Monday, August 29, 2011

In A Society That Bribes God Himself, Corruption Becomes Part of Life

The ultimate question remains: Can corruption be abolished by law? We are a society in which dowry and child marriage and untouchability and khap panchayat atrocities continue despite laws banning them. They continue because they are deeply ingrained in the national culture and the political will required to wipe them out is simply not there.

Ditto with corruption. Kautilya said: “It is impossible for a government servant not to eat up at least a bit of the King's revenue”. He famously listed 40 ways in which revenue officers embezzled money, from pratibandha (creating obstacles) to apahara (stealing). He worked out impressively cruel ways to punish the corrupt. It helped. But that political will disappeared with him.

Baksheesh is a coinage of India (Mughal vintage). Its ubiquity turned it into an English word. The Mughals also witnessed the system of field commanders taking bribes to win or lose battles. Robert Clive used this to devastating effect.

British history books taught us that Clive's victory in the Battle of Plassey won India for the Empire. It was hardly a battle. The Nawab of Bengal's field commander Mir Jafar was generously bribed by Clive whereupon Jafar surrendered with his troops.

Clive and his successor Warren Hastings turned plunderers, encouraged by the climate and culture of India. Flabbergasted by the vast wealth with which Clive returned to Britain, the Parliament there held him to account. His response was that, considering the wealth available in India, “I stand astonished at my own moderation”.

Hastings, impeached for being obscenely rich, was acquitted after a seven-year trial. But look at some of the phrases prosecutor Edmund Burke used to describe Hastings: “Captain-general of iniquity”, a heart “gangrened to the core”, “ravenous vulture devouring the carcasses of the dead”.

What the British did the Maharajahs continued, revenously devouring the living carcasses of their subjects. Extortionate taxes of princely India were a scandal. They levied duties on trees, cattle, marriages. In Travancore, where the Sree Padmanabha Temple treasures have become a marvel, taxes were levied, based on size, on women's breasts. No doubt officials had plenty of scope for amicable negotiations. High taxes were always a sure way to promote corruption.

To all this must be added the hallowed Indian tradition of bribing God to grant us favours. Bhakti is a powerful force in our everyday life and we make it a point to propitiate our chosen God with hundies placed anonymously, jewelled crowns donated conspicuously and novenas offered arduously. It has gone deep into our mental makeup that God's blessings can be purchased. It follows that a minister's blessings can also be bought though ministers may charge higher rates.

History has stood still for us, but time has not. Kautilya whose count stopped at 40 will be shocked if he were to see how corruption has expanded in scope, range, size and potential in modern India. We pay 5 billion US $ annually as bribes (Transparency International figure for 2005. It must be double that now since mega scams like CWG and 2-G have raised the stakes sky-high).

Corruption is today accepted as part of life. To the Government it is not a problem; only when its hands are forced, it takes action – reluctant half measures. We have become immune even to the moral dimensions of corruption. Anna Hazare's big strength was the moral power of his persona. He jeopardised it by assuming rigid positions and setting an impossible deadline for passing his Jan Lok Pal Bill. When pressure tactics become inseparable from blackmail tactics, they lose their moral force and become another form of corruption.

We all think that corruption is something that other people practice. In fact it is systemic in our social structure and our public life; everyone, willingly or otherwise, consciously or otherwise, is a participant. The real issue is not this bill or that law. The real issue is: How do we change ourselves?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Congress has lost the next elections. So who's next? Brand Yeddyurappa?

Harakiri is the most painful ritual invented by man to kill himself. Literally it means belly-cutting. You plunge a short sword into the left side of your abdomen, then draw the blade across to the right, then twist it upward. That done, you withdraw the sword and plunge it into your chest, then draw it down to the abdomen across the first cut. Finally, you withdraw the sword and thrust it into your throat.

In the extraordinary week that has gone by, did you see Kapil Sibal plunging the sword into the left abdomen of the Congress party and drawing it to the right and then upping the blade? Did you watch P.Chidambaram sinking the sword just below the chest and then drawing it, across Sibal's cut, into the lower abdomen? In a final demonstration of superhuman resolve, Manmohan Singh withdrew the sword and in one fell swoop stabbed the throat of the party.

