’s lawyers before getting presented in court. Those responsible were since rewarded with sinecures by a grateful government.

An example of the way in which corruption endangers national securitycan be seen from the fact that India gets its currency printed from the same dealer who prints cash for Pakistan, thereby making counterfeiting of notes very easy. Because of the political heft of the dealer ( whose people ensure that such logistics as corporate jets get provided to VCVIPs and their relatives outside India) , thus far, this agency has not been replaced. Such examples of the way corruption trumps security can be multiplied. Sadly, in India, agencies looking after security are focussed only on the personal and political needs of a handful of VVIPs, rather than on the interests of 1.26 billion citizens of the Republic of India. Thanks to the Supreme Court of India, that may soon change. Sachin Tendulkar or Justice Kapadia for the Bharat Ratna? The choiceis obvious, except for those who seek to fool the people with circuses at a time when bread is made scarce by their greed.

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