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India's creed of greed

The party that helped institutionalise corruption will not talk about it. This denial cripples the Congress's own politics and India's future, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: May 21, 2011 16:48 IST
Samar Halarnkar

You were expecting a full confession? A call to arms against India's most pernicious problem?

I know you were. So was I. So, too, as even we cynical hacks revealed in headlines on Wednesday, was everyone. As the Congress held its annual national meeting, corruption was clearly the top talking point in India. Except, within the party that claims to be truly represent all of India.

The Commonwealth Games showed how even a prestigious international event held in New Delhi cannot resist dubious contracts and suspicious payoffs. The still-unfolding Adarsh housing society scandal reveals how far politicians, bureaucrats — and, alas — the defence forces will go to twist the law and lie for personal benefit. The spectrum scam, after which telecom minister A Raja clings to his post, despite being blamed for a loss of R1.76 lakh crore (more than India's entire spending this year on its poor and dispossessed) by dubiously handing out licences, indicates how easy it is to subvert the system and brazen it out.

Yet, as India's Grand Old Party well knows, these publicly discussed instances of bribery and sleaze are not even the tip of the iceberg; they are freshly fallen flakes of snow. They will blow about for a while in the breeze, fanned by our outrage, before settling to become part of the national deep freeze on corruption.

Don't be surprised that the Congress does not like talking about corruption. The party of Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad — men of unimpeachable integrity — is responsible for institutionalising corruption across India. Before the great fracturing of India's electorate into regional blocs in the 90s, the post-Independence national way of life was overseen by the Congress, its national leaders and regional satraps. This is when the slide began.

It began in New Delhi under Indira Gandhi's watch as the licence raj opened new ways of peddling influence and divining favours. It spread to states like Karnataka, where under the watch of S Bangarappa the Congress first embraced a culture of bribery; when the infotech revolution came along, the headlong rush for scarce resources like land, power and transport sparked an orgy of anything-goes, brazen corruption that has grown exponentially and has been lovingly embraced by the Janata Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The slide is at its worst in Maharashtra where a culture of greed celebrated by successive Congress chief ministers has reduced India's city of gold, Bombay, to a dying slum called Mumbai.

Once the representatives of the people embrace corruption, the people enthusiastically follow. And so it is that the cancer spread to every corner of India during the great economic leap, to every arm of government, to the private sector economic engine that regards bribery as an expense of business.

You may well argue that despite the unspoken national creed of greed, we've done well enough in becoming the world's second-fastest growing economy, the premier beacon of democracy for the developing world. We have not. Not well enough. As I never tire of reminding you, the poor and hungry exceed 400 million. We are riddled with injustice and riven by insurgencies that threaten to undermine the future, to stall the undiscovered country.

You can squarely lay the blame for all these problems on corruption, embraced by politicians and officials — with only some honourable exceptions — who are now so engrossed with collecting houses, jewellery and SUVs that they have little time or inclination to bother about those left behind or left out of the great Indian opportunity.

The Congress's mantra of inclusive growth to create a new, 21st century India will never materialise unless the party can plug the massive loss of resources, unless it looks within and at least begins to acknowledge that it stands above every party in seeding and ignoring the cancer of corruption. So harmful has this cancer been to the Congress that it now struggles to find the money to create a food-security infrastructure. It struggles to find a few good men and women to replace Ashok Chavan in Maharashtra (Don't be too surprised if they don't replace him at all). It will struggle, forever, to fulfil Rahul Gandhi's wish, as he put it on Tuesday, "to connect the two Hindustans".

This national cancer sweeps through every edifice of governance. It rusted the steel frame of the bureaucracy. It's eating away at what we, wrongly, consider the last bastion of righteousness, the armed forces. Adarsh revealed to the public at large how easily our top armed forces chiefs will do wrong and lie, but within the army, navy and air force, they know the cancer of greed has deep roots. From selling defence land to civilians to faking contracts for beer and grain, on occasion even killing civilians for rewards, all manner of scandals plague the forces.

Aren't there anti-corruption bureaus? Vigilance commissions? Lokayuktas (ombudsmen)? On paper, India has a wide range of greed-fighting institutions. But they have limited powers to probe and prosecute. Mostly, they probe the lower levels of administration, rarely bureaucrats. Politicians, almost never. When these institutions probe the kingpins, they must first obtain permission. When they find wrongdoing, they must get permission to prosecute. That permission, always, has to come from the government of the day. And so, we return to the Congress. Unless it brings itself to at least talk of the cancer it's nurtured, it will be consumed by it — if it isn't already.