In the mid-1970s, just when national disenchantment with the opaque and corrupt polity that Congress-raj had turned into was hitting its peak, Anand Bakshi caught the popular mood with his prescient ‘Yeh public hai, yeh sab jaantee hai’ number in the Rajesh Khanna starrer ‘Roti’. Coming right before the Emergency when Navnirman politics was still peaking, the Kishore Kumar song powerfully encapsulated a general disillusionment with politics as usual as no academic study ever could. Its words are still relevant today
In some ways, this was the sentiment that Rajiv Gandhi was reacting to when soon after his investiture he tried to give flesh to his newly minted ‘Mr Clean’ image, intoning that only 15 paisa of every rupee meant for the poor reaches them.

That was before his mighty fall on Bofors, before Ram Jethmalani’s daily tirade of ‘10 question to Rajiv’ punctured the bubble; effectively ending the legitimacy of a government that enjoyed the most powerful electoral majority in our history.

Corruption is a leit-motif of Indian public life ask any contractor who ever deals in any government contract one doesn’t need the Adarsh scam or the CWG scam or the telecom scam to know this. These are only the most visible and most disturbing symbols of a deeper malaise.

The difference is that for the first time in two decades, it once again has emerged as a political issue in national politics, with questions being asked about the highest echelons of government. Not since Harshad Mehta have such questions, of omission or commission, been raised. The issue is what next.

In the wake of the Congress counter-offensive in Bunari, the PM’s commitment to depose before Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee and Pranab Mukherjee’s offer of a special Parliamentary session to discuss the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee, the political logjam persists. The Opposition still insists that it wants a JPC, not a discussion.

The BJP argues that a detailed 2009 discussion on the telecom mess did not yield anything but plain vanilla blandishments from the government; that it is the new tactic of obstructing Parliament that finally led to some action. Ergo, the obstructionism will continue as we head into the new-year and Parliament’s Budget session.

The problem is that though the government’s credibility is seriously dented, as this crisis drags on, the Opposition needs more than more mere obstructionism. If ever there is a mid-term election, as some loose commentary has suggested, surely no one wants to go to the polls on a technical JPC versus PAC argument.

Just as the Congress has erred in stubbornly converting the resistance to a JPC into such an article of faith, the Opposition does not come out smell of roses either with its refusal to even discuss the JPC demand in a special session.

The government may be on the mat, but it is useful to remind ourselves that unlike previous such crises over corruption, in the public eye this time there is no white shining knight tilting at the black windmills of government corruption. The BJP has not helped itself by persisting with Yeddyurappa in Karnataka.

There is unquestionable public anger at the scams but it is subsumed within a general climate of suspicion and disgust at the politician-bureaucrat nexus and a larger superstructure of opaqueness in governance that is the relic of an older age.

Beyond scoring political brownie points, perhaps the time has come for the Opposition to come up with a more creative agenda for cleanup.

The Opposition has no faith in the CBI neither do most citizens so why can’t it champion the cause for a completely autonomous CBI, answerable only to Parliament, in much the same way as the American FBI is not subservient to the ruling political passions of the day.

As the former CBI chief, RK Raghavan notes, this is a demand that few politicians are likely to champion because the entire political class has a vested interest in a pliant CBI. Yet, a truly independent CBI, protected by constitutional decree like the Election Commission would be an outcome worth rooting for if we are to convert this crisis into an opportunity.

Similarly, there seems a general consensus that political funding has increasingly shifted to the proceeds from grey areas inherent in discretionary powers over land. The demand for transparency and iron-clad procedures in this is obvious but the crux here is the black money economy that all political parties depend on.

Even if individual politicians want to be honest, there is a systemic motive for corruption. Perhaps the time has come to at least consider a new mechanism of state funding for political parties.

There are good examples from countries like Germany where the state has funded political parties since 1958. This is a complex regulation that tracks the size and reach of parties and public funding operates in tandem with private donations.

Every dollar spent on campaigns has to be accounted and parties submit annual financial statements to the legislature. Our political system is far more complicated than Germany’s, but in a debate on political corruption, is it not legitimate to widen the goalposts and speak of deeper systemic solutions?

Politics abhors a vacuum and as both sides come back to Parliament in 2011, they would perhaps do well to ponder over the inherent wisdom in Kishore Kumar’s deep tenor from the 1970s, ‘Yeh public hai… yeh sab jaanti hai’.