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Great expectations

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:53 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times
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I'm sorry if you don't find me applauding the removal of Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan and Commonwealth Games chief Suresh Kalmadi.

The Congress may tell India that it has held these gentlemen accountable for clear and present corruption under their leadership, that it has done more than, say, the BJP, has with its equally corrupt government in Karnataka. Their removal was based on "perceptions and certain facts", said the man who recommended it, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, not "value judgements".

These nuances are so last century.

If the Congress wants to convince its young, impatient electorate — more than half of India's 1.1 billion people are under 30 — of noble intentions, there is no option to a wider, systemic crackdown on the corruption that keeps a country with first-world aspirations and brains anchored firmly in the third world.

On Monday, Barack Obama told Parliament that India was assuming its "rightful place in the world". He spoke of India's growing power and how "with increased power comes increased responsibility".

India's great yearning to be one of the world's great powers will never — ever — be fulfilled unless it learns that part of this responsibility is delivering clean, world-class governance, not the shambolic wink-and-steal approach that has left our administration decrepit and devoid of morals.

Manmohan Singh's government receives and disburses more money than any government in India's history. Its total receipts and spending have grown by over 10 times since 1990-91. It's no surprise that growth in theft and corruption has been as exponential. Last week, a report from consultants McKinsey and Co estimated that the annual "leakage" — a euphemism for illegal practices — from the Indian government's spending is now $18 billion (Rs 81,000 crore). That's enough to boost incomes of the poor by nearly 20% and transform the Congress' internal debates on inclusive growth.

The Congress must realise that the Indian people want change now — not in their lifetime but in the coming weeks and months. They want a government that not just sets the wheels in motion but displays the distance covered. India's revolution of expectations will intensify by the day.

This is why public acceptance of corruption is at an all-time low. Today, more than ever before, India may be ready to refute Mahatma Gandhi's wry observation: "Corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of a democracy, as they inevitably are today." If it hopes to be a party capable of leading a 21st century democracy, the Congress will have no option but to purge its ranks and those of its government, from the bureaucracy to the armed forces.

A clue to the road ahead comes from Obama's hometown, Chicago. In 1929, the "roaring twenties" had ended in the whimper of a great national depression. In some ways, the money, glamour, poverty and immorality in America's great, windy city was a microcosm of modern-day India: A booming economy plagued by massive corruption, unplanned growth, social tensions and economic inequality.

What turned Chicago around? What transformed it from the city of gangster Al Capone to the proving ground of an American president? There was no big-bang fix, no magic wand. It was a hard slog, driven, in part certainly, by local politics and common aspirations for a cleaner, better life but mainly by a transformation in national ideals.

In a country whose destiny has been guided from New Delhi since it became India's capital in 1911, those national ideals are likely to be successful if driven by the government in power. If the Centre can clean up its act, state governments will follow suit. Emerging India is ever hungry for success stories to fuel its ever-rising expectations. These success stories are quickly copied, as the rush to emulate the Delhi Metro indicates.
Until now, the Congress has offered India some seriously flawed ideals: part democratic, part corrupt and wholly unprepared for the great superpower dream.

Chavan was merely the symbol of the extreme collusion and greed that has marked the Congress' administration in Mumbai, Maharashtra and India in general. There are more than 100 bureaucrats, politicians, admirals and generals who were involved in granting clearances to the 31-storey tower of shame we know as the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society.

If the Congress is serious about a crackdown on corruption, it must unravel the whole sordid mess behind the Adarsh scandal, pin responsibility and sack many more people.
Even that will not be enough for emerging India.

If the Congress is really serious about convincing us that it cares, it must tell us how it intends to change the corrupt administration that's forced Mumbai to its knees, that allows it to mangle its own laws to clear tower after tower but will not apply that same mind to merely implement other laws, the failure of which allowed 24,500 severely underweight children (these are official figures) to be born since last year in one of India's most prosperous cities.

If the Congress is serious about taking back its gift of institutionalised corruption, it must now pressurise its coalition ally, the DMK, to drop telecom minister A Raja, the man whose suspicious actions under the nose of the prime minister caused a loss of about Rs 100,000 crore to India's exchequer, losses that make Adarsh and the Games appear childish pranks. The decision to drop Raja and truly begin changing the national conversation on corruption now rests with one man, the prime minister.

There is no better time than now.