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In 2010 so much has emerged out of India's gutters

By Claude Arpi
December 30, 2010 19:19 IST
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Paradoxically, 2010 has been a Year of Wonder. An optimist like Claude Arpi believes it is the first positive step to clean up the system.

To understand the past year, you have to be a great mathematician.

If one believes India Abroad (and there is no reason not to believe's sister publication), the Commonwealth Games scam amounted to $1,700,000,000 or Rs 85,000,000,000; bribes paid by truckers were estimated at Rs 250,000,000,000; for the 2G Spectrum scam, the mother of all scams, the total is Rs 2,000,000,000,000 (well, some say it was only Rs 1,760,000,000,000, but this depends if you change your dollars at a State Bank of India counter or not); bribes for housing loans reached Rs 11,050,000,000.

No doubt that the weekly based in the US has left out many other scams and perhaps even larger amounts diverted into the pockets of the politicians or the rich and famous of the Land of Bharat.

The conclusion is that there are just too many zeros for a 'common man' to say how much has been looted from the state coffers, but the 'common man' can easily understand that something has gone 'rotten in the Kingdom of India'.

Abraham Lincoln spoke of a representative democracy as a 'government of the people, by the people, for the people'.

With India being the 'largest democracy in the world', can the number of zeros looted be proportional to the size of the democracy? Lincoln surely would not see it that way.

In ancient Rome, at the end of each year, it was classified as either an annus horribilis (a horrible year) or an annus mirabilis (a year of wonder).

2010 has undoubtedly been an annus horribilis with the Rajas and the telecom scam (and a silent prime minister); the Commonwealth Games during which scoundrels had a field day; the Adarsh Society scam where the families of Kargil heroes have been deprived of flats in a 31-storey building in Mumbai by usurping politicians, bureaucrats and other VIPs.

There are also the less well known cases like the 'humanitarian' export of non-basmati rice to African countries between 2007 and 2009. Three PSUs (State Trading Corporation, Minerals and Metals Trading Corporation and Projects Equipment Commodities Ltd) managed to bend the norms allowing private exporters to make several 'zeros'.

The government's embarrassment over P J Thomas's appointment as central vigilance commissioner though this bureaucrat probably does not possess the quality of an 'outstanding civil servant' as defined under the Central Vigilance Commission Act, is comparatively a 'minor' affair. No need to mention a former Chief Justice of India who forgets to tell the truth, the entire truth.

And then there is Niira Radia. Frankly, I did not know what a 'corporate lobbyist' was. We all know that files need to be pushed to avoid gathering dust in the corridors of ministries; this is a fact of life in India, even at the age of e-governance. But it was a surprise to me that one person could look after the interests of all the Tata companies (and Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries) as well as those of some political parties. She must be a superwoman, a friend remarked.

The most surprising in this episode was that the home ministry authorised the income tax department to tap the lady's phone lines for 300 days in 2008-2009. Perhaps some well-intended politicians expected skeletons to drop out of Ms Radia's cell phone, allowing them to thus pin down some of their opponents (within the ruling Congress?).

But now it is the entire spectrum of politicians, corporate leaders, government officials, middlemen and even media persons who are shown in a bad light.

Paradoxically, because of all this, 2010 is for me a Year of Wonder (annus mirabilis).

During the past year, so much has emerged out of India's gutters. An optimist like me believes that it is the first positive step to clean up the system.

Corruption is not new; some even say that it is older than prostitution. It has definitely existed since India became Independent. Recall the Jeep scandal in 1948, when V K Krishna Menon, then India's high commissioner in London agreed to a deal for the purchase of jeeps needed for army operations in Kashmir. It was signed with a foreign firm without observing the normal procedure.

In 1955, when the opposition demanded a judicial inquiry as suggested by the inquiry committee, Nehru's government announced that the Jeep scandal case was closed. Union Minister Gobind Ballabh Pant declared 'that as far as government was concerned it has made up its mind to close the matter. If the Opposition was not satisfied they can make it an election issue.' Soon after, Krishna Menon was inducted into the government!

According to Transparency International's survey, the Global Corruption Barometer 2010, released a few days ago, 74 per cent Indians feel that corruption has increased over the last three years. Indians believe that political parties are the most corrupt, followed by the police, civil servants as well as officials in the fields of education, business, judiciary, NGOs, media, religious bodies, and military.

India is clubbed with Iraq, Nigeria, and Afghanistan as the one of the most corrupt countries.

Lincoln's formula has indeed gone astray. A government of which people? A prime minister who is only worried that the corporate sector will feel bad after the release of the Radia tapes! What about the common man whose savings or taxes are looted by government officials?

Government for the people? Which people? The rich and mighty only? Government by the people? It is journalists and lobbyists who 'fix' lucrative portfolios. Who has given them the mandate?

'A Nation Cheated' wrote India Abroad.

It is truly encouraging that today all this is in the public domain and the civil society is becoming more and more pro-active.

In the 1950s, the Jeep case might have been buried by an all-powerful government; today, it will certainly become an election issue and the villains and corrupt may not be re-elected by their constituencies, (and hopefully some will go to jail).

It is why the most encouraging event of 2010 was Nitish Kumar'S victory during the 15th assembly election in Bihar. His landslide win demonstrates that the 'common man' also has a voice. The land which witnessed the Buddha preaching 2,500 years ago, has today chosen development and honest governance against mismanagement, corruption and goodna raj. The fact that Nitish Kumar and his allies bagged more some 215 out of 243 seats in the house is a message of hope.

Then, on a planetary level we have the Wikileaks effect.

Launched in 2006, the Web site WikiLeaks specialises in publishing documents from otherwise unavailable sources. The latest target was the US State Department. The site is said to be in possession of 250,000 cables from US embassies abroad or the State Department.

Washington is, of course, not amused. But the reading of the thousand odd cables released so far, which have undergone the scrutiny of senior journalists of five world respected newspapers (like The New York Times and The Guardian) before release show that there is no harm in the public (alias aam aadmi) being informed of what his/her government is doing on his/her behalf.

Why should ordinary citizens not know about the wars that their government is fighting for them (or the peace that diplomats are negotiating)?

Probably half the conflicts in the world could be solved if all the cards were placed on the table. There is therefore no harm in Wikileaking diplomatic cables provided that some care is taken (for example in deleting the names of some informants or agents).

Do not ordinary people have a Right to Information?

Another new initiative which makes me optimistic for the year to come is known as the Gates-Buffet Giving Pledge. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have decided to contribute at least half their personal wealth for charitable purposes and are inviting other zillionaires to join them.

Already several hyper-wealthy individuals have taken the pledge; the latest to join the club was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (nominated the Man of the Year by Time magazine).

One can be cynical and believe that for these people, it will only be another form of investment, but one has to understand two things. More and more people realise today that when one leaves this world, nothing can be taken to the other side and whether one has one billion or half a billion in one's bank account, it does not make a great difference.

The other point is that people like Bill and Melinda Gates have made a difference in the field of education in US high schools or in the fight against malaria or AIDS in Africa and Asia. They have earned the world's esteem for it.

I wish Indian billionaires would sign the Pledge. There are so many 'common men' suffering in this country; nobody should hide behind 'it is the job of the government to do this', it is a universal responsibility.

Frenchman Claude Arpi made India his home 36 years ago.

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