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Dial P for purge

The Indian citizenry won’t accept fine words against corruption anymore. The government must amend the Prevention of Corruption Act to ensure the speedy trial of corrupt public servants, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

columns Updated: May 21, 2011 19:27 IST
Rajdeep Sardesai

Dear Dr Singh,


Greetings! This is my second open letter to you this year. The first was in May when I had raised the issue of political corruption. To quote from the May 28 letter: “There is little doubt sir of your personal integrity, but would you concede that its been difficult for you to check corruption amongst your ministerial colleagues? As a supplementary, may I ask that if the CBI had been investigating a Congress minister and not an ally like A Raja of the DMK, would you have shown the same leniency?”

Unfortunately, I did not receive a response to my query. Now I know why. It has become increasingly apparent as the 2G scam unfolds that the DMK was a law unto itself in your government. While you did write to the then telecom minister in November 2007, voicing your concerns over spectrum pricing and asking him to ensure a fair and transparent auction, the fact is Raja ignored your missive. Yet, instead of dismissing him from the Cabinet for challenging prime ministerial authority, he was ‘rewarded’ in May 2009 with the same portfolio, only because the Tamil Nadu chief minister staged a minor tantrum. Can there be any greater evidence of the clout which the DMK exercised within the UPA?

Had you acted against Raja three years ago, you might have been able to rise above the stench of corruption that now envelopes your government. More importantly, it has perhaps for the first time in your long and distinguished career in public life that the ‘Mr Clean’ image which you have so assiduously maintained has been stained.

Dr Singh, your life has been an inspiration for millions of Indians. The story of the rise of a young boy from Gah village, walking miles to his school, studying under the dim light of a kerosene lamp and working his way up through scholarship inspires hope in all our hearts. When you became PM, we rejoiced in the belief that at last we had found a leader we could identify with, someone who wasn’t a spoilt dynast, but a genuine representative of the great Indian middle-class dream.

Critical to this identification process was the knowledge that this was a PM who was personally incorruptible. It was a bit like being transported back to the 1970s Amol Palekar era of cinema, where the honest bank manager in a bush shirt touched a chord with audiences through his old-fashioned values of simplicity and decency. We warmed to stories of how you still owned a 20-year-old Maruti car, how your family members had been resolutely kept away from the trappings of power, how your lovely wife Gursharan Kaur still went shopping for vegetables at Khan Market.

I am sure that Gursharanji still keeps a tight rein on the household budget. But with due respect sir, being PM is not about family budgets, it’s about the national treasury that you have been empowered to preserve. A bank manager may well be of ‘impeccable’ personal integrity at home, but if he allows his clerks to loot the bank, then he clearly is failing in his primary responsibility at the workplace. Sadly, that’s exactly what seems to have happened in the UPA cabinet, and your continual hand-wringing is now becoming a sign of impotence.

At one level, there is obvious empathy with the situation you find yourself in. A coalition government is by its very nature a political arrangement based on compromise. Part of the compromise appears to be a readiness to allow every constituent to set its own rules of engagement, including when it comes to cornering the ‘ATM’ cash-rich portfolios. The NDA which is planning a national campaign on corruption would be well-advised to examine its own track record in this regard.

Frankly though, one is weary of reducing corruption to a zero-sum UPA versus NDA political battle. The average Indian citizen is not interested in knowing who is more corrupt, the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra or the BJP government in Karnataka. The left may have a better track record, but let’s not forget that its prime ally in Tamil Nadu is Jayalalithaa who still has serious corruption cases against her. Taking a moral high ground may work in a television studio debate, it’s unlikely to attract cynical voters.

What the aam admi seeks (and presumably the UPA still claims to be an ‘aam admi government) is a readiness to act against the corrupt and make examples of them. Your leader, Sonia Gandhi, claimed to her parliamentary party that the Congress has ‘acted’ against corruption. Can the notion of ‘action’ be defined please? Forcing a minister to resign is not action, prosecuting him would be. Handing over a case to the CBI is not action, ensuring that the investigation is taken to its logical conclusion would be. The nation is not a set of gullible MPs who will be taken in by rhetorical flourishes. We don’t need to become a lynch mob, but the fact is an alert and enraged Indian citizenry will no longer settle for fine words alone.

Here’s a concrete suggestion: why don’t you amend the Prevention of Corruption Act to ensure that all corruption cases involving public servants, be they officials or politicians, are put on fast-track? If they are proved innocent, restore their dignity. If they are guilty, have them jailed and their properties confiscated. You may lack political support for your move, but trust me, an entire nation will cheer you on.

Post-script: May I also suggest a brief year-end family holiday to rejuvenate yourself in this make-or-break fight against corruption. The country needs a re-invented Manmohan Singh who is willing to crack the whip in 2011, not a passive observer of the muck around him. Happy New Year!

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network n rajdeep.sardesai@network18online.com The views expressed by the author are personal