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Opaque operations

We can vote out our dishonest politicians. But when it comes to corporate corruption, we are stumped by the veneer it can hide behind, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Apr 30, 2010 22:50 IST

Have you noticed how quick we are to hang our politicians but how reluctant we tend to be when it comes to questioning our heroes of private enterprise? As we watched scandal after scandal strip off the dignity of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and leave it as exposed as the proverbial emperor without clothes, we raised many questions about whether cricket managers and the IPL’s own governing council were in slumber all these years. But the question could be as easily redirected at us — the consumers. We were blinded by the razzmatazz — not just because of the potent blend of glamour, cricket and money — but because, in a globalising world we wanted to believe that this was our symbol of New India.

For post-liberalisation India — this has in fact been some sort of an obsession — to ensure that the image of India is captured in the sprawling acres of Infosys instead of the vast mess of Dharavi’s slums. Perhaps — tired of being chronicled by the world only in picture postcards of poverty, we have begun to seek repeated escape in the shallow validation of international billionaire lists — and how much influence our corporate giants wield. It may explain why the whiff of impropriety never felled Lalit Modi before, even though scandals followed him like a tail.

Possibly, we all looked the other way because in the narrative of Modi’s entrepreneurial magic, we saw grander possibilities for our own life stories to be different. Middle-class India has often sought its idols in the world of business because while politics seems to be about patronage, dynasty and institutionalised corruption, private enterprise holds out hope for innovativeness and equal opportunity for all. Thus — the combination or our wanting the world to look at India in a certain way and our own need to dream bigger than our middle-class lives sometimes permit — made the IPL a great fantasy and Modi its veritable hero.

If Modi got elevated to that status, despite the many whispers of sleaze funds and tax evasions, it has as much to do with us, as it does with the ineffectiveness of India’s cricket bosses. But had Modi not posted that fateful tweet against Shashi Tharoor, would his own life have ever spun out of control in the way it has now? In other words, it was Modi who first scripted the IPL expose, not us. Left to ourselves, we may have just continued looking the other way and enjoyed the pomp and fuss of the fantasy.

But, since many of our aspirations are a by-product of an increasingly flat world, we may not be able to escape a new global trend. And thank God for that. Two years of global recession has brought corporate honchos everywhere in the world under a new kind of public scrutiny. Whether it’s the Bernie Madoff scandal in America or the Satyam mess back home; whether it’s the Goldman Sachs CEO being interrogated by a Congressional committee or Modi being made to answer for who financed his private jet — the protective veil that industrialists have always enjoyed is being torn off by a changing world.

Of course this does not in any way diminish the great success stories of Indian entrepreneurship or take away from the iconic following that so many genuine business leaders enjoy. All it means is that murkier underbelly of big money and its nexus with powerful politics is now something that could and should come under the microscope.

As a political journalist, I have to confess, that I am almost shock-proof when it comes to the entrenched corruption of many of our netas and the deals they strike to keep the wheels churning. Yet, our democracy and a free, vigilant media make it largely possible to expose political scams and force the establishment into accountability.

When it comes to corporate shadow-boxing, however, I find myself utterly stumped by the veneer and multiple layers it can all hide behind. Take the IPL scandal itself. Papers purportedly sourced to income-tax were leaked to every journalist in the country. These so-called documents listed allegations of match-fixing at great length and also listed individuals under probe for a betting and match-fixing syndicate. As television channels went ballistic with this new found “evidence”, it quickly transpired that large portions of the documents were forged.

After an official clarification from the income-tax agencies, it turned out that the papers were a venal mix of fact and fiction, designed to confuse. So, where did these papers emerge from? The buzz in political circles was that they were the handiwork of a prominent business group. Of course, no one could prove this, so it hangs over the debate like a giant question mark.

Now, the headlines are dominated by another scandal that stands at the intersection of politics and business: the spectrum scam. From delays in the auction of 3G spectrum to big money lost on the previous auction, Telecom Minister A. Raja has been tainted by allegations for years. When Tharoor was forced to resign, many of us in the media commented on how ironic it was that Raja could get away, by contrast, with seeming impunity.

Whether it is coalition compulsions or aggressive corporate lobbying that has kept the telecom minister’s scalp safe is for the government to explain. And explain it must. But once again, behind the façade of the overt debate, seems to lurk a shadowy corporate battle between some of India’s biggest business names. As these business leaders and their henchmen fight it out behind an impenetrable veil of secrecy, it makes me wonder whether we will ever know the truth.

You have to say this much for our politicians. As fashionable as it is to damn them, the power of our vote means that they are still answerable to us. If only the Right to Information was something that extended to the opaque world of Big Money as well.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.