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Is corruption truly an issue in India?

February 08, 2012 20:05 IST

Kanimozhi and Kalmadi were welcomed as if they were freedom fighters emerging from jail.

Getting bail does not mean that the cases against them have come to an end, leave alone that they have been found innocent by the trial courts, says T V R Shenoy.

Anna Hazare was on an indefinite fast from August 16 up to August 28 in 2011, something that drew the media from across the globe to Delhi's Ramlila Maidan. Much was made of the fact that the bulk of his support came from the youth in general, college students in particular.

Twelve days after Anna Hazare ended his fast, on September 9, 2011, elections were held to the Delhi University Students Union, DUSU. Winning a DUSU election marks out a victor as someone with future leadership potential on the national level.

Past DUSU presidents include, to name but two, Arun Jaitley, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, and Union Sports Minister Ajay Maken.

Jitendra Chaudhary was elected to the president's post in the DUSU polls of 2010, appearing for the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which is loosely affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

With a sitting ABVP president and in the wake of Anna Hazare's fast, everything pointed to the rout of the Congress's National Students Union of India, NSUI, candidate in the 2011 election.

The current DUSU president is the NSUI's Ajay Chhikara.

In other words, forget about Team Anna campaigning in the poll-bound states, the so-called 'Anna magic' flopped even in Delhi. (Mumbai's tepid response to Anna Hazare in December 2011 made the news, but Delhi's students somehow escaped all criticism.)

None of the usual invective hurled against the Indian voter works in the case of the DUSU electorate. Every voter is literate. Every voter is politically aware, especially so given the coverage during and after the Anna Hazare campaign.

Most, if not all, are identified with the middle class -- or better -- the very stratum that was supposed to be backing the Lokpal campaign. And the vast majority is well off enough that it cannot be bribed.

What conclusions, if any, might we draw? Either that the University of Delhi is an oasis of honesty in the ocean of corruption that is Delhi, or that the educated, middle class voter is not quite as concerned about corruption as the media blaze of August 2011 would have had us believe.

It brought to mind a passing remark by a senior police officer when Anna Hazare was still fasting. 'The best vegetarian food in Delhi', he chuckled, 'is served by the volunteers at Ramlila Maidan. You really should come to Ramlila Maidan for breakfast one of these days!'

I laughed it off at the time, but two weeks later I could not help wondering if all those students at Ramlila Maidan arrived in their scores for an excellent meal. Or is that too cynical?

The political parties at any rate seem to have drawn the lesson that corruption looms larger in media headlines than in the voters' concerns. How else can you make sense of their behaviour during this ongoing election season?

Babu Singh Kushwaha was the family welfare minister in Uttar Pradesh in the Mayawati cabinet. He was implicated in a scam involving the National Rural Health Mission, dropped from the ministry, and denied a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket to fight the upcoming Vidhan Sabha polls.

Babu Singh Kushwaha is now in the BJP, reportedly a decision taken by BJP President Nitin Gadkari in the teeth of opposition from senior leaders.

This is one of those times where the BJP and the Congress are happy to sing the same tune.

Anis Ahmad Khan was the minorities welfare minister in the Mayawati cabinet. Uttar Pradesh Lokayukta N K Mehrotra found that Anis Ahmad Khan had diverted funds meant for local development to a trust owned by his family; the Lokayukta recommended recovering over Rs 94 lakh (Rs 9.4 million).

The Congress signed him up after Mayawati sacked him, and the last I heard is that Anis Ahmad Khan got the Congress ticket for the Bisalpur assembly constituency.

Some argue that these are local aberrations brought about by the exigencies of fighting a Vidhan Sabha election in giant Uttar Pradesh. This does not make much sense, but accepting it for what it is worth how do you explain away the behaviour of parties in other states?

On December 3, 2011 hundreds descended on Chennai's airport, beating drums and dancing. They planted party flags and banners depicting the party's supreme leader and the arriving guest of honour on the roads leading up to the airport. What were they celebrating?

Kanimozhi, daughter of DMK supremo M Karunanidhi and one of those accused in the 2G scam, had been granted bail by the Delhi high court after six months in Tihar jail, and was returning to Chennai.

Two months later, it was the turn of the Congress. On Saturday, February 4, 2012, fireworks zoomed across Pune's sky as Suresh Kalmadi rode through the streets in an open vehicle, waving and smiling.

As with Kanimozhi, he had just emerged from Delhi's Tihar jail after receiving bail.

When Sharad Pawar rebuked Congressmen for staging this welcome, 'as if he had returned after winning a championship', Kalmadi responded by thanking Pune for its 'love and affection.'

Interestingly, nobody in the Congress thought it necessary to answer Uddhav Thackeray who had made precisely the same point as Pawar. The truth is that Maharashtra's Congressmen see Sharad Pawar and his Nationalist Congress Party as the primary foes, not the BJP-Shiv Sena combine.

Getting bail does not mean that the cases against Kanimozhi and Kalmadi have come to an end, leave alone that they have been found innocent by the trial courts.

But I question whether parties would give a damn even if they were judged guilty. There is no higher court of appeal than the Supreme Court, and on February 10, 2011 it was the apex court itself that sentenced R Balakrishna Pillai of the Kerala Congress (B) to one year in jail.

Did that stop the leaders of the Congress from regular pilgrimages to the man in the run-up to the Kerala assembly elections?

'Yeh dooshan nahin, bhooshan hain!' Anna Hazare exhorted people during his agitation, encouraging them to participate in a 'Jail Bharo' campaign. 'This is no stain but an ornament!' meaning that seeking voluntary imprisonment in a great cause is nothing to be ashamed about.

Whether or not those at the Ramlila Maidan took Anna Hazare's words to heart, seeing a Kanimozhi or a Kalmadi welcomed as if they were freedom fighters emerging from jail I do feel that politicians at any rate think a few months behind bars on corruption charges is indeed a 'bhooshan'.

Do voters too believe that?

You can read more columns by T V R Shenoy here.

T V R Shenoy