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Corrupting India’s Soul

Mathew John Mathew John
20 Mar 2023
For most of us, our personal well-being is all that matters, our social obligations but a peripheral irritant.

In the kaleidoscope of evanescent social concerns, the stench of corruption is in the forefront of public consciousness, sparked by the uncovering of two humungous scams of financial skullduggery -- the Hindenburg expose of the questionable financial dealings of the Adani group and the “Liquor-gate” scam involving the Delhi Government. The citizenry’s curiosity has been titillated by the involvement in these monstrous fiscal transgressions of India’s most sanctimonious crusaders against corruption – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. For over a decade, these pretenders to moral rectitude have been preaching from on high, tearing into the venality of their opponents. The recent scandals will, no doubt, dent the snow-white image of Modi and Kejriwal, but one is far from sure that their shenanigans will adversely affect their popularity with their base. A bhakt recently socked me in the groin by comparing Modi’s connection with Adani to the Mahatma’s friendship with G D Birla. I am yet to recover from that blow! 

Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister in the 1960s and hard-boiled politician who knew how short public memory is, had percipiently observed that a week is a long time in politics. By that reckoning, a decade is an eternity and hence the need to jog our collective memory. In 2011, the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement led by Anna Hazare, rode the wave of popular discontent against widespread corruption and brought the allegedly venal UPA Government to its knees. 

That was the time when a government deep in the swamp of corruption debased itself for survival. Though not in the same league of ignominy under public pressure as the disgraceful conduct of Baby Doc Duvalier barely managing to pull on his pants while escaping the fury of the Haitian people or Imelda Marcos greedily assembling jewelry and cash before fleeing the Philippines, we were witness to the shameful spectacle of the then senior Cabinet Minister and later President, Pranab Mukherjee, obsequiously receiving the saffron-clad plaster saint, Baba  Ramdev – a Team Anna acolyte at that time – at the New Delhi airport.

The stunning demonstration of “people’s power” literally coerced Parliament to pass the Lokpal Act in 2013. The Act authorized the creation of an independent ombudsman to investigate any offence under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 against public officials, and included the power to probe and prosecute Ministers and the Prime Minister.

The enactment of the Lokpal Act was a triumph of the most potent protest movement since Independence which galvanized the common people against the moral degeneration of the political class and the bureaucracy. It proved that ordinary people could shake up the political establishment and bring about seismic changes in policy for the common good. Or so we thought in that hopeful spring of 2013 when “bliss was it that dawn to be alive.” 

But, as proved by subsequent events, that victory was pyrrhic. Today, in the wake of the biggest con in corporate history and substantive allegations of the nexus between the rogue group and the Prime Minister, there have been demands for an investigation by a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) or a Court-monitored panel, but not a single public functionary has adverted to the constitutional mandate of the Lokpal to investigate the allegations of malfeasance against the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of Delhi –  the two arch-beneficiaries of the IAC movement. The Lokpal is being seen for what it is – a pathetic caricature of the all-powerful ombudsman.

The calculated diminution of the institution of the Lokpal since its inception is the grim story of an overarching institution set up to fight corruption being reduced to a cipher because it had the potential to threaten the hegemony of the Supreme Leader. The self-appointed crusader against corruption who rode to power on the sweeping promise of a corruption-free India, is primarily responsible for emasculating the anti-corruption watchdog.

Such is the stranglehold of the Prime Minister on the body politic that the government with impunity put off the setting up of the Lokpal by more than five years until March 2019; in the interim, subverting the statute with critical amendments that diluted the powers of the Lokpal. The procedure adopted for selection of the Lokpal members is a staggering example of the imperious ways of an illiberal State taking decisions unencumbered by democratic norms. A servile Supreme Court passed a judgement in April 2017 that the appointment of Lokpal members would not become infructuous merely because of any vacancy in the Selection Committee, which was precisely what the government wanted and got – the freedom to make appointments to the Lokpal without the Leader of the Opposition.

The nucleus of the Lokpal Act was the clause that envisaged the transfer of the powers of the CBI to the Investigation and Prosecution wings of the Lokpal. The rationale for this radical change was that, freed from the shackles of government control, the investigating agency would be non-partisan and thereby more effective in rooting out corruption. Cocking a snook at the Statute, this regime has converted the “caged parrot” into a lethal beast of prey that has been let loose against opponents of the ruling regime, even as the toothless Lokpal functions as a sinecure for flunkeys of the regime.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Corruption has always been an indelible part of our being but like never before, fighting the evil of corruption has now become a menacingly savage partisan witch hunt for settling scores with opponents. This regime has cold-bloodedly exploited the fault lines in our society to wrest complete control and power to do as it pleases. And it is up to no good! 

The current turmoil in Israel over the Netanyahu government’s plans to fundamentally overhaul the judicial system provides an object lesson on how a functioning democracy should respond to any threat to its integrity. In essence, the government’s sinister proposal seeks to reduce the Supreme Court’s ability to revoke laws passed in Parliament and gives the government a major say in selection of judges. The contemplated changes are designed to give the autocratic Netanyahu untrameled power and weaken the system of checks and balances against government overreach, which are at the heart of a liberal democracy. 

The massive protests against the anti-democratic intent of the Israeli government plan have grown more fraught and fractious in the last month. Leading opinion makers including a former defence minister, artistes and writers have joined the protests in solidarity. Civil society has stepped forward to protect their democracy against their leader’s autarchic machinations. What a stark contrast from what has been happening in the world’s largest democracy, which is in thrall of an imperious leader who has no patience with democratic niceties.

Those who dispute the capacity of political leaders to mould society to conform to their world view would be confounded by the happenings in India in the last few years. The land of Buddha and Gandhi that was tolerant of all religions and justifiably proud of “unity in diversity”, is now a deeply polarized, majoritarian State where minorities and dissenters are under siege. Whereas the brutal Netanyahu has sought the legislative route to establish paramountcy of the political executive over the judiciary, Modi has seized absolute control of the polity, not through a ticklish law-making exercise or by tweaking the Constitution but by creating an environment of nameless menace and fear, by co-opting the institutions of governance through intimidation and enticement and by stacking critical organizations with loyalists.

We tend to circumscribe corruption to its narrowest meaning of dishonest conduct, typically involving financial fraud and bribery, whereas the most crippling is moral and intellectual corruption, of which we have a surfeit in Modi’s India. We have lost the capacity to love but know how to hate. Ours is a world of lynching and bulldozers, where love is jihad, where religious freedom is denied by using the bogey of “forced conversion”. We are today a morally depraved society whose governing class has forgotten ordinary humanity! 

For most of us, our personal well-being is all that matters, our social obligations but a peripheral irritant. What we are witnessing is nothing short of the destruction of the atman of our great civilization, the desecration of the Mahatma’s idea of India. And there is no outrage! Romain Rolland believed that France fell to Germany in World War II because “there was corruption without indignation”. What price will we pay for our indifference?

I leave the last word to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who knew a thing or two about oppression and injustice. He warns with blinding clarity: “In keeping silent about evil, we are implanting it….When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”

(The writer is a former civil servant. The views are personal)    

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