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15 November, 2010

Confronting corruption

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

On becoming Chief Vigilance Commissioner in 1998, N Vittal said he set himself the modest goal of lifting India a few points up in Transparency International’s global corruption perception index. He left office in 2002 without achieving the target.

In TI’s 2010 index, India is ranked 87th among 178 nations. It was in the 88th place in 2005. Obviously, Vittal’s successors are not faring any better than him.

Three major corruption scandals involving men in high places are before the public now.

One relates to award of contracts in connection with the Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi. As soon as the games concluded, the government relieved Suresh Kalmadi, a powerful politician who headed the organising committee, of his responsibilities and ordered investigation of the allegations.

Another scandal relates to the construction of a high-rise building in Mumbai to rehabilitate widows of army men killed in the Kargil war. High-ranking officials and relatives of influential politicians got the flats.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s name figured in media reports about the scandal. After he had discharged his responsibilities connected with President Obama’s visit, Congress president Sonia Gandhi asked him to step down and the Centre ordered an inquiry.

The third scandal relates to irregularities in 2G spectrum allocation, which, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General, resulted in a loss of Rs1700 billion to the exchequer. In the eye of the storm is Union Telecommunications Minister A Raja, who belongs to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party of Tamil Nadu. The opposition has sought his resignation. His party claims he is innocent.

Men in high places who are accused of misdemeanour often go scot-free. Ironically, in the early years of Independence, the system was able to deal with corruption cases more effectively than today.

The Constitution was not in place yet when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru learnt that a member of parliament had taken money to ask questions in the house. He moved a resolution in the house to expel the member. A high court judge was removed in the same manner after investigation showed he was guilty of misconduct.

The opulence seen at the marriage of a top bureaucrat’s daughter raised suspicions in a junior minister’s mind and he ordered an investigation. The officer, who belonged to the British-instituted Indian Civil Service, ended up in jail for corruption.

Such expeditious action is now a thing of the past. Investigating agencies of the central and state governments have lately invited the charge of acting in the interests of their political masters.

In a rare case of conviction of a VIP, after proceedings that dragged on for 13 years, a Delhi court sentenced Sukh Ram, a former Telecommunications minister, in February 2009 to three years in jail and a fine of Rs200,000 for possessing assets disproportionate to his sources of income. His appeal is pending in the high court. The last word in the case is clearly a long way off.

The system is most ineffective in dealing with charges against members of the judiciary. Advocates refused to appear before three judges of the Bombay high court, alleging they were corrupt. All three completed their term without facing any action.

In 1993 V Ramaswami, a Supreme Court judge, was impeached for financial irregularities committed while serving as chief justice of a High Court. The Lok Sabha, voting on party lines, exonerated him. Impeachment proceedings against a Calcutta judge, who has been found guilty of misappropriation, will start soon. The case of a high court chief justice, accused of land grab, is currently under investigation.

While conviction of Central or state ministers on graft charges is rare, many have had to pay a political price. In the 1950s, Justice MC Chagla, who inquired into the allegation that the state-owned Life Insurance Corporation had shown undue favours to a businessman, ruled that the minister had ‘constructive responsibility’ for the actions of officials under him. Following this, TT Krishnamachari, who was Finance Minister in Nehru’s Cabinet, resigned.

Since then the Congress party has got many of its leaders to step down from office and face inquiry. Other parties, instead of following this convention, have generally attempted to ride through corruption charges brazenly. That is what Raja and the DMK are trying to do. As the party, which heads the ruling coalition, the Congress cannot remain a passive onlooker. It has to confront the issue.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 15, 2010.

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