– A truck driver was reported to have been beaten to death by officials in north India earlier this week for not paying a Rs500 bribe………
– A former cabinet minister for telecoms, Dayanidhi Maran, is about to be charged for corruption in an ongoing telecoms scandal. He is the second ex-telecom minister to be charged in the case – the first, Andimuthu Raja (below), has been held in a Delhi jail since February pending trial, along with various others………
– A crisis has split and preoccupied the top levels of the government in the past week over whether Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, tried some months ago in a ministry memo to implicate Palaniappan Chidambaram, his predecessor and now home minister, in that scandal. This has been partially and unsatisfactorily resolved tonight by a joint statement from the two men denying any rift………..
– A close adviser to former prime minister Atul Bihari Vajpayee was arrested earlier this week and is being held in jail for alleged involvement in a “bribes for votes” scandal when India’s US nuclear deal was passed by parliament in 2008, as was a provincial Uttar Pradesh politician earlier this month….. ……..
This is modern India – a proud but often dysfunctional country that aspires to be a world super power – just a month or so after it was caught up in an anti-corruption frenzy led by Anna Hazare, a social campaigner. A Mahatma Gandhi look-alike, Hazare marched, demonstrated, fasted, and humiliated the government with demands that a new corruption ombudsman, the Lok Pal, should have wide-ranging powers.
His campaign drew massive support from India’s middle classes, especially but not exclusively the young, who were protesting not just against corruption but at the way the country is run by self-serving national politicians down to police and other brutal officials on the streets and in rural areas.
Chidambaram and Mukherjee
The current scandal, which involves telecom licences and spectrum that were issued by Raja to selected companies in 2008 at 2001 prices, was widely known about and criticised by the end of that year – see my blog article in November 2008. But no-one in the government seriously tried to stop it.
In the past week, it seemed to threaten Chidambaram’s ministerial job because of suggestions in Mukherjee’s Finance Ministry memo that, when he was finance minister in 2008, Chidambaram abetted what was being done by Raja.
Chidambaram and Mukherjee reportedly have differences that partly date from other scandals in financial services, and both looked grim when they appeared on the steps of the Finance Ministry this evening to make their joint statement. Tensions include reported bugging of Mukherjee’s office, which some people assumed was organised by Chidambaram’s Home Ministry.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress Party political boss, Sonia Gandhi, have been working on the crisis which has threatened to spread beyond Chidambaram because so many parts of the government, including the prime minister’s office, and Manmohan Singh himself, knew what Raja was doing and did not stop him.
The point here is that many cabinet ministers have direct links to leading companies, including some involved in the scandal such as Reliance Communications run by Anil Ambani, and the Essar group run by the Ruia family. On the sidelines is Mukesh Ambani, who runs the separate Reliance Industries group. An active rival of his younger brother, he is also directly linked to ministers involved. Anil Ambani, it emerged today, is to be questioned by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
On top of all this, Subramanian Swamy (above), a campaigning lawyer and politician who triggered the Chidambaram-Mukherjee crisis, said last night that he will produce evidence implicating Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, whose business deals have received some publicity.
All this illustrates how corruption in India is now so widespread and deeply embedded that it can threaten the stability of the government. There seems little hope of stemming it – from officials’ street-level bribes and killings to national scandals – despite the Hazare movement.
Certainly nothing significant has changed yet. A total of 14 politicians, bureaucrats and company executives have been arrested and jailed in Delhi pending trial on the telecom scandal, as have others on allegations over last year’s Commonwealth Games (CWG) contracts and vote buying mentioned above. Elsewhere, politicians and businessmen involved in mining scandals have been arrested and jailed.
This is not however a genuine effort to demonstrate with arrests that corruption must stop. No significant politician or prominent businessmen, nor anyone the government wants to protect, has yet been jailed. Those arrested include people who the government is prepared to sacrifice (at least temporarily) such as Suresh Kalmadi, who presided over the CWG, and his henchmen, plus Raja who belongs to the Tamil Nadu’s DMK party and is dispensable, some political opponents, and three of Anil Ambani’s senior executives.
On a broader front, the government has removed MP’s patronage powers to issue land, telephone lines and petrol station licences to favoured friends and supporters – but that is only tinkering at the lowest and least important end of corruption. It has also been announced that prosecution of corrupt bureaucrats will be speeded up with stiffer penalties.
What has also happened, according to widespread anecdotal reports, is that officials at all levels of government are becoming so scared of facing corruption accusations that they are reluctant to take decisions. That is seriously delaying policy implementation in a government that already has a reputation internationally for muddled economic and industrial policies that discourage investors.
No-one in the government has emerged with the leadership ability or stature to tackle this malaise and turn the Hazare movement into a positive campaign for curbing corruption. Manmohan Singh has neither the authority nor ability to lead. Sonia Gandhi, who has recently returned from the US after a suspected cancer operation, is not a potential public leader. Her son and heir, Rahul, has failed in recent weeks, notably while his mother was in the US, to do more than play a bit part.
That leaves the government perpetually on the back foot doing damage control, and there is no sign of that changing any time soon. Indeed, it might worsen as more linkages with the telecom and other scandals emerge.