Monday, May 27, 2013

When hopes are dashed by foul politics, chaos looks like a good option

In classical tragedy -- Greek, Shakespearean or Indian -- the underlying theory is that the tragic hero cannot help himself. Antigone and Hamlet knew they were drifting into suffering but were unable to avert tragedy. Duryodhana alone understood and explained the trap in which he was caught. He knew what was dharma, he said, "but I have no inclination to follow it". The only inclination he had was to do whatever came to his mind at any given moment.

Even in their villainy the heroes of classical tragedy commanded our sympathy and admiration. The heroes of modern political tragedy have villainy without the redeeming features of character and catharsis. Unlike Macbeth and Othello, the likes of Omprakash Chautala and Janardhana Reddy knew that they were not victims but makers of destiny, and that they had the option not to abuse power. Yet, they displayed neither the understanding of Duryodhana nor the discretion of Ravana. They just went power-mad. Thousands of such abusers of power are still at large.

Party labels and professed ideologies make no difference to this cult of foul politics. Consider the two parties that claim the right to rule. Corruption charges led to the exit in disgrace of two BJP presidents and to the party's humiliation in Karnataka. Yet it strikes a moral pose as it campaigns against Congress corruption. The focus this week is on jail bharo. It is a pity that jail bharo means going in and then out of jail, whereas a lasting stay behind bars would have been more appropriate in many cases.

For its part, the Congress has never been as widely distrusted as today. Most of the scams have been unforgivable. It seems certain that its fate in the next election will be somewhat similar to its fate in the post-Emergency election of 1977. Yet, unaware of the popular mood, the party is busy attacking the BJP for corruption and celebrating its own ninth anniversary in power.

We celebrate success, not failure. For Manmohan Singh to complete two terms as Prime Minister is indeed a statistical consummation. But which Government in recent history had such a long period to achieve things for the country and failed to do so? Which Government notched up a list of scams, each more damnable than the other? The Congress celebrates what the people regret.

The procession of scams pointed to an unusual trait in the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress: Its refusal to recognise public sentiment and march on regardless. Even Indira Gandhi yearned for public approval in some form, some time. Sonia Gandhi has appeared uninterested in popular approval. Her style of brazening it out could be seen in the appointment of CBI chiefs and Central Vigilance commissioners, and again in the latest appointment of the Comptroller & Auditor General.

Vinod Rai had done to the CAG what Santosh Hegde had done to the Lok Ayukta and T.N. Seshan to the Election Commission -- set benchmarks that would always be held up as models. Congress mandarins put Shashi Kant Sharma in Vinod Rai's chair. This gentleman held key Defence Ministry positions for as long as ten years including a post-retirement extension. Those ten years saw the Defence budget skyrocketing from Rs 25,000 crore to Rs 2 lakh crore. Many big procurement deals hit the headlines for the wrong reasons despite Mr Clean, A.K. Antony, being at the helm. What credibility will the auditing of defence purchases have under the new CAG? It's that public-feelings-be-damned attitude again.

Bad days are ahead. The Congress will find it hard even to get a workable coalition going. Disgust with the Congress may drive some voters to the BJP, but there is no salvation there either. With several months to go for elections, we have to be wary of coalition predictions. But perhaps it is not too weird to hope that the present chaos will get worse. The problem with functioning anarchy is that it functions. If it stops functioning, chaos may become unbearable and out of it may emerge order. That was true with other countries.

Monday, May 20, 2013

From Manmohan-vintage rouble scam to Narendrabhai's 'ethical incapacities'

Reminiscences by civil servants are often marred by the 'I' factor. The eagerness to justify their mistakes usually detracts from the credit side. Javid Chowdhury (The Insider's View-Penguin) falls outside the pattern. He does talk about the positions he held, but mostly to illustrate the wider philosophical view he presents about governance. His canvas is large and his approach analytical. This earns him the reader's trust.

He pays touching tributes to the government servants he came to admire -- from Atmarambhai, the headclerk so experienced and diligent that he was known as the 'working collector' to the famous M. G. Pimputkar, held in awe by IAS trainees for his sense of integrity. But he also criticises the tendency among sections of the higher civil service to butter up Corporate Captains for post-retirement sinecures. He decries lobbyists for not contributing "a lawful or ethical value addition" to cases under consideration. The lobbyist operates "through a mix of trade-offs and pay-offs".

