Barack Obama talks to workers as he tours the ArcelorMittal steel mill in Cleveland on Thursday. AP/PTI
ith perhaps a wince, government officials and their political minders refer to themselves as "public servants". As with many other titles, such a characterisation is misleading even in the case of those (fortunately not yet rare) officials who genuinely believe in public service. A servant, by definition, follows the will and whims of his master. Even the biggest boosters of officialdom would not claim that administration in India is carried out in accordance with what the common citizen wishes. Rather, almost always, including the case of officials who do believe in public welfare, what gets done is what the bureaucracy as well as the political bosses believe should be done to meet the needs of the public. In an increasing number of instances, even this diluted charter gets thrown away, and ministers and officials are motivated by self-interest. Across global campuses, especially in hard currency zones, many of the students from India are the sons and daughters of politicians and high-ranking officials. Looking at the election returns of the former and the income-tax statements of the latter, it is difficult to understand how they are able to afford university and school fees for their children studying abroad, which amount to several multiples of their recorded income every month. Should elected politicians and bureaucrats be made to list their dependents studying abroad, including the sources of funding for their fees and other expenses, the results would be of immense interest to the public. However, the prospect of such transparency is zero. The politico-bureaucratic New Caste look after their own, only occasionally throwing a Kalmadi or a Raja (temporarily) to the wolves to convince the public that they are serious about enforcing integrity.
This is where Barack Obama comes in. The President of the United States presides over a system that scoops up financial data about high-ranking officials across the globe. While less powerful countries like India cannot (or pretend not to) get information about the unaccounted deposits held by their nationals and close relatives in Swiss banks, when it comes to a command from Washington, the Swiss banking industry is as porous as Swiss cheese. In the guise of the "War on Terror", the Treasury Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, DIA, Bureau of Intelligence & Research and the FBI have amassed information about the multiple offshore accounts of high-ranking officials in key countries, including India and China. On the campaign trail, Obama exuded the aura of an idealist, often moving the masses to tears with his speeches. Let it be admitted that on more than one occasion, this columnist found himself close to tears because he believed that Obama was a politician determined to change the self-centred, money-grubbing vaudeville, which passes for politics in most democracies. However, by subsequently surrendering his presidency to Clinton-era holdovers, much of this sympathy was forfeited. No one will call the Clintons idealistic, despite their obvious skill in promoting themselves under the cover of public interest. In his first term, Barack Obama played to the tune of Wall Street and forsook Main Street, although some recent decisions, such as nominating Janet Yellin to the Federal Reserve Board, indicate that he is worried about smudging a legacy that had the promise of becoming as much of a legend in the annals of History as those of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What the National Security Agency of the US has done is unconscionable. It is somewhat scary to know that the many commercial and personal secrets of individuals that get revealed online will be in the data banks of some US agency, awaiting disclosure. However, there is a way in which Barack Obama can get absolution for the misdeeds of the NSA, and that is by making public the facts related to offshore accounts of high-ranking officials in key countries. These need not be revealed through a White House press briefing but with more subtlety, perhaps by getting leaked to media outlets, the way the financial secrets of former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao were brought out in the New York Times.
Rather than applauding transparency, the Obama administration has sought to silence whistle-blowers through severe punishment, such as the inhuman sentence meted out to the soldier who released data to WikiLeaks. What Bradley Manning did was not a crime but public service. What Edward Snowden did merits not a jail term but the Nobel Peace Prize, although the former seems more likely. If Obama truly seeks to build a legacy defined by integrity and global public interest, a good way of doing so would be to ensure the offshore accounts of powerful politicians in key countries get exposed. The public in these countries have a right to know the details of the financial fraud indulged in by their rulers, details that are at present kept hidden in the electronic vaults of the National Security Agency in Washington.