Friday 12 October 2012

India’s Julian Assange (PO)

By M D Nalapat

Arvind Kejriwal joined the Income-tax Department, which has the distinction of being one of the most corrupt departments in the Government of India, second only to the anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Although there are indeed honest officers within the Income-tax Department, few of those manage to reach the higher levels of the service. Instead, they watch helplessly as politicians manipulate the ascent of officers known to be pliable. The Indian political class, which to date has refused to surrender the vast legal powers of the British colonial state, uses Income-tax as a means of harassing opponents. Any officer has the legal right (under British-era law reinforced by fresh edicts enhancing the discretion given to the state and cutting to insignificance the rights of the citizen) to demand of a taxpayer that she or he come up with financial records that are many years old. Except for accountants - and crooks, who are usually meticulous in keeping (false) records - most normal individuals of moderate income spare themselves the bother of keeping records of their few transactions. Business, because these days, almost all leading politicians ensure that they and their families get heavily involved in trade and commerce. In times past, the Indian caste system created a firewall between those who governed a country and those who did business. Those who drew up the code many thousands of years ago understood that power was likely to be abused, if harnessed in the service of moneymaking. However, these days, across the world, money and power go hand in hand. Only a millionaire such as Mitt Romney could have won the Republican nomination for President of the US, succeeding another scion of a wealthy family, George W Bush. As for Bill Clinton, although he started off in life in a hardscrabble way, by now he has amassed about $100 billion in donations to his numerous foundations, a lot of the money coming from donors based in the GCC, who are traditionally generous with their money. As for President Obama, while in his (disastrous) debate with Mitt Romney he equated the two in wealth, the fact is that Obama is a pauper compared to Romney, although of course much richer since he became a Senator, with most of the money coming from royalties accruing from his many books.

Despite the coyness of Mitt Romney in revealing financial details, the reality is that US politicians are much more transparent about their assets than are their counterparts in India. The country’s most powerful politician. Sonia Gandhi, travels abroad frequently on corporate jets and stays in pricey hotels, often with several family members in tow. Yet for the record, Sonia does not have an automobile or even a decent television set! Of course, the Income-tax authorities dare not ask her or her family members any questions, for fear of the officers responsible getting subjected to vindictive action, despite her son-in-law (for instance) being worth at least $100 million despite having no obvious intellectual advantages. Each time there is an expose of the wealth of a politician (and these are few, given the reality of instant retaliation against the whistle-blower), the cry from politicians across the spectrum is that the individual making the revelations ought to have “gone through the system”. Of course, those giving such advice are not unaware that court processes in India take decades to complete, besides burning away so much time and money that a legal battle becomes a whole-time occupation that can send a person into penury faster than a major illness does.

The fact is that 99% of political wrongdoers in India escape legal accountability for their depredations. Their only punishment is bad publicity, which too is rare, given the fact that most media outlets shy away from exposing the foibles and the misdeameanours of the truly powerful. When excerpts from the telephone conversations of a well-connected lobbyist, Niraa Radia, surfaced some years ago (allegedly via a telecom company which sought to protect its monopoly against

newcomers), there was a hue and cry agains the “breach of privacy” involved. Even today, the full tapes have not been made public. Had India been as much of a democracy as the US, soon after the Radia tapes became known, a book would hsve been published giving the full trabscripts.In India,a country where courts routinely block publication of material found offensive to a few,this will not happen. Indeed,there are many Niraa Radias who in tapped conversations reveal the sleazy underside of policymaking in India. However,their conversations are kept secret by agencies eager to protect not the average citizen but their political and bureaucratic bosses.Sadly,rather than expand the boundaries of freedom of speech,even courts in India move in the opposite direction.Recently a Supreme Court bench under then Chief Justice Kapadia in effect gave liberty to influential individuals to (supposedly temporarily) stop publication of facts damaging to themseves by decreeing that there were sharp (though undefined) limits to press freedom.The fact is that in a country drowning in corruption such as India,freedom of speech and of the press needs to be expanded rather than curtailed.

Enter Arvind Kesjriwal.The youthful crusader has become an Indian version of Julian Assange,with anonymous officials giving him information on wrongdoing by the powerful. Because of the popularity of those involved in the anti-corruption crusade,media outlets are afraid to censor the Kejriwals. According to friends of his,the anti-corruption activist has detailed reports on the wrongdoing of several influential politicians, including (opposition) BJP President Nitin Gadkari and BJP Chief Ministers Arjun Munda and Raman Singh,besides several from the ruling coalition. Hopefully, Kejriwal will not lose his nerve and halt his exposes.Hopefully he will not cherry-pick his targets but release all the information that has come into his possession. The country needs to know the truth about the few who are running - or rather,ruining - the country in their name.

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