Monday November 22, 2010
Graft in the govt
INDIA DIARY By COOMI KAPOOR
Corruption seems to be on the rise with economic liberalisation and structural reforms in India.
CORRUPTION and power seem to be inseparable twins, which even an honest prime minister like Manmohan Singh, has failed to separate. Due to that failure, Singh now finds himself dragged into the vortex of controversy.
The highest court in the land last week questioned Manmohan’s inaction in spite of repeated warnings of huge losses to the public exchequer due to sale of precious telecom spectrum at throwaway prices.
While the Supreme Court (SC) sought a reply from the PM for not doing anything to stop former Telecom Minister A. Raja from perpetrating what is easily free India’s biggest scam, the opposition has seized on Manmohan’s admonishment by the highest court to stall proceedings in Parliament.
Having tasted blood with the disclosure of the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, which put the likely loss in the telecom scam at a whopping US$34bil (RM106bil), the opposition is going for the kill.
Hearing a PIL (public interest litigation) by the Janata Party president Subramaniam Swamy, the SC pointedly asked the PM why he did not respond to a request for permission to prosecute Raja.
Swamy wrote several letters to the PM in the last two years, furnishing proof of fraud by Raja in the award of telecom licences to hand-picked parties and sought his sanction to launch criminal proceedings against the minister.
Since incumbent ministers and senior public servants cannot be prosecuted without prior sanction in order to protect them from frivolous litigation, the PM’s sanction to prosecute Raja was necessary.
However following Raja’s removal a few days ago, Swamy now does not need the PM’s sanction to launch criminal proceedings against Raja.
However, this was not the end of the PM’s troubles. Continuing the hearing in Swamy’s PIL, the court ordered the PM’s counsel to produce all the letters written by the petitioner and the PM’s response.
Criticism of the Prime Minister gained further stridency following the damning indictment of the former Telecom Minister by the CAG.
The constitutional authority found that 2G spectrum (second generation airwaves) were allocated in a most arbitrary, unfair, inequitable manner to hand-picked parties and at such low prices that it caused a loss of up to US$34bil (RM106bil) to the nation.
Raja had awarded these licences back in early 2008. A section of the political class and the media had talked of the scandal, even at that time. Swamy wrote first of his five letters to the PM seeking sanction to prosecute Raja in 2008 itself.
However, it came as a huge surprise when Raja was again inducted as Telecom Minister in the Manmohan government after the May 2009 parliamentary election.
It was argued that Raja was made Telecom Minister against the PM’s wishes and due to the compulsions of coalition politics.
Since Raja belongs to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam (DMK), the second largest ally of the Congress in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), he was nominated to the post by his leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.
Yet, Raja’s induction as Telecom Minister was seen as further proof of Manmohan being a weak PM.
Critics also blamed the Congress leadership for mishandling the Raja affair. Rubbishing the argument that Raja’s removal would have destabilised the UPA government, it was pointed out that the Karunanidhi government in Tamil Nadu survives on the support of the Congress legislators.
If the DMK threatened to withdraw support to the Manmohan government, the Congress could pull down the Karunanidhi government in Tamil Nadu, a sort of balance of blackmail. At long last, when Raja was dumped, the DMK did not withdraw support to the Manmohan government.
The opposition stepped up the ante, now insisting on a probe into the 2G scam by a joint parliamentary committee, a demand unacceptable to the government.
Without doubt, the government was on the back foot on corruption. From the Adarsh land scam in Mumbai, which led to the removal of Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, to corruption in the conduct of last month’s Commonwealth Games, the Congress Party was on the receiving end of public ire.
The party questioned the high moral ground the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought to occupy by pointing out cases of discretionary land allotment by the BJP Chief Minister of Karnataka, B.S. Yeddyurappa, to his sons and daughter.
But, the sheer scale of the telecom scam made it hard for the Congress to divert public focus away from the central government’s acts of omission and commission.
Taking away discretionary powers of ministers to allot precious public resources – be it mines or minerals, spectrum or land – is one way of curbing corruption. But, no politician worth his salt will agree to forgo that power.
Remarkably, corruption has increased, and not lessened, after economic liberalisation and structural reforms during the last two decades. A recent report by a US think tank estimates that both the size of the underground economy and the outflow of illicit funds to foreign tax havens have increased substantially.
It is now normal, according to the grapevine, for politicians to take bribes abroad in numbered bank accounts.
Ironically, political corruption has come to haunt the government of a prime minister who, by all accounts, is squeaky clean financially. Even Manmohan’s worst critics acknowledge that he is financially incorruptible.
But, the problem is that being a weak prime minister, nay, a nominated prime minister, he chooses to look the other way when his own ministers put their hand in the till.