The end. Now bookies won't accept any bets, howsoever attractive the odds, on the Congress coming anywhere near power in the next elections.

What monumental lack of vision – or was it arrogance? – that they could not see what was happening right before their eyes. Just as masses of people came out in the 1942 movement demanding independence, people came out last week demanding an end to corruption. The extent of popular disgust with corruption was completely lost on the leaders of the Government.

They thought it was all about a feeble old man trying to usurp the powers of Parliament. They thought that they could win the day by discrediting the man and showing him as corrupt himself and, for good measure, as an agent of dark forces out to destabilise wonderful India with its wonderful economy. What monumental misreading of a situation.

Actually Anna Hazare is not an issue at all. The right to enact laws is not an issue. The only issue is corruption. This is the issue that brought masses of Indians out into the rain. To them Anna Hazare is just a straw of hope. They clutch it because they do not get even a straw from the Government's side. As the public perceives it, Anna is fighting corruption, the Government is fighting Anna, therefore the Government is supporting corruption. How foolish of the Government to spread such an impression.

It does not matter that the mass uprising finally forced the Government to accept defeat and allow Ramlila Maidan to turn into a symbol of People Power. For the Government had lost the trust of the people even before the Hazare wave rose. The worst corruption scandals came up during its watch, men like Suresh Kalmadi were protected for too long, the chase of illegal money in Switzerland was managed with obvious lack of interest leading to the suspicion that top people in the Congress had things to hide. Finally they tabled a Lok Pal Bill that could provide more protection than punishment to the corrupt. This is a Government whose intentions are perceived to be dishonest.

The big surprise is that it could not even device an intelligent strategy to meet the crisis. Imagine pretending that the decision to arrest Anna Hazare was taken unilaterally by the Delhi police with the political leadership having no say in the matter. Another dumb idea was to proclaim, “Take the media away and there would be no Hazare phenomenon”. We can also say: Take the media away and there would be no Manish Tiwari, or Abhishek Singhvi or even Kapil Sibal phenomenon. They took the media away during the Emergency, yet the phenomenon of Indira-Sanjay Gandhi's defeat in the elections happened. It's the people who matter and you can't take the people away.

Today's Congress leadership has proved that it has no capacity to govern this country. It must go and it will. The tragedy is that the people have nothing to fall back upon, except the party of Yeddyurappa.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why do citizens get angry in democracies? What the riots in Britain tell us

When something ominous happens somewhere, we ask ourselves: Can that happen to us? We felt that the blood-splattered Arab Spring would not happen in India because we had legislatures, courts and media through which the steam of public anger could be let off.

But Greece and Spain and England are citadels of democracy. Eruptions there should make us, especially our rulers, think. There was an astonishing similarity between Greek and Spanish protests. The main feature of the popular mood in both countries was anger. Protesting Greeks called themselves the Indignant Citizens Movement. In Spain they called themselves the indignados. People feeling angry about their elected governments. Sounds familiar?

It was for the same reasons, too, that the Greeks and the Spaniards were angry: governmental incompetence leading to economic mess. Greece was on the brink of bankruptcy and was forced to take extremely unpopular austerity measures. Spain had to do the same with corruption adding to the problems. When public spending was cut and taxes raised, life became unbearably hard for the ordinary people and the poor. Protestors cried for “true democracy” saying that “the political class no longer represented the people”. Sounds familiar?

In the continent protestors held up placards proclaiming “The Power of Non-Violence”. This is where England was different with wanton violence quickly deteriorating into looting. Usually in such situations the dispossessed ransack supermarkets for food items. This time thieves were on the march for luxury items – plasma TV, hi-fi sets, branded sports shoes, ladies' bags.

Obviously freelance thugs and organised gangs were taking advantage of a sudden outbreak of anarchy. But how did such an atmosphere develop? To know that, we need to look at the broader picture. Then we will also see some similarities between England and Greece-Spain.

