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Why doesn't the Left fight corruption?
T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
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September 10, 2005
Why don't the Communists fight corruption as hard as they fight economic reforms?

Once or twice a year, I find it profitable to accept invitations to speak to college students. The boys are eager to impress the girls, and ask some very good questions. The girls are eager to impress the speakers and also do the same. One learns a lot in the process.

During one such meeting last week, I was telling the students how wonderful our Communists were, always on the side of the weak and against the strong, eternal Robin Hoods, the salt of the earth.

Marvellous chaps, I said, the Commies, a better bunch you never will find. Join the CPM, I told them, instead of an MNC.

Later one of the students asked a question that should rightly be answered by the CPM's own Bonnie and Clyde. Why, he wanted to know, didn't the Communists fight against corruption with the same zeal that they fight against economic reforms?

This prodded a girl to ask a similar question: why didn't the Communists propagate sensible population policies? Did they approve of China's one-child-only policy?

This led to a small barrage. What were the Communists doing about judicial reform, police reform, civil service reform and all sorts of other such things that worry people no end these days?

The answer, I told the students, is that there are no votes to be had in espousing these causes. In that way at least, the Communists were no different from any other party.

After all, it was far more practical and profitable to fight against privatisation, disinvestment, price increases, labour reform and so on than to take up causes in which their main constituency, the petit bourgeoisie as found in the trade unions, had virtually no stake.

Besides, since they had become the zamindars of West Bengal on a permanent settlement that would have shamed Lord Curzon, and also ended up having a go in Kerala and Manipur from time to time, it served their purpose not to take up these issues. How can you rule if there is no corruption, the police are humane, the judiciary is fair and the civil service upright?

Talk then veered around to corruption and I realised that most people in our country still don't have any idea of the sums involved and the political and administrative behaviour that these sums generate. Most of them think of corruption only in terms of the small bribes they are obliged to pay public officials, namely, speed money.

The truth is hugely different, literally when you see that annual purchases by the Central and state governments put together run to at least around Rs 200,000 crore. The Centre accounts for about 80 per cent of these. Why, purchases of crude oil alone would run to well over Rs 100,000 crore. Add defence purchases and a host of other things and you get an idea of the magnitudes. Then there is illegal income from theft, say, as in electricity. This income is around Rs 35,000 crore annually. Water and public health medicines would run a close second, I imagine.

The purchases alone create a huge vested interest, both legal and illegal. The legal one is the legitimate commission that is paid to agents who render administrative services, say, of the sort that the late Win Chadha of Bofors fame, had claimed to be rendering. The legal commission can vary between 0.5 and 1 per cent - of Rs 200,000 crore on the whole.

The illegal commissions are the bribes. These vary from 4 to 7 per cent of single deals that make up the total above. But only a few large and non-regular purchases or contracts attract these bribes. So it is not 4 to 7 per cent of Rs 200,000 crore but of a smaller sum. But it is still a very tidy sum. The bribes and other illegal incomes have to be laundered also. That generates its own stream of perpetual incomes.

When there is a honey pot of this magnitude, the flies will inevitably gather. And it doesn't matter if the pot is in the private or the public sector. After all, if the company you run buys a few hundred or thousand crore worth of things annually, you would have to be very silly not to run the legal commission through a company that you alone own. It happens everywhere. (In the mid-1980s, the chairman of an American multinational had his driver set up a company to supply food and booze to the executive dining room. The annual profit was $300,000.)

One can go on, but the point must be clear. Even if you were to eliminate corruption completely, there would still be a very substantial amount left in the tub of legal commissions.

Be that as it may, the student was right. So, as a lifelong admirer and friend of the Communists, may I request them, on behalf of fellow citizens, to take up the battle against corruption with the same moral intensity that they show against even the mildest economic reform?

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