SINCE the 1950s, corruption has grown in India, but not as fast as has been the growth of “anti-corruption agencies”. The Indian state, in line with its colonial traditions, believes that it is only the state that should police the state, and as a consequence, there has been a proliferation of agencies tasked with eliminating corruption. Large state-run companies, for instance, have each their own “vigilance” wing, which is expected to investigate charges of graft against officers of the concerned public sector company. Such departments are under the control of the Managing Director (MD) of the company, and if – as is often the case – the MD’s office is where corruption is at its highest, it is clear that the Vigilance Department will spend its time chasing lower rank officers on petty matters rather than go after the big shots, especially those who are accomplices of the top company managers.
Incidentally, in India instances have been many where those at the top have manufactured false charges against officers who have refused to ratify the corruption of their seniors. The consequence has been that such (honest) officials get penalised over some small transgressions ( such as getting reimbursed Rs 150 more than a ticket was worth, owing to carelessness in filing of accounts), even going to prison while those guilty of raking in millions of dollars escape with their pensions intact.
In India, hawala operators ensure that cash in rupees gets swiftly transformed into euros and dollars and sent to safe locations, where they cab be deployed as per the wishes of those who have made this “black” (ie unaccounted) income. And these days, there are several countries which welcome those with bulging bank accounts to become residents and even citizens. Small wonder that the number of those from influential political and official families who are acquiring foreign passports is growing. Since 2010,when a raft of corruption stories filled the media in India, there has been phenomenal growth in the moneys flowing abroad, a flow that has accelerated after the “Drive on Black Money” initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon after he took office on May 26,2014.
Modi took a decision to retain in key posts almost all the top bureaucrats who were prominent during the sixteen years when Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh were Prime Ministers ( 1998-2014). Several of them were facilitators of the processes through which senior ministers made hundreds of millions of dollars for themselves. As they are still in key slots, these officials have managed to ensure that Prime Minister Modi’s efforts to enforce accountability for past acts of corruption have been put on a very slow track.
Prime Minister Modi has followed his practice (while Chief Minister of Gujarat) of retaining key officials from past regimes, but after two years, it has become clear that unless those officials known to have facilitated scamster ministers in the past get replaced in sensitive slots by honest officials, the accountability sought by the Prime Minister will be elusive. After all, such scamster ministers in the two previous regimes groomed and promoted only those officers who were crooked enough or opportunistic enough to do the or bidding, not the honest majority in the system. Such bent officers will be desperate to prevent genuine enquiries from taking place, for fear that these will lead to their doors.
The deliberate incompetence of investigating agencies in India can be seen from the fact that almost every mega scam that has been exposed owes disclosure to a foreign source. The army of anti-corruption agencies in India have not located any bank account abroad of top officials or politicians. What few revelations there have been are because of exposes in the foreign media, exactly as took place in the matter of the payoffs for the Bofors guns in 1986. Incidentally, because of a cover up by the agencies involved, practically all those who took bribes during that transaction were subsequently exonerated of any wrongdoing by courts in India, who were forced to rely on the evidence presented by the agencies and go by such documentation, which in many cases was misleading and obfuscatory.
Now a court in Italy has convicted individuals in a company based there of having paid bribes to influential people in India to ensure purchases of helicopters. Reports about bribes being paid surfaced three years ago, and then Defence Minister A K Antony promptly got a First Information Report filed on the matter, subsequently ordering a halt to fresh purchases from the company reported as having bribed officials and politicians. This was for the record, for afterwards, there was zero follow up action. The result is that the bribe takers have been having a comfortable life in India (when not travelling abroad), while in Italy, the bribe givers have been sent to jail. Why is it that so little progress is made in India in the matter of investigating even the crimes of previous governments?
A senior minister told this columnist in 2007 that the policy was to “set aside 40% of the bribe amount for personal uses of the decision makers involved, 40% for political purposes of the ruling parties and 20% to be distributed to Opposition politicians to ensure their silence”. The policy of ensuring that even those in the opposition make money during the tenure in office of a rival party has meant that skeletons remain buried rather than uncovered. In India, the lifestyles of those in opposition are as high flying as those in government, for in the Lutyens system, top politicians look after each other, thereby insuring themselves in case there is a change in regime.
After nearly two years studying the Lutyens system, Prime Minister Modi would have understood the way in which this has perpetuated corruption. There are signs that the PM is now readying himself to ensure that genuine accountability take place, even if in such a process some within his own party get indicted. After all, not everybody in the Congress Party is a sinner and not everyone in the BJP is a saint. A housecleaning of those involved in cosy financial links with past regimes is overdue and is expected to take place, so that in India, corruption finally registers a decline that is inversely proportional to the number of top politicians and officials sent to jail for defrauding the public during their years in office. Much is expected from Modi in coming months and years in this regard.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.