As temperatures dip in the Capital, there is a strange whiff in the air. It's not the smoky smell of wood fire around which chowkidars huddle at night. It's another odour altogether. It's the stink of corruption that will not be cleansed.
No matter how many Ashok Chavans are given marching orders, no matter how many Suresh Kalmadis are snubbed, no matter how many A Rajas are dropped, the prevailing stench of something very rotten indeed will not go away.
We are no longer surprised when our politicians turn out to be crooked. We've always suspected that big business and the media are complicit. But this time the rot encircles some of India's most iconic names: Ratan Tata and Manmohan Singh. We ask where does this trail of corruption end? Is there no finish line in sight?
The telecom scandal seems to have emotional resonance not just because of its scale (how do you even begin to imagine a sum of R1 lakh crore?) or even because of the reputations of those involved but because we see our telecom revolution as symbolic of India's rise as an economic power; our talisman of a 21st century can-do nation. Now it turns out that the biggest beneficiaries were not the paanwalas who bought mobile phones or the students who hooked into an interconnected world but the recipients of an ongoing licence raj where largesse — mining rights, spectrum, coal contracts, land, natural gas — are distributed to favoured courtiers.
In the latest round of 2G revelations, independent MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar says that the Tatas were one of the biggest beneficiaries of out-of-turn spectrum allocation. Ratan Tata — who has moved the Supreme Court on grounds of right to privacy against the leaking of his publicist Niira Radia's taped phone conversations — accuses the BJP of changing the norms of award of telecom licences. The last word's not been heard yet.
A CWG here or a 2G there could have been individual instalments in an ongoing soap of corruption. But the latest tales point to the PM. How much did Manmohan Singh know about Raja's scam? Did his office give in to pressure from the DMK to bypass the Empowered Group of Ministers on pricing issues? Did he drag his feet when Subramaniam Swamy asked for permission to have Raja prosecuted? If he was in the dark, then how effective is his leadership?
Singh's personal reputation for integrity is unimpeachable. Yet, it is not enough for the PM to wrap himself around his own lily white sheets of reputation. It is incumbent on him to forward the impression that he will not tolerate corruption, or even impropriety, in his team. As a leader he must be able to dispel the gathering notion that he is unable to control the shysters in his government. Arguments of political expedience (‘we are clean but we cannot control our allies' etc) are rubbish. There is always a moral alternative: step down.
The moral universe, to pinch Sonia Gandhi's term, is shrinking. For this the UPA must shoulder the blame. Transparency International's 2010 global corruption barometer finds that 74% Indians believe that the country has become more corrupt in the last three years while another 75% say Singh's government has been ineffective in fighting this.
By refusing to concede to the Opposition's demand for a JPC, the UPA is reinforcing the perception that it has something to hide. The attempts to stop the bleeding — replacing Raja with Kapil Sibal, getting a retired judge to probe the extent of the scam, the CBI's raid on Raja — is not enough to regain its ‘moral universe'.
Over 20 years ago, the Congress lost power over charges that were never proved. The courts eventually exonerated Rajiv Gandhi but Bofors became synonymous with corruption. The 2G scam could become the morality tale of our times, not just of corruption but of crony capitalism, of what India ultimately stands for. Are we doomed to be a ‘banana republic', in Ratan Tata's words? Or can we, ever, rise higher, above the odour that now surrounds us?
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.