Millennium Post

Plundering in a savage style

It is one of the telling ironies of Indian political life that Subodh Kant Sahai, who, as a youth leader in the 1970’s, fervidly supported the Jayaprakash Narain-led movement against the corrupt Congress, is now not only a Congress minister at the Centre but one singled out for his involvement in the ‘coalgate’ scam. Sahai is, of course, an old scumbag – he was the ‘link’ between the Congress ministry of P V Narasimha Rao and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha of Shibu Soren that saved his government in 1993 in exchange of money – but the new brazenness of this former anti-corruption crusader is startling. And so is the devil-may-care aloofness of the government, led by a supposedly saintly prime minister, which seems to be rallying behind the dissolute minister. Nor is there much else the government can do as Sahai seems to have had coal mining blocks approved for his brother’s firm with express blessings of none other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. 

But the similarity between the present public outrage against corruption and that during the JP movement ends there. Soon after Indira Gandhi’s ‘massive mandate’ in 1971, and her victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh liberation war, murmurs began of the illegal activities of her rising son Sanjay Gandhi, the growing influence of a venal ‘godman’ close to her, and, more disturbingly, the extortion network operating from her government’s home and revenue departments. The movement led by JP therefore had a single focus, Indira Gandhi. She did everything possible to torpedo the agitation, including driving a coach-and-four through the Constitution’s fundamental rights, which enabled her to detain the rebels without trial for months on end. On the other hand, the anti-corruption movement by Anna Hazare began without a specific target; it carefully kept Sonia Gandhi, the true backseat driver of the two United Progressive Alliance [UPA] governments, out of its line of fire. Instead Hazare demanded an ombudsman of his choice. His movement fizzled out because nobody was sure that his Jan Lokpal would be anything other than just an extra layer of bureaucracy. Maybe a constitutionally protected Lokpal could be more appealing if a similarly beefed up Comptroller and Auditor General’s present drive to quantify recent loots of the exchequer had yielded concrete results. So far it hasn’t.

But the real difference between the corruption-hatao buzz then and now is that there was no Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] in the 1970’s. By popular acceptance, BJP today has assumed the role of the other party of governance, something like the Republican party in the US at present, or the Labour Party in the UK when it goes to poll. But the limited acceptance of the BJP has vastly narrowed down the range of imagination of those who are otherwise tired of a profligate government in cahoots with some of the most corrupt corporate entities in the world. To its communal track record, BJP has now added its proneness to corruption. Take, for example, the CAG observation on Sasan Ultra mega Power Project developed by Reliance Power led by Anil Ambani. It has been said that the excess coal allotted to the project is a post-bid concession that would benefit the company to the tune of Rs 11,852 crore in net present value terms. It could not happen without a cozy nexus among three parties – Reliance Power, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh [where the project is situated] and the so called Empowered Group of Ministers at the centre. 

BJP realises that there is no trophy to be won in hunting the corrupt. On the other hand, a protracted public discussion may boomerang on itself. Therefore it may stall Parliament but not go further and fare worse. And fearful of the impact on voter base of any proximity to BJP, the state parties [like Samajwadi Party] having large Muslim constituents would rather be nice to the Congress than overcrowd the already creaky anti-corruption plank. Besides, the recent tough court sentences against perpetrators of the post-Godhra carnages in Gujarat, and consequent public remembrance of the 2002 mass murder, will keep the BJP in long electoral quarantine. It is far from the ‘majestic isolation’ that its leaders, particularly the glib talkers among them, hope to be in. 

What does it mean for the future? Does it indicate that, thanks to BJP having egg on its face, Congress has been able to keep its handicap triumphantly low? The answer is mixed. To understand it, one should gauge the enormous paradigm shift between ‘corruption Indira-style’ and present scams like 2G spectrum scandal, CWG swindle, airport con and of course ‘coalgate’. Earlier, Indira Gandhi was accused of betraying the confidence of the nation. Now we use corporate terms to define our expectations as citizens. We call our country India Inc and the prime minister its CEO. We decry corruption as a lapse in governance, not as an ethical fault, and, going across the peaks and troughs of the economy, we look at the ‘bottom line’ which is the GDP growth rate. When it hits a plateau, or falters, it becomes an inexcusable governance failure. In the four decades since JP movement, which, among other things, brought Subodh Sahai into the arena of politics, globalisation has changed the very perception of morality. 

The UPA-II government seems ill at ease in the ‘India Inc’ despite its two successive electoral victories. Nearly two centuries ago, in the early Victorian England, young radicals like Macaulay used to decry the aging aristocrats as ‘corrupt old Tories’. By plundering the nation in a savage style, the UPA-II has become a 21st century version of the corrupt old Tory. It has made matters much worse by failing to perk up the economy. 

When the globalised Indian finds someone messing with things, like Narendra Modi did in the past, he’d expect the wrongdoer to ‘move on’, much as Modi has done, with no more riot in Gujarat after 2002 and, more importantly, enviable economic growth in the state. But can the Congress move on? If so, why does it still need to carry the old Tory burden of a dynastic leadership? Wasn’t the Congress free from dynasty when Singh took the first step to turn India into India Inc?
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