Chowdhury shares with the reader the insights he gained from his vantage position. In the notorious Jain hawala case, 62 politicians and 18 government servants were found to be receiving hawala payments on a regular basis. These were not bribes on a quid pro quo basis as many of the recipients were not in positions of power at the time. In other words, there was no evident corruption in the transactions, but there were serious violation of foreign exchange laws.

Yet the CBI pursued the cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act and the cases "were thrown out by the court at the threshold itself". Chowdhury cites provisions of the much stricter Foreign Exchange Regulation Act and asserts that prosecution under FERA would have produced immediate results. So why didn't the CBI do so? Good question.

For that matter, how many of us knew that the Indo-US Rupee-Rouble Trade Agreement was "the largest value foreign exchange scam using a single modus operandi that has been played out in the history of India"? It led to "the draining away of about 40 million US dollars from the country in one year".

India imported defence equipment from Russia against rupees, but under an arbitrarily denominated exchange rate. Russia built up a huge credit balance which it surreptitiously auctioned off for payment in US dollars. Officials in both countries benefited and so did the Russian Government and financial fixers. The losers were Indians.

Chowdhury, who was Director of Enforcement then, proposed a simple solution to keep out the racketeers. An unusually quick reply from the Department of Revenue expressed outrage at the suggestion. Evidently top officials were interested in the racket.

Somewhat shyly, Chowdhury records that the Rupee-Rouble Agreement was negotiated and many revisions made in the period when Manmohan Singh held a series of positions in the financial sector, from Secretary of the Department of Economic Affairs to Finance Secretary and finally Finance Minister. He makes no comment other than that the nature and size of the scam were known to the top people.

Javid Chowdhury is a Gujarati and he has much to say about Narendra Modi's ideas and actions. He says it with his usual adherence to the facts he knew. Here's a gem. He was Secretary in the Union Health Ministry at the time of the 2002 riots. Modi did not allow the Union Health Minister to visit Shah Alam relief camp; the state health minister threatened to jump out of the car if the central minister insisted on visiting the camp.

Providing a succinct account of the caste history of Gujarati politics, Chowdhury says that "Narendrabhai is from a sub-sect [ of the OBC category] that is particularly excluded from the power structure" which makes his rise in the upper-caste oriented BJP "a freak deviation". He faults Modi for "his several ethical incapacities". But his main criticism is that Modi has little concept of the science of public administration, that his centralised model of governance will eventually leave Gujarat an administrative wasteland. In this year of election hype, who has ears to hear?

Monday, May 13, 2013

What is good for the High Command? What is good for the Country?

Believe it or not, some analysts in Karnataka publicly attributed the Congress victory in the state to Rahul Gandhi's campaign speeches. Narendra modi was all bombast, they said, while Rahul asked people about their problems and promised to redress them, thereby winning their votes.

This is the tragedy of the Congress, and by extension, the country. If the party had fared poorly in the election, the blame would have been put squarely on the local leaders. In victory, all credit goes to the High Command. Because of this Congress culture, we should not be overly optimistic about the state's new Congress Government. Its priority may not be to understand the public mood or to provide good governance but, as always, to please the High Command.

What indeed pleases the High Command? According to public perception, what is good for the High Command is what pleases the High Command, and what is good for the High Command is different from what is good for the country. This perception did not drop from the sky one fine morning. It grew over the years as the people watched the High Command's actions, inactions and non-actions. It grew as an offshoot of the harvest of scams in the last couple of decades and the High Command's responses to them.

The common factor in all the scams was that the Congress establishment including the Government made no serious effort to punish the guilty. On the contrary, it made every effort to let the guilty go free. The most notorious example was Ottavio Quattrochi. Despite a spectrum of evidence pointing to this Italian middleman's role in clinching the Bofors gun deal and commissions thereof, union ministers helped him escape to Malaysia. Then Indian investigative agencies disgraced themselves by contriving to lose cases against him in foreign courts. Finally India ensured that all cases against him were withdrawn and his frozen bank accounts released to him. Never did a deal-maker receive such privileged protection as Quattrochi did. The people of India saw him as part of the High Command.

Because the early scams found the Government shielding the scamsters, other more daring scams followed. The Government tried to protect the culprits in each of them. Since the Government is a creature of the High Command, the needle of suspicion in every scam pointed to the High Command. Initially politeness had prevented names being named when it came to the High Command. By the time the 2G spectrum, the coal allocation, the abuse of the CBI and the Railway Board bribery cases raised unprecedented stink in the country, the High Command's hand in high-level corruption began to be openly discussed.

