Millennium Post

Kejriwal walks out of the shadow

Kejriwal walks out of the shadow
In India, where most voters can hardly see national issues beyond cricket and Bollywood, is corruption an electorally unpardonable sin? Most people would say yes, and hark back to the 1989 example of the late Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat, amid screams of gali gali mein shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai. But would Rajiv have lost the election if he had cultivated parties outside his Congress, like Lok Dal and CPM, and made sure they hadn’t edged sideways to V P Singh, his
bête noire?
So, what got him finally? His arrogance, or the corruption charge?

It appears that today’s Congress, under the charge of Rajiv’s wife, has no clear answer. It is prone to believe that corruption is but a passing issue, like a rash of acne, and is easily covered with an extra layer of makeup. Give Sonia Gandhi a microphone, and she’ll yell that it is a ‘cancer’. But when actual corruption charges stare the party in the face, everyone gets busy either looking for a seemingly corrupt chap in the ranks of their critics, or just feigning indifference. Soon after Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan accused the government of virtually baulking investigation into large-scale money laundering from India, the UPA government hit back with comic alacrity at Baba Ramdev, an anti-money laundering crusader, by claiming that he had fiddled paying five crore rupees in service tax for giving yoga lessons. Kejriwal’s charge that Law Minister Salman Khurshid and his wife were responsible for an NGO scam was kept hanging in mid-air, with no state investigation nor a libel suit by Khurshid. But he was promptly elevated to the External Affairs ministry, with the implicit message, perhaps, that the party gave a hoot to Kejriwal’s charges.

But two things should make the Indian GOP (Grand Old Party, as the Republican Party in the US is known as) take a second look. First, the literacy percentage has risen from 52.21 in 1991, the year Rajiv tragically died, to 74.04 in 2011. But, more importantly, with nearly a billion mobile phone connections now, and 140 million households with satellite television, both news and views are spreading across the states with unprecedented speed. It is unlikely, therefore, that the accusations of political and corporate graft will bypass the simple rural people in their bucolic abode – as Congress leaders probably think. It is no-brainer that overlooking the charges, or parroting litanies like ‘we can’t tell you who’re the fraudsters because of the double tax avoidance treaty that we have signed’ with Germany or France or Britain. The stupidity becomes all the more manifest as the documents have come from the very governments that are signatories to the said treaties. No conscientious government would like its citizen to be taxed in his country as well as another. But that can’t be an excuse to hide from public glare those who stashed away graft in obscure tax havens. That makes the government complicit in money laundering, and in all the crimes that laundered cash can finance, including drug trade and the funding of terror. In fact, HSBC is facing similar charges in the US now. The US Drug Enforcement Administration agents, posing as drug dealers, deposited millions of dollars in Paraguayan banks and then transferred the money to accounts in the US through HSBC. A recent probe in examining HSBC accounts in Jersey, a British tax haven, led to 400 dodgy British accounts, the clients including a notorious drug dealer and another man once arrested with 300 weapons in his house.

It is surprising that the government waited till Kejriwal’s fireworks for ordering an investigation into the affairs of HSBC in India. How could it remain unaddressed so long – nearly a year and a half –after the government received data on 700 Indian nationals holding illegal accounts with the rogue bank in Geneva? The government of France had obtained this data from hackers who’d excavated the details of 15,000 accounts from HSBC’s data files. So did the German government when its agents stole data from Landesbank of neighboring Liechtenstein, and sent to India the names that might interest her. But again the Indian authorities ducked under the double taxation avoidance clause. The then finance minister, kicked upstairs to the President’s titular chair since then, usually took leadership in saving the identities of home grown fraudsters. And the government, unfazed by revelations about HSBC, went out of its way to lionise the bank’s India chief Naina Lal Kidwai, giving her a Padma award. Old-timers will remember that in the 1980’s, V P Singh’s staff booked her uncle, businessman Lalit Thapar, for violation of Foreign Exchange Regulation Act; it is this display of ‘cheek’ on Singh’s part that started off the long saga of his enmity with Rajiv.

In India’s conservative psyche, reputation always mattered. There was no cable TV in 1977 but Indira Gandhi’s reputation was mud, and she paid the price. In an incomparably more connected India of 2012, there is nothing left of the Congress’ reputation. But, surprisingly, it’s like a boulder which cannot crash down because it is stopped by a reed. BJP, the leading opposition party, is so much torn internally that it can’t show the door to a corrupt party president as every faction fears that it will make others get closer to forming government after the general election. Being out of power for eight and a half years, it is as if the grayed up (age 60-85) BJP leaders can’t get another chance to flaunt the ministerial red beacon light on the roof of their car. It is a power obsession that the West, which holds the patent of democracy, may not understand. On the other hand, Kejriwal’s India Against Corruption (IAC) is young and immature. TV channels love saying, and rightly, that he ‘shoots and scoots’, without bothering much to prove his case. Anna Hazare, the other anti-corruption crusader, lives in a fantasy world of patriarchal discipline of which honesty is a part: he’s unlikely to influence electoral outcomes.

All this has led to the Congress’ swagger. But it is underestimating the downside. In the new James Bond film, Skyfall, the legendary M, operations chief of MI6, tells the home minister that big threats no longer emanate from ‘big countries on the map’ but ‘from men in the shadow’. Kejriwal, despite his teething trouble, looks like having walked out of the shadow.
Sumit Mitra

Sumit Mitra

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