Indians battle second ‘viceroy’ — corruption

The spirit of Mahathma Gandhi apparently lives on in the Indians who have determined to fight corruption until the canker is totally removed. Dubbed, India’s second independence struggle, the battle against corruption entered a decisive phase this week when the government unsuccessfully tried to prevent a hunger strike by a Gandhian, only to spark nationwide protests in support of calls for effective legislation.

The arrest of 74-year-old Anna Hazare, India’s icon of social justice, on Tuesday, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ill-conceived attack on him in parliament the day later, have virtually put the country on war footing. Singh, who is largely credited with taking India on a liberal economic path to development, described Hazare’s campaign as a threat to parliamentary democracy while some crony capitalists slammed it as fascist tactics to pressurize the democratically-elected government to accept the street version of the Lokpal bill. The Hindi term Lokpal means the protector of the people.

With the Singh government getting embroiled in a series of corruption scandals, Hazare last year with his protests awakened the Indian conscience to fight corruption. A public uproar and a relentless media campaign forced the government to sit with civil society leaders and discuss comprehensive legislation to fight corruption. The government rejected the civil society version of the Lokpal bill and came up with its own version which, according to activists, lacks teeth to fight corruption at high places.

Hazare’s protest was aimed at stopping the government’s ineffective bill becoming a law. The support for Hazare is so widespread that even a poll in the Times of India, a newspaper that caters to India’s growing west-mimicking middle class, showed that 90 percent of the people were behind Hazare.

India, already a regional economic giant, is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. But with the economy, corruption also grows in India. In 2009, India ranked 84th in the global corruption perception index, but last year it slipped three places down to occupy the 87th place, indicating that little or no genuine effort is being taken to eradicate the growing canker.

Corruption was part of India even before Singh dumped the protectionist economic system and adopted the liberal free-market path to growth. Attempts to enact the Lokpal bill date back to 1968 and every time, it was revived, corrupt politicos saw to it that it was put back to sleep.

However, after India adopted liberal economic policies, the vice spread to the highest offices in the world’s largest democracy. Even the judiciary is tainted by allegations of corruption.

There is a correlation between the level of democracy and the degree to which corruption has penetrated society. More transparency in governance means not only less corruption but also a high level of sustainable development. Whatever credentials India may have as a democracy, the high level of corruption speaks of the poor state of its democracy.

The Singh government’s apparent lack of commitment to fight corruption only encourages the crony capitalists and corrupt politicians to rob the country and kill activists. As the Hazare arrest drew international headlines, a right-to-information activist, Shehla Masood, was killed in Bhopal. It was in Bhopal that high level corruption allegedly prevented tens of thousands of victims of the 1983 gas leak at the Union Carbide factory from obtaining full compensation from the US-based multinational. According to reports, more than a dozen activists have been killed in India since the Right to Information Act was passed in 2005.

In spite of the killings, the R2I law has emboldened India’s media to unearth scandal after scandal.

The 2G telecom scandal involving top politicos and billionaire business tycoons has cost the public more than US$ 39 billion and it is believed India’s mighty and the powerful may also have had a hand in it.

If under-invoicing is the root of the 2G scandal, over-statement of accounts is the centre of an investigation into the Commonwealth Games loot. According to some analysts, with the amount of money — Rs. 700 billion — India spent on the Commonwealth Games China could have staged two Beijing Olympics and Melbourne which hosted the 2006 Commonwealth Games could have had 14 such games.

In the late 1990s, India was jolted by the so-called Hawala scandal, the exposure of which brought to light how corrupt politicians used money laundering channels to transfer ill-gotten wealth.

Then there was the scandal-ridden US$ 330 million bid by Kochi Indians to enter the Indian Premier League T-20 tournament.

But the biggest scandal to rock India — not in terms of money but in terms of those involved — is the Bofors gun deal. The mention of this scandal brings to mind the names of Rajiv Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan and their friends. Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, who is now promoting her son Rahul as next prime minister in keeping with the Gandhi family tradition of nepotism, has also many questions to answer. It is alleged that Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian relative of Sonia Gandhi received around $ 8.5 million in commissions for his role in the $15 billion gun deal signed in 1987 from Bofors, a Swedish firm.

In 2006, the Singh government in an unexplained move dropped criminal charges against Quattrocchi, just as the Tony Blair government stopped the bribery probe against the Saudi Arabian royal family members in a multi-billion dollar arms deal with the British Aerospace a few years ago.

However, a recent income-tax tribunal has reignited calls to bring the Italian to justice with the BJP calling on Sonia Gandhi to explain her alleged links with the man.

It is to get to the bottom of scandals such as these and to uncover who has stacked away how much in secret Swiss accounts that Hazare and his army of supporters have launched their campaign which has now spread all over India, like Gandhi’s non-violent campaign to win freedom. But the government, for reasons best known to it, is resisting moves to enact the civil society version of the Lokpal bill and insists on the highly diluted bill, dismissed by activists as jokepal bill, which excludes the Prime Minister, top judges and, in certain cases, parliamentarians from scrutiny. 

The civil society version of the bill is authored by India’s best brains and it needs to be made law if Singh, known as India’s Mr. Clean, is serious about tackling corruption and projecting India as a shining example to other countries in the region.

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