India In Unprecedented Turmoil

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The arms scandal in India in which several officials were secretly filmed accepting bribe from journalists working for Tehleka.com, an internet mass medium, has given rise to wide-spread public disgust and has sent the BJP coalition reeling into an unprecedented turmoil. The extent of the tumult caused by the disclosures may be gauged from the fact that the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Anan, could not visit the Indian Parliament as scheduled, since it was going through a pandemonium triggered by the scandal and it had eventually to be recessed for a month.

Within 24 hours of the disclosures, two Major-Generals and some other high ranking officers were suspended. Mr. Bangaru Laxman, head of the ruling Bharatya Janta Party (BJP) resigned from his office as one of the tapes showed him accepting a bribe of one lakh rupees. Ms Jaya Jaitley, leader of Samanta Party, an important component of the ruling coalition was caught by the hidden camera accepting a bribe of two lakh rupees. She too has resigned. So has Defense Minister, George Fernandes, who belongs to Samanta, and in whose house the transaction took place.. Trinamool Congress, another member of the coalition, has withdrawn its support to the government.

The tremor caused by this scandal has been referred to by almost all leading papers of India as unprecedented since the independence of the country, mainly because it exposes the dirty linen in the cupboards of the defense establishment treated till now as sacrosanct, and above suspicion.

India has otherwise contributed substantially to the world literature on political sleaze, scandals and scoundrels. The list of these includes some top political luminaries. Yet, the country has to its credit a continuous adherence to democracy -the biggest in the world.

The founding fathers of both India and Pakistan had impeccable records of integrity. India had the advantage of witnessing a long and uninterrupted rule of one of them, Nehru, allowing the sapling of democracy to take firm roots. While Gandhi was suspicious of big government, the socialist in Nehru, an honest leader by any standard, allowed the growth of a gargantuan governmental structure. The larger the government, the more its interference in the lives of individuals and the more the opportunities of corruption for its functionaries.

The system worked all right during Nehru’s life time. The teachings and practices of an ascetic Gandhi combined with the role-model integrity of Nehru did not admit of the officials exploiting their positions for personal pelf.

With the demise of Nehru, the inherent human frailty of personal aggrandizement started replacing the high principles. His own daughter, Mrs. Gandhi, got involved in several questionable financial deals.

Power came to be gradually accepted as the means of securing pelf, and pelf became a sine qua non for access to power. The system of large government brought graft within the reach of a vast number of officials. The role of money in getting what you want, permeated politics too.

Like in the US, the prospect of a political candidate even in the poverty-stricken South Asian states hinges now not so much upon his personal integrity, track record, and laudable agenda, but on how big and high is his financial heap.

In the case of Pakistan, a fillip to the concept of big government and socialist economy was given by Z.A.Bhutto. An admirer of Nehru, he nationalized all basic industries, many of which thus became sick and eventually withered away. This wrong move could have been balanced off had he practiced what he preached and done away with feudalism.

He increased three fold the allocation for the military instead of cutting it down in proportion to the reduced size of Pakistan after the fall of Dacca.

He knocked off the constitutional guarantees to civil servants in his Constitution making them seek security in ill-gotten wealth. No wonder, subsequent leaders, including his daughter, civil and military bureaucrats, found the situation quite tempting for corruption. No wonder also that several subsequent governments were sacked for corruption.

The armed forces have stone-walled themselves through a one-line budget, not open to debate in the parliament, and a provision in the constitution ensuring their sacrosanct status. Two sons of ex-Generals are listed among Pakistan’s billionaires despite no palpable means of such wealth. The present ruler, Gen. Musharraf, has allowed the media utmost freedom. But, one wonders if the GHQ would tolerate the very existence of a set-up like Tehleka.com.

The expose of Tehleka in the words of its editor-in-chief, Tarun Tejpal, is “the ultimate indictment of Indian governance and ethics. It is the ugly fable of a poor country that has been completely sold off by its rich and powerful”. Greed, he maintains, has dulled every other sense of those who trafficked in the defense gravy train.

Tejpal indicts ethics in governance. But, a section of the Indian media has questioned the ethics of the means employed by his own set-up. In this particular case, the ends perhaps justified the means. Tehelka’s modus operandi would, nevertheless, go down in the annals of world journalism as an unethical investigative reporting as questionable as the MacCarthy probes.

In the current cultural milieu of South Asia, corruption is the norm and honesty but a joke. The leadership is unable to reconcile personal with national interest or to differentiate between personal and public funds.

The culture of corruption has so permeated the ruling elite in the shadow of the Himalayas that it has become a way of life. An honest wielder of political or administrative powers stands out today as a maverick, a misfit, and an anachronistic oddity. Perhaps the extent to which corruption permeates the society now provided a justification for the means used by Tehelka.Com.

Before writing this piece on March 23, I scanned several Indian newspapers of the day. The stories appearing on their front pages support the above contention. Let us take the prestigious Times of India. It reports that the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau has charged the ex-Chief Minister of Kerala, Karunakaran, and seven of his collaborators in a multi-million rupee corruption case. They have been accused of receiving kickbacks in the import of a commodity from Malaysia.

Another front page story in the same issue reports a case filed against the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Ms Jaitley, and her cohorts for investing Rs.44 crores (ill-gotten) in two hotels in London.

The lead story of the issue was on the corruption expose of Tehelka being taken to the people as the parliament had been recessed till April 16. The paper commented that the parliament existed not to perform its legislative role but to act as a boxing ring for political opponents to slug it out.

An amusing argument has been offered by the two party chiefs, Mr.Laxman of BJP and Ms Jaitly of Samanta that they had accepted the money for their respective parties. If this logic were to be accepted, they would deserve medals for agreeing to corrupt the nation for the benefit of their parties. Fortunately, they have not pursued this line of argument and followed the democratic tradition of resigning from their positions.

Pakistan is at least head-to-head with India in the incidence of corruption and its exposure. But there is a big difference. The feudal spirit that permeates the society, does not admit of a member of the ruling elite, even if caught red-handed, of ever acknowledging his/her guilt. The feudal lord’s vassals keep following him meekly like sheep, particularly as he/she holds the purse strings of party funds collected through different forms of corruption. Benazir furnishes a good example of this. Nawaz Sharif provides conclusive evidence of the fact that every thing, including a freedom from jail, is up for sale in the country. And, generally speaking, the prestige of a public official is now in proportion to the harm he/she can inflict on an individual or group. Where is the rule of law governing crime and punishment?

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