By M D Nalapat
Since he took office for a second 5-year term in 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been a changed man. During 2004-2009, he stayed silent while a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office (expected to become Head of the Civil Service in 2011,thanks to his loyalty to the apex of the Congress Party) used to make phone calls on behalf of the political bosses of the party, ensuring that road, power ,coal and other projects got diverted to those in the good books of the powerful. In some cases, individual companies secured benefits amounting to more than $12 billion because of changes in tax laws and in administrative procedures. No wonder that the most powerful in the land regularly travel in luxurious corporate jets maintaned by companies that are given such largesse. Once they land in Europe or elsewhere, jets from locations in Dubai, Sharjah and other such locations await them, to take them to other destinations. Those supposed to be watching out for such activities look the other way, as otherwise, they would be dismissed from the Union Cabinet or from the top echelons of the civil service.
Informed estimates place the personal wealth of the Apex of Power in India at nothing less than $16 billion, not bad for individuals whose only occupation is politics, a field in which (declared) salaries are often less than $1500 a month. Tax records show that the sons, daughters, sons-in-law and other relatives of important politicians have become dollar billionaires, owning vast properties and companies. To take just a single example, the son-in-law of a batchelor leader became one of the largest hoteliers in the country. The Indian media, whose owners are terrified of getting chased by the various departments of the government, never even asked how a batchelor could have a son-in-law! Of course, no media house ever mentioned the fact that this batchelor stayed in the house of a married lady for more than twenty years, with her husband confined to a small room in the same residence, suffering the agony of watching his wife with the batchelor, whose political career continued on its lucky streak, because the public were unaware of his personal habits. As former minister Arun Shourie says, for quite some time, politics in India has become a clubby setup, where both the ruling and opposition sides protect each other in private. Naturally, in public both sides pretend to be opposed to each other, although in the evenings, both sides get together and celebrate their wealth.
For reasons that are best known to him and to his idealistic spouse Gursharan Kaur, finally the seemingly unlimited tolerance of the Prime Minister for corruption seems to be getting exhausted. To the horror of police officers more used to covering up for VVIPs than from bringing them to justice, the PM is ensuring that the investigations into the two huge scams that have been exposed recently – that involving the Commonwealth Games and the Telecom scandal – are proceeding in a manner designed to bring to book the guilty. This has stunned the corporate houses who specialise in delivering suitcases of cash (often in euro or dollar denominations) to politicians, and they are joining hands with their bureaucrat and politician friends to ensure that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gets forced to resign. Ugly rumours are being spread about him and his family members, stories that those who know him well say are totally false. Should the PM succeed in ensuring a speedy and honest investigation into these scams, his image in the public would rise to a level that would make his removal an impossibility. What the clique working hard to oust Manmohan Singh are hoping for is to ensure that the volume of personal attacks on him reaches such a crescendo that the sensitive economist puts in his papers. Should he do so, then all hope of ensuring accountability for the scams would vanish.
These columns once talked about how the official in charge of VVIP security once ran alongside the SUV carrying Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, in a very public display of servility and loyalty. Those in the know say that such behaviour is hardly unusual in the Mughal Durbar culture of Delhi. Many - if not most - heads of key agencies routinely obey oral orders given to them by the Apex of Power in Inda, the small group that dominates the politics of the country and who have access to tens of billions of dollars in cash because of the growth in the economy. To take an example, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the The previous chief was known to be responsive to signals from VVIPs, thereby allowing those favoured by them to escape while netting small fry. This worthy is now awaiting appointment as the governor of a state, in recognition of his services. Not to the nation, but to the few who run the affairs of the nation. Sadly, the half-hearted economic reform begun in 1992 has been extinguished, so that what has emerged in India is a coterie of crony capitalists on the Russian model, who leverage their support from the top into huge fortunes. Honest businesspersons find it impossible to compete, except in a handful of high-technology fields that crony capitalists are content to leave for them.
Even foodstuffs have not been spared by those whose only objective is to make money. The country’s grain is being cornered by a few foreign and domestic players, and diverted abroad or to glitzy shops out of the reach of the overwhelming majority of the population. Meanwhile, the politicians who are supposed to ensure cheap food to the population spend their time in locations such as London and Dubai, even while thousands of farmers commit suicide out of poverty. The situation in the country is similar to that in 1943-44,when there was a famine in East India that killed off more than six million people, although a handful of traders made huge profits on the bones of the dead. The pervasive stench of greed has been similar to that seen in the US and Europe in the big financial institutions, where those at the top played with the world economy in the quest for mega bonuses. Perhaps it is the sheer scale of greed and graft that shook the conscience of the Prime Minister, for it is clear that he is trying to bring to book those responsible for the loot. Of course, he finds the system fighting him at every turn. Even six months after the Commonwealth scam was exposed because of a leak from UK authorities, the guilty at the top remain free to tamper with evidence and plan their next moves. Even the PM hesitates to send them to prison, because of the fact that the highest level of the political leadership of the country has given them secret support (even while staying aloof in public).
Meanwhile, there are tremors in ministries such as Power and Coal ,for if any of these departments were to be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as is being endured by the Telecom ministry, there is no doubt that several instances of corruption would tumble out. These days, top politicians from both ruling as well as opposition parties are meeting in secret to see how Manmohan Singh can be stopped from carrying out such investigations. They are hoping to force his resignation during the Budget Session of Parliament (due in less than three months time), ironically on the grounds that the PM has been ineffective in tackling corruption. Officers loyal to corrupt politicians are working overtime to slow down the probes so that they can shut them down once Manmohan Singh steps down. However, should a miracle occur and the probes lead to the definitive action sought by the PM, there is no doubt that India would have taken a giant leap forward in reform. Unless the system is made transparent and clean, economic growth will continue to hover in the single digits. Meanwhile, a few corrupt businesspersons will - as in Russia - control vast sections of the economy and prevent competition.
The battle of the PM against corruption has overshadowed the visit of Chinese PM Wen Jiabao, who has brought more than 300 top businessmen with him eager to sign contracts. Trade between China and India can touch $300 billion, but only after trust gets established between India and China. However, before that, trust needs to be established in government, and this can happen only if the PM continues his campaign and refuses to slow down as a result of objections raised by those who have thrived under the Himalaya of corruption that has emerged in India since Jawaharlal Nehru introduced the “Permit License Raj” in the 1950s. In three months time, we will either see a victorious PM, or a fallen PM, facing Parliament in a country where the middle class has only contempt for those in charge of governance.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.