How else could it be? How could the Law Minister and Railway Minister do what they did without the knowledge of their protectors? The Ashwani Kumars and the Pawan Bansals are soapy hangers-on who rose in politics only as cogs in the High Command's wheel.

The malfunctioning cogs generated as much dirt as possible. Then they were broken off and cast away, the credit of course going to Sonia Gandhi, in a replay of the Karnataka credit Rahul got. So what was she doing for seven days when those evil ministers were covering up their tracks? More likely, it was the CBI and the Supreme Court that brought about the ouster of the sinners -- the CBI by unearthing scandalous details about the Bansal family's excesses, and the Supreme Court by issuing a warning to the Government. Bring in legislation ensuring the independence of the CBI, the "caged parrot", it said, or face the Court taking action on its own.

That was when resignations -- or shall we say, dismissals -- should have taken place if democratic decencies were at work. The public could see why no such thing happened. Nothing happens unless the High Command moves because the High Command's finger is in every pie. Karnataka leader Siddaramaiah meant well when he inadvertently said after his election victory: " I wish to thank Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Gandhi". Spot on.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Karnataka lies wounded by corruption, communalism; voters are helpless

Karnataka votes today. If this election is different from previous ones, it is because the tragedy that has overtaken the state stands out more starkly today than before. Led by some wise leaders and legendary administrators, Karnataka had become famous for its progressive pace. Decline set in with the 1975 Emergency, developing rapidly into decay and then ruin.

All parties contributed to this process of destruction and that is why a change of parties will not alter the situation in any significant way. Our national misfortune is that electoral democracy has reduced all parties to the same level of opportunism, amorality and lack of ideology. Democracy has become a shell, giving substance to Ambedkar's prescient remark in 1950 that the Indian soil was essentially undemocratic.

Even so, the Karnataka voter will most likely use today's election to punish the BJP more than any other party. The first of its two elementary sins, the propagation of corruption, was common to all parties. But the BJP, under Chief Minister B. S. Yeddyurappa, went about it with a blatancy that was unprecedented. It used illegal money from Bellary's belly to buy the legislative majority it needed, then let the mining mafia make a mockery of all the laws of the land, then gave cabinet positions to thugs, rapists and run-of-the-mill looters. It was an Empire of Evil and Yeddyurappa learned nothing even after going to jail. That he still wants to rule Karnataka is a commentary on what politics has become.

The second sin, with more ominous implications, was the communalisation of public life in the state, especially in coastal Karnataka. Hindutva hooligans attacked people in pubs and homestays in the Mangalore area and even waylaid college boys and girls who talked to friends belonging to communities other than theirs. These incidents of fascist violence saw the state machinery either staying away or tacitly supporting them. Today key areas are communally divided.

Those who sow the wind reap the whirlwind. The Social Democratic Party of India, the political arm of the Islamist organisation, the Popular Front of India, has fielded 24 candidates in Dakshina Kannada which has the largest number of Muslim voters in the state after Bidar. The Kerala police recently raided what it said was an arms training camp of the Popular Front. Several young men were taken into custody and Karnataka police went there to do its own investigation. The coastal area now faces confrontationist politics. Whoever wins, democracy will lose.

Ironically, democracy will lose also if the Congress Party, as is expected, forms the next government. Firstly, the Congress will interpret its victory as the people's endorsement of its virtues. That would be nonsense because the Congress is as virtueless as the BJP. Secondly, the Congress may not have a leader with Yeddyurappa's genius for pillage, but it is by no means lacking in talent. Some of its proven exploiters who have criminal cases pending are among today's vote-seekers. This means that in this election people will escape from the depradations of the Renukacharyas and the Krishniah Settys and the Easwarappas only to succumb to the depradations of the C.M.Ibrahims and the D.K.Shivakumars and the Roshan Baigs.

The Congress can still avoid self-destruction, but only by recognising (a) that leaders with an image of corruption need to be kept out of the Government and (b) that both the chief ministerial hopefuls, G. Parameshwara and Siddaramaiah, compromised themselves by sponsoring corrupt cronies as candidates. This was a selfish move to boost their competitive edge post-election. They were considered worthy leaders until their self-goals exposed them as unreliable. That leaves the Congress with only one leader with his credibility intact. If Mallikarjun Kharge is picked to lead the Government and if he keeps the tainted ones out of the cabinet, the Congress may yet get a chance to rebuild itself. But to move the veteran back from Delhi would mean a whole lot of infighting and group politicking the Congress is known for. So, at the end of it all, the crooks may have their day since they have the money and the knowhow. And the culture of politics is in their favour. For now.