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The new war on corruption

May 29, 2003 12:56 IST

Does anybody remember a certain Sedapatti R Muthiah? To refresh everyone's memory, he was the All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MP who became Union minister for surface transport in the Vajpayee ministry created in March 1998. Less than a month after Muthiah settled down in his chair, Special Judge I S Sambandham found there was prima facie evidence of the minister having wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income. Charges were also framed against Muthiah's wife, their two sons and their daughter.

The prime minister called Jayalalithaa to suggest that her minister quit the Council of Ministers. The AIADMK boss gave her assent, but then countered by demanding the resignations of Ramakrishna Hegde, Ram Jethmalani and Buta Singh as well on the grounds that there were court cases against them as well. This led to the enforced exit of then Communications Minister -- Buta Singh never should have been a minister in the first place -- who went vowing to sow havoc for the BJP in Rajasthan.

When I think back over the displays of bad temper that were the hallmark of the Sedapatti Muthiah episode I can only be grateful for the relative peace that marked Gingee Ramachandran's departure from the Vajpayee ministry. True, the now former minister of state for finance went piously vowing that he had had nothing to do with the activities of Palaniswamy, his PA caught taking bribes to 'arrange' lucrative postings. But let us leave it to the courts and the investigators to argue that point; all that matters surely is that any minister who let his PA run such a racket under his nose lacks the administrative ability to be in a ministry as sensitive as finance...

There is another point to be noted. The truth came out because Ramachandran's Man Friday walked into a trap set by the police. Common sense tells us that the investigation would never have got as far as it did without the tacit consent of the powers that be. It is a small sign that the war on corruption is being taken quite seriously at the very highest level. It took the President himself to read the riot act before the investigators decided to pursue Justice Shamit Mukherjee seriously rather than permit him to resign quietly; there was no such hesitation to take action against a Union minister's aide -- which is a very healthy sign.

But there is something else to be learned from the Muthiah episode. Does anybody know what happened to the case against the former minister? Was he guilty of acquiring ill-gotten gains or was it all just a mistake? I do not recall reading any sequel to the incident.

Which brings up an unhappy theme -- the manner in which these cases are permitted to drift once public attention shifts elsewhere.

There have been scores of instances where charges were filed against ministers. (Including the aforementioned Buta Singh!) But when was the last time that someone actually paid a penalty -- even a minor fine if not actual imprisonment?

Some readers may wonder why I choose to focus on politicians rather than on the bureaucrats whose cooperation is essential for corruption to be successful. After all, it was Palaniswamy, not Ramachandran, who was caught. But this ignores the fact that a minister's staff generally consists of handpicked men. Ministers want their own men, almost always from their own state, often from their own caste and creed. That holds true even when it comes to filling posts in the civil service, not just in the minister's private office. All this is done with a purpose -- to ensure that the minister will be supported by 'sympathetic' minds in whatever he does.

Nor by the way is there anything novel in Palaniswamy's activities. It is no secret that excise officials and policemen, engineers and doctors and teachers -- anyone hired by the State -- have 'managed' postings. Should the CBI choose to look, I am sure investigators will find instances of names written in ink in otherwise typed sheets. I think it is for the prime minister and deputy prime minister -- chief ministers too if they are serious -- to give the lead in ending the rot. So, what can they do?

First, remove ministers' discretion in staffing the administrative machinery. Ministers may select their favourite chefs and chauffeurs, but their office staff should be drawn from a permanent  pool. Second, make it a rule that no minister may bring in an officer from his/her own state. I believe some such proposals -- though not exactly the same -- have been under consideration for five months or so; I can only hope that thought is soon translated into action.

Finally, there is one point of similarity in the DDA Scam (where an IAS officer has been indicted alongside Justice Mukherjee) and the case against Palaniswamy. The concerned men were given their jobs against the advice of the bureaucracy, and entirely thanks to political pressure. Could there be a better case for removing ministerial discretion?


T V R Shenoy