Britain is the most socially unequal country in the developed world. The Tottenham area where it all began is part of a borough that has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London. Unemployment rate there is double the national average. Liberal immigration of East Europeans after the Berlin Wall collapse disrupted the labour market and added to tensions already existing.

And don't forget the Metropolitan Police's reputation for racial profiling. London is not as bad as Los Angeles in this respect, but it is bad enough when blacks and ethnic minorities are always the ones who are routinely stopped and searched on the streets. Immigrants from the Carribean are always on the black list.

The latest riots cannot be described as racial. Indeed no demands were raised, no cause espoused. It was just a case of excited youths taking possession of what they could not get otherwise. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to ignore the role played by social tensions and economic disparities – and these are always mixed up with race.

The breakdown of traditional values is a factor too. How big is the population of single mothers, to take just one example, and what kind of upbringing do their children get? There is a lost generation out there, easy prey to drug pushers and looter gangs. Some welfare programmes for marginal people like them were cut recently in the name of cost saving.

How disruptive is the gap between the very rich and the very poor? In egalitarian Norway the recent massacre was something that united Norwegians against a mad man and his mad ideas. It did not provide an excuse for gangs to take to the streets and plunder.

Such fundamental issues do not seem to be engaging the attention of the leadership in Britain. The Prime Minister is talking about banning the social media. Perhaps the basic problem in all societies is leadership. As in Greece, Spain and England, so in India: There is no leadership that can understand, let alone cope with, the tensions that beset the people. The political class has lost the way, and lost the people's trust. Warnings are blowing in the wind.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Congress does a trick, BJP stages a farce – and corruption is assured a free run

It is now clear beyond all doubt: The Congress and the BJP are equally uninterested in fighting corruption. Actually both are interested in continuing it because both are beneficiaries of corruption. All talk about ending corruption and punishing the corrupt is just talk, meant to fool the public.

The Congress showed its anti-anti-corruption state of mind by subverting the public demand for an effective Lok Pal bill and presenting a draft that was only slightly different from previous drafts. Ten bills were introduced between 1969 and 2008. None of them was passed. No further proof is required to establish the malafides of successive governments in power.

There was some hope that the Lok Pal bill presented to Parliament this time would be different. For one thing, popular expectations were high because Justice Santosh Hegde had given to the institution of Lok Ayukta what T.N.Seshan had given to the Election Commission – credibility. For another, a historic groundswell of public opinion had rattled the Government which was forced to consult civil society leaders in drafting the bill. But the wily Government tricked the people and came up with a draft that was essentially old wine in old bottle.

A Lok Pal – or a Lok Ayukta – can be meaningful only if it has independent powers to investigate and prosecute. If it can only forward its recommendations to a “competent authority” for action, then it is a dead Lok Pal. The bill presented by the Government does not provide for a public grievance mechanism or penalties for corrupt employees. Only 'Group A' officers can be probed, which leaves out some of the biggest bribe collectors of the land such as police sub-inspectors, sub-registrars and checkposts clerks. The conduct of MPs inside Parliament is beyond the Lok Pal's jurisdiction. Which means honourable MPs can go on charging money for raising questions.

Politicians would not be resorting to such deviousness unless they have a vested interest in continuing corruption. Money is the most powerful vested interest. Money is prized by individual politicians who love the good life and by parties that cannot conduct even a byelection without spending several crores. Power secures this kind of money. Hence the readiness of parties to keep corruption going.

The show the BJP put on in Karnataka fits into the pattern. It asked Yeddyurappa to resign over corruption charges. Then it put him back in power with another man's face masking his. So what happens to corruption? Nothing. Just as the Congress did with the Lok Pal bill, the BJP made a monkey of the public with the Yeddyurappa removal farce.

By all account the new chief minister, Sadananda Gowda, is a decent sort. But isn't that immaterial when he is hoisted by the tainted previous chief as a mukhota and accepted as such by the High Command? Other tainted BJP brass may also be kept officially out of the cabinet because of the Lok Ayukta indictment. But they too will carry on wielding power as Yeddyurappa does. Karnataka will continue to be drained of its resources and the people will continue to be swindled.

