A weepy BJP chief minister frustrates an anti-corruption judge into quitting. Every political party has displayed similar hypocrisy in the pillage of India’s global city.
As I write this, legislators in Karnataka are rushing to declare their bank statement and property to Justice Nitte Santosh Hegde, the state’s ombudsman against corruption. By Tuesday, more than 80 of 224 members of the legislative assembly, including the chief minister, had filed statements of their wealth. The rest were scrambling to do so. If they didn’t, warned the 70-year-old Justice Hegde, a former hockey player, he would not hesitate to recommend a six-month jail term for defaulters.
Don’t get too excited. Justice Hegde resigned last week, partly because the government won’t let him do anymore than recommend. With less than 60 days to go till the end of his tenure, politicians and bureaucrats in India’s global metropolis are waiting to get back to business as usual.
When I visit Bangalore, my hometown, I learn of new ideas, new technology and endlessly innovative ways of merging into the global economy. This can-do spirit is also used in less honourable ways. Everything and anything is for sale: building permits, official postings, garbage contracts, even parking spaces.
When he was appointed as a watchdog against official corruption nearly four years ago, Hegde appeared to have impeccable credentials in a state where one coalition partner was the right-wing BJP, which now runs Karnataka with its old slogan, a ‘party with a difference’. As a Kannadiga, previously a judge of the Supreme Court — as was his father, who made an unusual journey from India’s highest court to Speaker of the sixth Lok Sabha — and a family history tied to the Sangh parivar, Hegde could have made that difference.
Instead, Hegde plunged Bangalore and Karnataka into shock last week as he made a vocal and highly publicised exit as Lokayukta, a quasi-judicial appointment. In a country widely perceived to be corrupt (ranking 84 of 180 surveyed globally by Transparency International), where anti-corruption officials don’t usually rock the boat, Hegde led a high-voltage campaign against bribery in public administration.
The immediate provocation for Hegde’s resignation was a fiddle brazen even by Karnataka’s grand standards: the clandestine shipping of half a million tonnes of impounded iron ore from Belekeri port, 520 km northwest of Bangalore. On Hegde’s orders, Deputy Conservator of Forests R. Gokul had captured the ore in June, along with 40 sacks of forged documents, indicating official connivance and a revenue loss of about Rs 250 crore. Hegde quit when, instead of supporting Gokul, the government tried to stop him. “If I had not resigned, Gokul would have been suspended,” said Hegde. Larger issues frustrated Hegde. None of the officials he charged with corruption ever stood trial. Some are back on the job. No government, state or central, allows Lokayuktas the freedom to go beyond investigation. Permission to prosecute officials and politicians caught with their hand in the till must come from the government. It rarely does.
The concept of a watchdog against official corruption was born 44 years ago in the report, ‘Problems of redressal of citizens’ grievances’, submitted to Parliament by the Administrative Reforms Commission, headed by a future prime minister, Morarji Desai.
In authorising and publicising more than 200 inquiries against corrupt officials since 2006, Hegde was actually a calmer version of his swashbuckling predecessor, Justice Nanje Gowda Venkatachala (also formerly of the Supreme Court), who personally led raids into offices and homes in the course of investigating more than 50,000 public complaints of corruption.
Over nine years, the two former justices ran a movement that could have transformed Karnataka and set an example for a cleaner, more honest India, whose official motto, inscribed below the national coat of arms, is ‘Satyameva jayate’ (Truth alone prevails).
For years, successive Congress chief ministers, and the Janata Dal (S) of former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, ran administrations that ensured only deceit and dishonesty prevailed in Karnataka. Given its pledges of delivering a righteous Ram Rajya, the BJP was the great political hope against corruption. That hope even led Justice Venkatachala to the BJP in February 2009. “You need political will to fight corruption,” Venkatachala had said then. “Such political will is there in the BJP.”
Instead, the BJP has joined in the plunder of what was once India’s metropolis of the future. Crooked politicians and bureaucrats drive SUVs and own multiple mansions and businesses, as corruption worsens, the city crumbles, and the revelry begins over Justice Hegde’s impending departure.
“On behalf of the state government, I thank him for his services,” said chief minister and farmer’s son B.S. Yeddyurappa, his voice laced with sarcasm when asked if he would bow to public sentiment and ask Justice Hegde to stay on. The next day, at a jamboree to celebrate two years in office, Yeddyurappa wept as he spoke of “low-level corruption” bedevilling a state scheme to give poor girls Rs 1 lakh when they turn 18. Nearly a million beneficiaries have been identified, but the money hasn’t reached most girls, thanks to slack or corrupt officials, or both.
“There are many who talk of corruption at the high level,” said Yeddyurappa, sobbing into his handkerchief. “But if somebody at the lower level demands
Rs 2,000 as bribe, where will the poor parents get the money? They will be left with no choice but to beg.” Apart from this strange admission of incapacity, the tears were not unusual. In 24 months, Yeddyurappa has wept at least seven times over various issues. Justice Hegde’s eclipse may give him some reason to smile.