Something's got to give

As the political establishment corrupts the instrumentalities of the state, political parties are poised to lose their appeal and relevance. Their instinct for self-preservation remains the best hope against corruption

jagdeep

Jagdeep Chhokar | January 20, 2011




The country seems to have been hit by an avalanche of scams making corruption one of the discussed topics in the media today. As if the contempt case in the supreme court about allegations of corruption in the higher judiciary in an interview to a magazine by a senior lawyer was not enough, one of the most hallowed institutions in the country, the armed forces, seems to have had its glory dimmed a bit by the Adarsh episode. The quest for the ultimate source of corruption in the country and what, if anything, can be done to stop or, at least, contain it, continues.

If the civilian bureaucracy, the police, the health services, the educational system, the public distribution system for food grains, the judiciary, and now even the armed forces, are not above board, the malaise is obviously deeper and tinkering on the surface is not going to help. What might have corrupted all institutions in the country? Let us explore it a bit further, taking one institution at a time.

First, the bureaucracy. In the constitutional scheme of things, the bureaucracy or the administrative executive, is supposed to implement policy enunciated by the legislature and overseen by the political executive. Today we have a situation where policies are made without adequate application of mind by the legislature (given that a large number of bills are passed without much useful discussion and in very short time periods that are available free of interruptions and stalling the legislatures). Such policies often turn out to be misconceived, if not almost entirely motivated to benefit specific individuals or groups, often undermining the larger good or national interest. Even when somewhat sensible policies or legislations are enacted, they often get bogged down in the nitty-gritty of implementation with vested interests preventing the intended beneficiaries getting their full advantage. This is the charitable, and possibly naïve, explanation. The reality is that implementation is often deliberately mishandled in order to generate bribes and other illegal gratifications.

Bureaucrats would not be able to do this and get away with this if the oversight by the political executive was sharp, appropriate, and proper. The well-known nexus between politicians and bureaucrats makes it extremely difficult to find out exactly who should be held responsible. Whether the bureaucrats put the politicians on this wrong path to suit their (bureaucrats’) ends or the politicians co-opted the bureaucrats in this loot of national resources is now a chicken or the egg question.

All the other instrumentalities of the state have also been corrupted, allowed themselves to be corrupted, or have willingly and actively colluded with the political establishment in corruption, by the same kind of nexus as the bureaucracy. Let us take just two examples, the police and the judiciary. The supreme court directed central and state governments, on September 22, 2006, to address the most glaring gaps and bad practices in the functioning of the police, directed them to comply with seven directives by December 31, 2006, and to file affidavits of compliance by January 3, 2007. Several state governments are supposed to have “initiated” action and several have given a variety of reasons why nothing worthwhile can be done. We are at the end of 2010 and nothing has actually happened on the ground though a lot of paper work has gone on. Police personnel at all levels continue to be manipulated through various devices such as transfers, promotions being given or withheld, assignments to “good” posting – meaning where there are bright chances of getting bribes and other illegal perquisites – and so on, in return of doing the bidding of political masters.

The manipulation of judiciary at the highest levels that began in 1973 with the appointment of Justice A N Ray as chief justice of India (CJI) superseding three judges who were senior to him, was reiterated on January 28, 1977, when on  his retirement, Justice M H Beg was appointed chief justice, superseding Justice H R Khanna, the next in seniority to Justice Ray and therefore eligible for appointment as CJI by tradition. It is widely believed that Justice Khanna was superseded because he gave the sole dissenting judgement in the ADM Jabalpur vs Shukla case (also known as The Habeas Corpus Case) in April 1976. This is a case that the noted jurist Fali Nariman has called “one of the most deplorable decisions” of the supreme court of India because it upheld the absolute suspension of the fundamental right to life and liberty during the internal state of emergency declared in 1975. Subsequent manipulations of senior judicial appointments including transfers of high court judges for extraneous reasons have continued despite the supreme court effectively taking over the primacy in the appointment of judges.

A glaring, and extremely insidious development is the corruption of the ‘fourth estate’, the media, in quiet collusion with the political establishment. This has come to be called the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ and now threatens to vitiate the basic root of democracy – the electoral process. Much has been written about it and elaboration here is not necessary. As this piece is being written comes the news about the so-called Radia Tapes!
Why does the political establishment manipulate, and corrupt, the instrumentalities of the state; why do the instrumentalities of the state acquiesce or collude with the political establishment in the manipulations and the ensuing corruption; and what do these portend for the future of our society and the nation, are important questions.

Indian Political Scenario

The political landscape in India today is littered with instances of corruption with political formations of all hues being equally involved. While the Commonwealth Games is often singularly associated with the Congress as it is the lead party in power at the centre and also in Delhi, the telecom spectrum scam takes the DMK in its fold along with the Congress. The BJP has its hands full with the mining and land issues in Karnataka. The CPM is struggling with Pinarayi Vijayan’s actions in Kerala, while the suicide of W R Varada Rajan seems to have been given a quiet burial even by the media. The latest scandal that has not attracted the national media attention so far is in Chandigarh (reported by The Tribune from November 17-22, 2010) in which land originally allotted to two societies, the Punjab MLAs Housing Society and the Defence Services Society, has been sold, at a hefty profit, to a private developer to set up an integrated mixed use project with 1,734 apartments in 19 multi-storey towers, each tower having anything between 12 and 35 storeys. The MLAs’ Society had reportedly sold its land to Tata Housing Development Corporation for Rs 106 crore and, in turn, all these MLAs have been allotted a four BHK flat plus a bonanza of Rs 82.5 lakh in cash. Interestingly, each of these 129 members had bought this land at a much lower rate.

