Whether a politician is amassing wealth or not can often be gauged by the lifestyles of his or her family members. For those with access to the internet, it is no secret that this columnist is not an admirer of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, although he retains an open mind on her son and heir, Rahul Gandhi. The reason for the negativity is twofold: several of the closest political associates of the lady who dominated politics in India till the emergence of Narendra Modi to the centre stage of national politics in 2013 are individuals who may reasonably be termed as “fixers” and “dealers”. Their families have, without exception, progressed at speed up the income ladder, with expensive cars and luxurious residences replacing more modest transport and accommodation. Even in their income tax returns, they have shown incredible skill in increasing their net wealth, often setting up businesses that make huge profits. To cite a particular instance, a minister who was very powerful by being a confidante of the Congress Party leader has an offspring who has made money in incredible amounts.
In the case of Sonia Gandhi, her two sisters live in luxury despite considerable ambiguity about their occupations. India’s incurious media has not regarded it as important to report on the lives and lifestyles of not only Sonia Gandhi’s sisters but the children and other relatives of others who are or were hyper-powerful. For example, it is unknown in India that an individual placed at the core of the security apparatus by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had as foreign citizens his wife and all his children. In the US, there are clear lines drawn between “No Forn” documents and briefings that are off limits to foreign nationals, and others that are allowed to be accessed by foreign nationals.
In the case of India, several key officials have progressed in their careers despite their close family members exchanging their Indian passports for that of a foreign country. Indeed, such a fact is regarded as too trivial to document. Another fact seen as outside the ambit of government is educating children in foreign countries, with few superiors curious about how an officer can educate his or her children abroad at a cost much above his or her salary.
Usually, some unknown institution steps up with a scholarship to the offspring of a senior official, and shuts down soon after the education of the lucky youngster concludes. Snd of course there is the fact that several international financial companies (who make fortunes out of insider information) hire the children of top decision-makers. Interestingly, the head of the Reserve Bank of India retains his lien on the University of Chicago job he temporarily took leave of to become the czar of monetary policy in India, as well as the option to become a US citizen at will. Similar is the case with the head of the erstwhile Planning Commission ( now renamed Niti Aayog) and the Economic Advisor to the Finance Ministry, each of whom appear to regard their current jobs as stopgap employment before returning to the US, a prospect they are reported to discuss with friends off and on. In the two years that he has devoted to his current job, Narendra Modi has followed the same example he set in Gujarat, of not making changes in the composition of officials inherited from the previous regime. While overall this is a good idea, yet an exception needs to be made in the case of that small number of officials who were accomplices to corrupt ministers and politicians. Such individuals need to be investigated, and it needs to be ensured that they be removed from sensitive positions that are susceptible to misuse. Such a spring cleaning has yet to take place.
Hence, although corruption in Delhi has been dramatically reduced since Modi took over, the pace of investigation and accountability has been glacial in its pace. A few days ago, a higher court in Italy convicted some individuals of having paid bribes to Indians to purchase some helicopters for the Air Force in its VIP squadron. It would have been a simple matter to track the money flow from Europe to Mauritius to India, but this was apparently not done even after the new government took charge. Contrary to the charges being made by some that such inaction shows the “complicity” of the Modi government in such scams, the fact is that it reveals the opposite.
The Prime Minister has left the bureaucracy alone, and has ensured that his ministers follow the same discipline (of refusing to intervene). However, such a rule needs exceptions, especially in the case of those instances which involve corruption of a level of tens of millions of dollars. In the case of the helicopter deal, several senior officials were involved, and some are still in very high positions.These have clearly used their influence to ensure that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) slept at the wheel. Although two years have gone by since the BJP government took charge, neither the CBI nor the ED have bothered to uncover the money trail. So the public in India is witness to the shameful spectacle of an Italian court convicting Italian bribe-givers, but Indian agencies inactive against the Indian bribe-takers, many of whom have influential friends across the political spectrum.
The Italian court relied on 181 boxes of evidence about the bribes paid by Agusta Westland, the helicopter company, but thus far, no agency from India has shown any interest in examining the data revealed there, even though they relate to bribes paid in India to Indian citizens. Neither has any anti-corruption agency in India sought to assist the Italian court with evidence that was relevant to the case, despite the desirability of doing so Prime Minister Modi will need to revise his Hands Off policy towards the bureaucracy, for in some departments, freedom from political influence is leading to greater misuse of authority. The system of democracy mandates control by elected politicians over unelected officials, and the Prime Minister and his ministers need to exercise that control rather than refrain from it.Of course, concurrently there needs to be much greater transparency in government, so that online tracking takes place of decisions such that laggards get identified.
As also much more accountability. For a start, Modi needs to identify and punish each of those (politicians, officials and military) guilty in the Agusta Westland helicopter scandal, no matter how high the post held or which party the wrongdoer belongs to. Unless he does so, from now onwards, politically it will all be downhill for the BJP.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.