LIP SERVICE JUST WON’T DO

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In March 1938, when confronted with rising reports of corruption in the Congress provincial ministries that had come into being a year earlier under the Government of India Act, Gandhi issued a press statement from Rajkot. “The one and only task before the Congress,” he said, “is to make supreme efforts to clean the Congress house of proved corruption and impurities. The strongest resolutions that the Congress may pass will be of no value if there should be no incorruptible organization to enforce them.” It was a statement typical of the Mahatma: simple, clear and addressing the heart of the matter.

Two months later, the issue had become so pervasive that at a public meeting of the Gandhi Seva Sangh in Brindaban, he went so far as to announce: “I have become so impatient of the corruption prevailing in the Congress that I should not hesitate to bury the organization if the corruption cannot be removed.”

Here was clear political intent by the nation’s pre-eminent politician and it served a purpose. For all their flaws, the pre-independence Congress ministries and Nehru’s post-independence cabinet never really came to be identified with mass corruption in the way today’s politicians are.

True, there was the jeep scandal in 1948, when Krishna Menon as High Commissioner in London allegedly bypassed regular procedure in placing an order for 155 Army jeeps; or the case of the Kolkata businessman Haridas Mundhra, who in the 1950s got LIC to wrongly invest in his troubled companies. Yet, there was a sense that these were aberrations; and the highest levels of the government remained clean and in control.

In the latter case for instance, the finance minister resigned, and others were prosecuted quickly after Feroze Gandhi raised the issue in Parliament and an inquiry committee submitted its report in just 24 days.

What has changed in the decades since is that that corruption is now seen as intrinsic to the DNA of the Indian politician. And no matter what Manmohan Singh says about his New Year ‘course correction’ or the BJP says about holding the government to account, neither side has done enough to show that it really means business. They both appear to be paying lip service to the idea of a clean polity, while turning a blind eye to the shenanigans within.

Look at what is happening in Karnataka. No one has ever accused Governor H R Bhardwaj of being anything but a Congress loyalist and his decision to sanction the chief minister’s prosecution is beginning to resemble a Centre-state row of the kind that we haven’t seen for years.

Yet, can anyone miss the irony of a political party that hasn’t allowed Parliament to function for an entire session on the issue of corruption, virtually holding an entire state to ransom because it can’t bring itself to act against the misdemeanours of its own chief minister?

Here is the nation’s primary Opposition party leading a national campaign against corruption even as its national president admits that its man in Bangalore, B S Yeddyurappa, denotified land to favour his family in a way that was “not proper” and “immoral.” Nitin Gadkari may insist that Yeddyurappa was still somehow on the right side of the law, but surely he knows that politics is all about symbolism, not fine print.

Just as Kapil Sibal, by attacking the CAG’s estimate of presumptive losses, signalled the government’s combative instincts, taking the sheen off the prime minister’s New Year resolution to have a real clean-up; the BJP’s defence of the indefensible means that there are no white knights in this battle for public morality.

If whispers in Delhi are to be believed, then a strong Lokpal Bill is on the way as a sop to assuage public anger on corruption. This would be welcome, but we don’t really need more laws. We have plenty already. What we need is a signal of intent and a public policy of zero-tolerance of corruption, in deeds as well as words.

Perhaps the political class will do better to look at the Army. It too has been hit by a slew of scandals but Lt General PK Rath’s quick conviction and punishment means that at least its systems work quickly, efficiently and ruthlessly when something goes wrong.

For all the stigma of the Sukhna scam, this was actually a tiny nothing when compared with most cases of public corruption. No money actually changed hands. The land in question was not even the Army’s to give; it was merely in its vicinity. Yet, some impropriety did occur. Once this was clear, the guilty were made to face justice, and quickly.

The same pattern was evident in the Tehelka case. The Army officers on tape were quickly court-martialled and sentenced. Yet, nothing ever happened against the politicians. Instead, George Fernandes came back as defence minister and the then NDA government went after Tehelka and its investors.

With an inexorable sense of stasis engulfing his government barely two years into his second tenure as prime minister, Manmohan Singh needs to enunciate and implement a vision of Gandhian proportions on corruption. Shifting over 30 of 78 ministers in his government, and bringing in three new ones, is a small start but barely enough.

A real culling may be needed and the question is how much more can he do in the expansive changes he has promised after the Budget session.