The annals of the regional parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party are too well known to be cited here. Some like Jaganmohan Reddy have chosen to take the transparency route by depositing advance tax that shows that his income has risen by 1100 percent in one year, a route that has also found favour with the supremo of another party. The travails of the Karnataka Lokayukta, Justice N Santosh Hegde, revealed during the episode when he resigned and took back his resignation, are eloquent testimony to the modus operandi of the political class.
There was a time when only the Congress had to bear the brunt of corruption charges. This was when Congress was the only party in power, at the centre as well in the states. But then came Bofors, which, in a way, shook the moral conscience of the nation. The year was 1989, in the dock was the Congress party led by Rajiv Gandhi, and the man of the moment was V P Singh. National Front came to power at the centre with V P Singh as prime minister and lasted two years. This was the first time in the history of India that the government was changed on the issue of corruption.

The national outrage over corruption in 1989 ushered in a new paradigm in Indian politics, that of coalition governments, which the polity is still learning to live with. What the current avalanche of corruption scandals is likely to do is still an open issue and time will tell what its long-term effect will be. Some pointers can, however, be discerned.

What Now?

Our political parties seem to have lost sight of the real purpose of politics and political processes in any society, which is to balance the diverse viewpoints, often conflicting and seemingly reconcilable ones, in the society. If political parties do not perform this function, then the entire political process loses its basic compass.

This has resulted in the increasing loss of credibility of political parties when it comes to good governance in the interest of the nation and the larger public good. Statements by political leaders of various hues that ideology comes into the picture only when the arithmetic is right, do not enhance general confidence in the intentions of political parties.

The rising disenchantment with political parties among the common populace and the growing cynicism are now palpable. The argument often advanced by politicians is that they are elected by voters and therefore have credibility does not hold in view of the fact that the overall voting percentage in Lok Sabha elections had progressively gone down to 48.74 percent in 2004 from a range of around 55-60 percent since the first general election in 1952. The figure of 59.7 percent for 2009 was certainly an improvement but whether it is part of a longer-term trend is yet to be seen. The reason less than half the people vote is that the choice for voters is limited. Suggestions such as the option of “none of the above” have not found favour with the government (read political class) despite being recommended by the election commission of India.

The disenchantment and the cynicism are aided by the conversion of political parties from opinion mediators and opinion leaders to election winning machines functioning in the corporate mould. Just as business corporations produce and sell goods and services to customers in order to make money for their investors and to use part of that money to produce and sell more goods and services, political parties try and win elections in order to make money for their leaders and sometimes, members, and use some of the money to win the next election. While this description of political parties can certainly be labelled “middle-class cynicism”, it comes out clearly in every election over the last few years, increasingly in the selection of candidates by political parties. The incidence of airdropped candidates merely on “winnability” whether on the basis of caste, religion, other affiliations, and sometimes even on the money that the prospective candidate can spend on the election or donate to the party, is a stark indicator of what political parties are working for.
Since winning elections at whatever cost, including ideology, requires large amounts of money, and political parties are not willing to divulge the real expenditure and the sources where they get their money from, they have allowed themselves to be corrupted.

Our political parties do not seem to realise that if democracy has to survive in India, there has to be a minimum level of integrity and morality that the political system has to display in the perception of the public at large. In addition, the entire political establishment, or at least its major constituents, has to be able and willing to balance their individual self-interests in the overall interest of the nation. One of the prerequisites to even approaching this balance in the society at large is the need for different political formations to find agreeable and common working ground where larger national interests are involved rather than single-mindedly working for their own self-interests. The frequent bickering that one sees amongst different political formations on almost every conceivable issue, does not generate much optimism on this score.

Missed Learning Opportunity

A telling impact of the above factors was on display in Jharkhand from September 2006 to August 2008 when political parties were forced to support a state government formed by four independent MLAs. The rampant corruption that resulted and the effect that government had on the state is graphic proof of how irresponsible and inappropriate political behaviour causes corruption.

The lesson that Jharkhand offered to all the political formations, one they seem to have missed completely, is that unless they mend their ways of functioning, they will become redundant and irrelevant in the political processes in the country.

So, what paradigm revolution will the rising tide of corruption bring? What nectar, if any, will this churning of the almost entire governing establishment of India bring forth? Obviously, answers to these questions are not known but that does not prevent one from hoping and aspiring.

One hope is that political parties will realise that being self-proclaimed defenders of democracy in the country, they need to become democratic in their own internal functioning. Actions such as “removing” and “appointing” chief ministers and deciding on state cabinets in New Delhi will not work. Political formations will have to understand that unless they perform the real political role of mobilising, consolidating, and representing the genuine desires and aspirations of common people, winning elections in a system that they have learnt to work to their advantage, and using corporate tactics such as money power, they will self-destruct themselves by ignoring their basic purpose in society. And that can only be done if real democracy deepens, not only from the centre to the states, but also from the states to the panchayats and other local bodies.

 

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