T N Ninan
One of several jokes doing the rounds these days is about the launch of a new political party, called the Tihar Munnetra Kazhagam.
With Dayanidhi Maran (and Murli Deora) having resigned, and with Kanimozhi and A Raja already in Tihar, it would seem that maladministration if not outright corruption has reached new heights (or, if you will, plumbed new depths).
Keeping the members of this new "Kazhagam" company in jail are officials of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani group, Unitech and DB Realty, and of course Suresh Kalmadi and his principal aides from the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee. For all one knows, more worthies might join this illustrious crowd.
More skeletons will tumble out of closets
There is no scarcity of nervous businessmen in Mumbai and Delhi who fear that their misdeeds might catch up with them, while one or two more members of the Cabinet must be wondering when their own cupboards will be opened for the skeletons to come tumbling out.
It used to be advertised in Davos that India is the world's fastest-growing, free-market democracy, but its political and business worlds look murkier now than at any other stage in living memory.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may claim that no other government has taken action to clean the stables as his has, but much of the corrective action came when there was no alternative, in the wake of damning reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General, or because of the Supreme Court's direct supervision of the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Darkest hour before dawn?
Still, this may well be the darkest hour, before the dawn -- and things may now get better. Many (though not all) of the scams that hog the headlines relate to the first United Progressive Alliance government, and to the 2007-09 period when the loot of the system and crony capitalism went way beyond any "normal" level (however defined) that the country had got used to and was, therefore, willing to stomach.
What is now in evidence is the backlash against this excess. In addition, the system itself has morphed into one that is less tolerant of corruption. It has developed autonomous watchdogs which are prepared to bark, and even to bite, and even the so-called independent regulators do sometimes act independently.
We need greater transparency and accountability
The Right to Information law is a powerful tool that has been handed to ordinary citizens, and the Election Commission is more watchful than in the past, like when it comes to paying newspapers for favourable election-time coverage.
This broad thrust towards greater transparency and accountability can only gain momentum as the middle class gains in its share of voice. Such a trend also automatically reduces the scope for those who have thrived on identity-based politics to continue making hay -- though Uttar Pradesh's sugar industry (to take one example) may have to continue paying political money every year.
Corrupt politicians will be more careful
So it is strange that the beleaguered government has yet to announce an active agenda to get on top of the corruption issue. It continues to press for a minimalist Lok Pal, its search for money stashed away abroad has been so lackadaisical that the Supreme Court has been provoked to step in, and it makes no move to clean up political funding, which is the root problem.
The only specific promise of action is a new law to clean up public procurement, but even that is mired in committee squabbles.
Still, the money-grubbing among our politicians are nothing if not smart, and they will have learnt from the travails of the Tihar Munnetra Kazhagam. Even if all of them don't turn a new leaf, they will be more careful, and less brazen. Small mercies, admittedly, but mercies nonetheless.