Power blinds politicians. Otherwise the BJP bosses would have seen that Yeddyurappa's victory was in fact the BJP's defeat. Yeddyurappa threatens to get back to power in a few months. He may well do that. But that won't be because of the BJP's popularity or Yeddyurappa's intrigues. It will be because of the incompetence of the Congress. This party has a handful of credible leaders, but the old guard and the mafioso will not let them come up.

A Congress leadership with reasonable imagination could have scored high in the context of the discredit the BJP has brought upon itself. Instead, the Congress scores selfgoals. Hariprasad, a party flunkey from Delhi, recently berated Justice Santosh Hegde for not ending corruption in Karnataka. How depraved can a politician get. Congressmen like this are the real secret of Yeddyurappa's success.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A story of threats, tricks and family love: How a chief minister became a marvel

Do not underestimate B. S. Yeddyurappa. There is no match to him in Indian politics. He is amazing. He is unbelievable. He is a pulsating anthropomorphic mechatronic phenomenon of terminatorial indestructibility. An absolute marvel.

During his term as chief minister, there was not one day of governance in Karnataka. The days were filled instead with earthquakes of scandal followed by tsunamis of shame. But the man remained unshaken, convinced that he was the best leader Karnataka ever had, worthy, as he said himself, of a Nobel. He proclaimed his greatness in posters stuck on the back of every state transport corporation bus.

How then can we tar Yeddyurappa with the ordinary brush of corruption that we apply to others? Sure, he became rich like every Sukh Ram and Shibu Soren, Lalu Prasad and Mayawati. Getting rich is the badge of success in Indian politics. But he did more. He displayed attributes that put him in a class of his own.

He was the only chief minister in history who could command his party's high command. Driven to the wall, the high command might have turned against him this time, but don't forget how he had successfully blackmailed it in previous crises. The threat that he would split the party in the state used to send the Delhi bellies scampering for cover.

Being a master of the game, Yeddyurappa combined threats with bounteous generosity. Party President Gadkari became such a fan that he once ruled out any action against the chief minister who, as the President put it, had committed only immoralities, not illegalities.

Another attribute that made Yeddyurappa different was his ability to make illusion look like reality. He used to assert repeatedly that the people of Karnataka had elected his government. Actually this was a terminological inexactitude. The Yeddyurappa Government was never an elected government; it was a purchased government. Not that he was the first politician to purchase a majority. But never was it done more blatantly than in Operation Lotus in Karnataka.

The lotus was watered with illegal money to boot, the kind of muck-covered money you dig out of the red earth of Bellary. No other government in Karnataka or elsewhere had shown the same amoral abandon in turning known looters of the land into ministers. The BJP is beholden to these ministers and that is why a mere reshuffle in its governmental lineup will hardly make any difference to the culture of plunder that has overtaken the state.

The ultimate triumph of Yeddyurappa was that he tricked both his party and his community into accepting him as leader extraordinary. The BJP had always led us to believe that it was dead against the concept of hereditary power. Yet Yeddyurappa established India's first BJP dynasty. He loved his sons, his in-laws, his widowed relatives, his departed siblings.

To some of these relatives, this ideal family man allotted valuable urban sites. When a heartless public criticised him for bending the laws, he explained that he was acting out of compassion. But this concept of compassion was in violation of the concept propagated by the revered preceptor of Lingayata who said: “Compassion needs must be towards all living things”. ( Human Values in Vachana Literature, page -15).

A man who put his personal family interests above Basaveshwara's Vachana succeeded in equating his political status with that of the Lingayats. A further disservice was done to the community when he argued that no other Lingayat should succeed him as chief minister. The community has good and competent leaders with a clean image in contrast to Yeddyurappa's sullied reputation. It is a pity that such elements are unable – or unwilling? – to speak up for the community. With leaders like Nijalingappa and Veerendra Patil, Lingayats had become part of the glory of Karnataka. Resurrecting that glory is important not only to the community but also to Karnataka and India. The Nobel Prize can wait.