The Supreme Court’s (SC) verdict cancelling 122 2G licences has a paragraph which rings bell-metal true. It says:
“… we consider it imperative to observe that but for the vigilance of some enlightened citizens… and non-governmental organisations who have been constantly fighting for clean governance and accountability of the constitutional institutions, unsuspecting citizens and the nation would never have known how scarce natural resources…have been grabbed by those who enjoy money power and who have been able to manipulate the system.”
If you divide that paragraph into three sections of three key-words each, one section comprising that which the SC approves of, another that describes the scene and a third that disparages, those sections would be:
Approved: vigilance, clean governance, accountability.
Described: constantly fighting, unsuspecting citizens, scarce natural resources.
Disparaged: manipulate, money power, grabbed.
These key-words unlock the thoughts of millions of Indians.
It is remarkable that this statement has come not from the people’s elected representatives but from an authority, viz. the SC, which doesn’t owe its incumbency or tenure to mass approval or endorsement.
More noteworthy is the fact that the agents of the disparaged actions, namely, the manipulators, money-power users and natural resource grabbers, are near or within a system presided over by the people’s elected representatives. They seek their legitimacy and indeed their very sustenance to the political class.
But its greatest value lies in the powerful introspection it occasions.
Until not so long ago, we had leaders and officials who were instinctively vigilant about the rights and wrongs of public office. They strove — with some exceptions — to give India a clean and accountable administration. Until not so long ago the Indian scene didn’t require enlightened people and NGOs to put up a constant fight. Until not so long ago, the human and natural resources of India were not this open to the depredations of manipulators and grabbers.
You can put names and faces to the qualities the SC speaks of with approval. I don’t refer to the golden era when Nehru-Patel-Rajaji held high office. Not even to the era when men of the eminence and honesty of Gobind Ballabh Pant, Kamaraj, EMS Namboodiripad and Balwantray Mehta headed state governments. I have in mind times much closer to ours, when we have had several CMs, ministers and civil servants, who were vigilant about the rights and wrongs of public office and worked with exacting standards of devotion and diligence.
Just as the continental shelf across any beach-line drops suddenly, almost vertically, the moral quotient of public office has dropped. From thievery, we have moved on to loot. The Jeep scandal (R80 lakh, 1948), the Mundhra case (R1.2 crore, 1958), the Teja case (R22 crore, 1960) belong to the world of ‘thievery’. I don’t have to name the asterisms that make up our universe of loot.
What, I asked myself, distinguishes ‘loot’ from ‘thievery’?
Before attempting an answer to that, I thought I should ask professor Rupert Snell, the renowned scholar-teacher of pre-modern Hindi at the University of Texas, Austin, US, to educate me about the word’s origins and its ramifications in Indian and English Literature. The resultant e-tutorial helped me see that while the steep descent of our public life to that nether world is recent, the word (and so the phenomenon) has been around for a long, long time. The Sabd-Sagar tells us that (unlike petty thievery) ‘loot’ overpowers, overwhelms by the use of force, fear and fraud. Besides, the object of the ‘lutera’ includes laying the site of loot waste (barbaad, tabaah). The methods of looting, moreover, have to be unjust (anyaayapurvak) and inappropriate (anuchit). One could add that looting also requires a kind of audacity that is so utterly brazen as to leave the looted and the spectators of the loot, agape.
And yet, I believe the key-words from the SC pronouncement that I have excerpted contain more hope than dejection, more promise than dismay. Yes, we have odious manipulators and grabbers among us, deceiving an unsuspecting public. Yes, we have money power lining democracy’s lungs with soot. But the ‘constant fight’ of enlightened and concerned citizens and NGOs is doing its work. What is more, India’s bureaucracy is receiving the message. Young administrators are as idealistic as those running India Against Corruption. Take our chief electoral officers. They have done us proud in election after election. They have intercepted vehicles carrying cash, stopped unlawful campaign practices indulged in by former and future bosses without fear or favour. These personnel are neither among the bullies nor among those that are bullied. They are counter-bullying, counter-manipulating, counter-grabbing agents for good governance. I salute their courage. Our CAG, our CVC, our CEC and our Chief Information Commissioner are not the flamed tonsils of ‘civil society’. They are restrained members of the much-maligned bureaucracy.
We must also recognise and celebrate the fact that political debasements notwithstanding, we still have honest and idealistic politicians who will not climb (in Vikram Seth’s memorable phrase) the naked gradient of power.And we must remember, as K Sarwar Lateef, the distinguished development economist and Sriram Panchu, the eminent lawyer, have recently reminded us in two separate articles, accountability is not just a desirability but an ineluctable commitment, in terms of India’s ratification of the 2005 UN Convention Against Corruption. The Convention obligates the Union of India to instal mechanisms against corruption, such as the lokpal.
Who nudged us towards that international commitment? First, a popular will powered by the ‘RTI climate’ and growing public revulsion against graft. Second, good, decent and brave advice from civil servants and diplomats of mettle. Finally, a wise political decision.
The SC’s verdict points not to a grim and grey cloud as much as to its silver lining. In fact, to another large and very silver cloud.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal