News Find/Feedback/Site Index
March 7, 2000


Search Rediff

E-Mail this interview to a friend

The Rediff Interview/Nagaraj Vittal

'You must be able to walk your talk'

Central Vigilance Commissioner Nagaraj Vittal, 61, is as tough as they come. His decision to put up a rogue's gallery on his Internet site, listing 182 corrupt government officers, has provoked extreme reactions. Powerful bureaucrats and their political mentors are baying for his blood while the public is endorsing his brave campaign against bribery and graft. He explained his philosophy to Pritish Nandy in an interview. Excerpts:

How did you decide to take such a strong step to expose those accused of corruption? Did you not realise that they have influential political backers?

I am an admirer of John Kennedy. In 1969 I was reading his biography by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. There he describes how after the November 1960 election Kennedy went about making his Cabinet. He called in [Robert] McNamara and asked him to become defence secretary. McNamara refused, saying: Look, I have been in Harvard and all that, what do I know of defence? Kennedy replied: I have never been President of the US either! So we can both learn on the job.

The first thing McNamara did on becoming defence secretary was to send out questionnaires to all the generals and, according to Schlesinger, some of these questions were so sharply worded that if a Japanese general had got them he would have committed harakiri. An IAS officer is like McNamara. He does not know the subject. I was, in those days, director of accounts and treasuries with 120 officers under me. Taking the cue from McNamara, I sent all of them a questionnaire, asking each officer what his job was. Was that the job he was supposed to be doing? What was the objective of the organisation? Was the objective being achieved? If not, why not? I demanded a reply within a month. I got 15 per cent response.

Thereafter, wherever I have been, I have always done the same. It puts things into focus. What is my job here as CVC? It is to catch the corrupt. I get Rs 30,000 a month to do this job. So I am doing my best. To catch the corrupt and bring down levels of corruption in Indian society. It is my dharma, my mandate. I am not allowed to investigate political leaders and members of Parliament. There is some misunderstanding about this. My job is to stop corruption among government officers and that is exactly what my officers and I are trying to do. We do not believe that corruption is inevitable. We do not believe it cannot be stopped.

How do you expect to get results?

I am not boasting, but wherever I have gone I have got results. Simply because I do my job in a simple, straightforward manner. You have seen what I have done in telecom, in electronics, in the Public Enterprise Selection Board. I got 690 guidelines scrapped. There were about 830 guidelines for the public sector. I told Murasoli Maran that it makes no sense talking about autonomy for the public sector and then keeping so many guidelines. He agreed.

My strategy is simple and very effective. That is why, whether I am in a job for three months or three years, I get results.

What is the psychology of corruption?

Corruption, Mr Nandy, depends on three things. One, your individual sense of values which your parents, your religion give you. Two, your social values. Three, the system. Our system encourages corruption. For example, look at our income tax. The honest taxpayer pays 40 per cent. The black money holder gets a VDIS scheme and pays only 30 per cent! Look at our banking system. You owe the bank Rs 1 lakh, you are afraid of the bank. You owe them Rs 10 crore, the bank is afraid of you!

Why does no one publish the names of the defaulters? Do you know that before I came it was possible in our banking system to go on cheating bank after bank? I forced the banks to exchange information about wilful defaulters.

Who do you reckon as a wilful defaulter?

Someone who is in a position to pay, but will not. Someone who is diverting the money and refusing to pay back the bank's loan. It is usually the big and well-known borrowers who do this. That is why I said: Why don't you publicise the names of the wilful defaulters? Justice Chandrachud's opinion was quoted back to me to say that Article 14 binds banks to secrecy and all that. The reason, Mr Nandy, is that when you have been cheated by someone, you do not want to publicly acknowledge that you have been cheated. That is what is banking secrecy!

So what was your proposition?

Simple. Why not have in every bank, in every government office, a rogue's gallery? One person said: Sir, if you put up the pictures of all the corrupt officers in our office, there will not be enough space to put up Mahatma Gandhi's photograph! The banks said: If we put up these pictures, who will do business with us? If our chief general managers, our general managers are known to be corrupt, who will come here? After all, banking depends on trust.

The whole hue and cry is because with this list out on the Internet, it has become obvious how the corrupt have reached powerful and influential positions. One of the secretaries told me that the file regarding one of the people under him, who we have listed as corrupt, has never reached him! This means there are people who are also protecting the corrupt. Now we keep every secretary informed so that no one can ever say again that he did not know his officers were taking bribes.

Why do you think the public has been so supportive of your move? Do you think they actually believe the war against corruption can be won?

At least they now know that the big fish cannot swim away. No one can escape any more. That message has gone out very clearly. This is the advantage of transparency. You must be able to walk your talk. Incidentally, this is the first time in the world that the Internet has been used by a government to nail the corrupt among its ranks.

Are you getting systemic support?

When it comes to principles, you should not look at numbers. As the poet said, you walk alone and people come and join your caravan. I don't bother for support as long as I am doing what is right. Over 92 per cent people, when asked by The Hindustan Times, said they thought I was doing the right thing. Over 80 per cent in The Economic Times said I was on the right track. That means people agree with my strategy.

Why should I hide anything? My job is to catch the corrupt, not protect them. I want to put into the Citizen's Charter that it is the right of every Indian citizen to get service from a government officer without having to bribe him. After all, public servants get their salaries from the taxes we pay. Why should they be paid bribes on top of that?

Are you frightened of the political backlash? Particularly after having raised the names of some of the accused in the havala case all over again and suggesting that they be investigated by the income-tax authorities?

I am not frightened of anything or anyone. But my wife is very angry with me. She keeps asking me why I do things that get me into controversy. Frankly, I am only doing my job. If I want to stay away from unpleasant things, I should give up this job and go. But as long as I am here, it is my dharma to catch the corrupt and make it impossible for them to flourish. As for the havala case matter, I did not initiate any action. I cannot. It is not part of my mandate. I got some information and I only passed it on for action to the appropriate authorities. What is wrong with that?

The Rediff Interviews

Tell us what you think of this interview