In the early 90s, I had a colleague in the newspaper I was then working in who would make long international phone calls to her boyfriend in Paris when no one else was around. These were pre-mobile phone days when making long-distance calls meant racking up impressive bills. So while everyone knew that making long-distance personal calls from office was not on, we weren’t quite perturbed about this practice when we heard about it.
What we were perturbed and frankly aghast about was that our colleague got caught making these unauthorised, long-distance calls. We were specially incensed after all the office phones were ‘locked’ and could be used for non-local calls only after permission was given by senior colleagues.
Apart from sharing an obvious telephone-related anecdote to echo last week’s Supreme Court verdict on the 2G mobile spectrum allocation case, my intent is also to point to an aspect of corruption that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should. The fact that a Union minister was allegedly pocketing huge amounts of money — for himself or to share it with other members of his party, with or without the approval of other Cabinet ministers — by skewing a ‘first come, first served’ policy by favouring some players over others did not really astound the nation. What did cause grievous outrage was that former Union telecom minister A Raja was caught.
The Anna Hazare campaign clearly rode this pan-Indian sense of anger against corrupt politicians. If snap polls were taken, say, during Hazare’s 98-hour Jantar Mantar rally in April, the chances of the UPA staying on in power would have been slim, no matter that the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor was as strong then as it may be now. So with assembly polls in UP kicking off the coming week and continuing till early next month, the Rs 1.76 lakh crore question is: will the UP poll verdict that will be announced on March 4 reflect the issue of corruption? To put it bluntly, will the electorate care that crooks in the field of politics have allegedly stolen the exchequer’s money?
With the Congress leading a tainted UPA — and lest one forget the alleged pocketing of cash during the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games by a now suspended member of the Congress — one would suppose that if corruption is a glowing issue in the polls, the Grand Old Party attempting to make a comeback in UP will be first among equals to face the wrath of the electorate. In the post-2G scenario, the DMK did get wiped out in its home state of Tamil Nadu, bringing about the reinstatement of the not-pure-as-driven-snow Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK in Chennai.
But Lucknow is 1,496 kilometres away from Chennai and corruption was very much an electoral issue during the 2011 Tamil Nadu assembly elections with Jayalalithaa pretty much making a single-point programme of pointing to a party of crooks — with the corollary warning of ‘If they can do this at the Centre, you know what they will do with your money here at home’.
There was hardly much noise made about corruption during poll campaigning in UP. Sure, Mayawati has attacked the Congress for the scams during the UPA’s regime at the Centre. Sure, the BJP has accused the Congress, the SP and the BSP of being “cousins” in corruption, after the Congress accused the BJP, the SP and the BSP of being from the “same flock”. But you don’t have to have your ear firmly on the dusty plains of UP to notice that this round of finger-pointing pertaining to corruption in the other camps is all a bit half-hearted.
This is partly because all contestants in this four-way gladiatorial battle have major chinks in their armour when it comes to accusing the other of being corrupt or encouraging of corruption. And this ‘Don’t claw my back and I won’t claw yours’ can also be accounted by all the parties falling back on the traditional ‘UP elections’ tool-cum-weapon: seductive strategies along caste and community lines. Which is why after the initial round of talking about development — and in the case of the SP, the Congress and the BJP, the lack of it in the last five years — UP voters are back to listening to what their community will gain if they vote for which party.
In this scenario, will last week’s 2G verdict be an issue for UP voters as pundits and their uncles in Delhi are suggesting? Will they vote according to the outrage they may feel (or not) by the Congress-led UPA’s role in allowing the scam to fester around its feet? Or will they feel the anger only because a UPA minister was caught stealing which, after the Supreme Court’s scrapping of 2G licences on Thursday, could lead to their mobile phone bills getting more expensive?