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Murder on the political express

Like in a detective novel, the riddle of corruption can be solved by finding the traces of benefit, not by pinning blame, Omair Ahmad writes.

india Updated: Apr 30, 2013 23:14 IST
Omair Ahmad
Omair Ahmad

I have always loved detective novels, especially the really smart ones where everyone is a potential suspect. Part of the pleasure is surely because of the delayed gratification. The temptation is always to quickly jump to a conclusion and say, “The butler did it!

The scheming, malicious slimeball was behind it all the time!” But you know that it is only the start of the book, and even if it was the butler that did it, the proof has not been properly assembled yet. Good detective novels are all about the value of logic, about method and rationality.

They show us the value of reason in the face of emotion, and prove to us how easily a crime may be perpetrated by one person, while the blame falls on somebody else, or everybody, or cannot be easily assigned to anybody at all.

Maybe it is this love of detective novels that has always led me to say, “Hey, wait a minute…” every time I hear that all Indian politicians are guilty of crime, corruption and a host of other malfeasances. Public trust in politicians has been gruesomely murdered.

Just like in the detective novel, we think we know who is responsible for the crime. We want them to pay for it. We do not wish to wait for a reason to prove to us exactly who is responsible. But maybe, just like in a detective novel, it might be worthwhile to ask about motive, and opportunity.

Maybe we should also ask that most important of questions: “Qui bono (who benefits)?” which Cicero asked two thousand years ago, and is just as relevant now.

We blame our politicians for corruption: of cheating us, and cheating the State. We see how politicians live, we see the garlands worth crores, and their cars which are worth God knows how much. The shy smiles of our MPs do not hide that more than half of them are crorepatis.

It is not possible to believe that all this wealth came from their jobs. Most of them have no job except politics, and an MP’s salary barely covers real expenses. I remember meeting Shyam Benegal when he was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha.

He had hired an additional research assistant out of his own money, because the research assistance he received was too little to do his job conscientiously. It left me with a lifetime admiration for the man.

When other politicians live it up, we suspect them of stealing money, but we never ask what the motive could be — except greed. Logic predicts a simpler motive. The primary task of a politician, and of a political party, is to win elections. Winning elections requires money.

In 2009, the Centre for Media Studies estimated that the Indian general elections cost R10,000 crore. It is an estimate because nobody knows the real figure, and there are no records. In contrast, when I was in Germany last year, I attended an election meeting for state elections.

After the main politicians spoke, the treasurer told the audience how much money they had to fight the elections. After him, came an auditor, who verified that the state party had the money.

I cannot imagine such a scene in India, where we do not know from where even college-level political parties get funds for their campaign posters.

In 1969 Indira Gandhi banned donations by private companies and individuals to political parties — possibly pandering to the belief that money should not control politics.

The money still controls politics, but it is now hidden money. Our political parties tell us the elections cost us nothing, and steal money for them through selling favours instead. And who benefits? Not individual politicians, who are regarded as thieves by the public; not the business people who hate having to buy corrupt favours; not the public, who see their country for sale.

Only those political operators with their stuffed briefcases who run the show behind the scenes benefit. In the meanwhile, we continue to wait for the political party that has the courage to say that if we want democracy — the most expensive political system in the world — we must be willing to pay for it, honestly.

Omair Ahmad is the author of Jimmy the Terrorist, and The Storyteller’s Tale. He currently works with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s South Asia office, Delhi

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Apr 30, 2013 23:11 IST