Wednesday, July 20, 2011

BJP “Bangalored” by corruption charges.....yet again

Clearly Karnataka is the state the BJP hopes it was not ruling right now! What has been known for long has now come out openly in the Lok Ayukta’s report on illegal mining. The CM himself has been indicted along with several other BJP leaders and ministers. Surely, the political leadership of the BJP in Delhi was aware of this tinder-box of a scam which was bound to explode one day. When it finally did explode, no senior BJP leader chose to come onto any of their favorite TV channels to answer questions! If it was Amar Singh who did the ducking job two days back, it was the BJP leaders’ turn yesterday! Genetically, all politicians are the same!

The biggest hurt caused will be to the positioning that the BJP was trying to build for itself. What the BJP doesn’t know is that to build a positioning for oneself, it’s not sufficient to discredit the opponent. It’s necessary to be a strong proponent of the idea oneself. In any case, the BJP was hardly the kind of party to build an anti-corruption image for itself. But forever reasons, it tried to do so. Now, whatever little gains it made from its purely political maneurvrings of the last several months (supporting Anna while harboring corrupt elements in its own house) has come a cropper after this report has come out. And here’s the shocking part. The loss of some Rs 1,800 crores in just 14 months is a “real” loss – not a “notional” loss related to some policy decision which the government has chosen to take. It is not “cheap kerosene” which causes loss to the government but helps the poor. Likewise (though people don’t understand this right now), it is not like giving 2G spectrum cheap – a policy decision that unleashed the telecom revolution and empowered the poorest and most unprivileged classes; though at a loss to the government (it is my belief that the 2G scam was a much smaller scam – a few hundred crores at most. It was mostly a policy decision which the CAG has no business to criticize). This is a real loss to the government. This is massive grand larceny.

I sometimes like to draw a distinction between corruption arising from a need to fund elections and the like and corruption to fill up one’s own pockets out of greed. Many politicians – even the most honest types – have to turn corrupt to a limited extend for reasons of electoral funding. Till the time the election funding laws are made more practical, this part of corruption will not go away. But it’s the other type of corruption that is particularly despicable. The type that is undertaken with the sole intention of filling one’s pockets by looting the country’s resources. The Karnataka scam of CM Yeddy and the Reddy brothers is of this latter type. These are rich people by any measure.....and for them to plunder the state to this extent is nothing but pure greed. I dont want to make this a political point. What Kalmadi did is also condemnable. He’s a rich man who didn’t need to do what he allegedly did.

Of course there are others also implicated in this scam. There is a Congress MP and there is also the ex-CM of Karnataka, Kumaraswamy. Every single person identified is corrupt and should be dealt with strictly, if found guilty. But in this issue, it’s hardly important that politicians of all parties have been implicated. The only thing that is important is that the BJP’s holier-than-thou attitude has been totally debunked by this report.

In a way, the episode also highlights the reason to have an independent Lokpal. One that does not need the permission of the government to sue politicians and press charges of corruption against a politician. In this case, all that the Lok Ayukta can do is submit his report to the Karnataka Government. Ironically, to the same person – the CM – who has been indicted. If the media glare on the story had not been there, it is nobody’s guess what the CM would have decided. He would have scuttled it. Now of course, it will be difficult to do so. So this much is clear – the Lokpal must be allowed to function independently without need for permissions.

It also brings out another point on separation of powers of the Lokpal and the judiciary.  Should Justice Santosh Hegde’s report be considered sufficient to call the CM guilty? Or should the report be considered as merely a chargesheet with the matter to be tried in a court of law? My view is that the judiciary should be independent of the Lokpal and should be allowed to take its own decision on the allegations. So the report should be taken as a chargesheet and not as a verdict. The verdict can only be pronounced by the judiciary. I also believe that till the verdict is announced by the courts, there is no “legal” reason for the CM to quit. But then, in politics, it is perception that matters. And on grounds of perception, the CM must resign because he has been personally accused in the case. The CM of Maharashtra was made to resign for much less.

The focus now shifts to the BJP headquarters. What will the party leadership now do? In the past, when the Karnataka CM was implicated for charges of helping his sons acquire state land at cheap rates, the BJP President gave a cocky explanation that it was “legally” right but “ethically wrong” for the CM to have done what he did. But the party did precisely nothing to get the CM out. Now, when faced with much more severe charges, what will the party leadership do? In my mind, the choice before them is obvious. They have no option but to ask their CM to go. But herein lies the rub. If the BJP gets tough on the CM, they risk losing a large part of the support base they enjoy because of him. They may not even win the state elections the next time around. Would the BJP like to risk losing the only state they rule in the South or should they try and “adjust” a bit with the CM? Even in the past, this was the reason why the BJP refused to act on the CM. It’s going to be a test for the BJP all over again now. And what about the real money-bags – the Reddy brothers? What will the BJP do with their chief banker in Karnataka? That’s going to be yet another test.

The learning for us common people is that all parties are corrupt. Let no one party take advantage of some other party’s discomfiture on this subject. Every party has skeletons in its closet. All parties take illegal monies. But since we don’t have an alternative to democracy, we must react in a calibrated way. Our objective has to be to clean up our democracy, not abandon it. Rather than cribbing and complaining about politicians all the time, we need to look at what needs to be done to clean up the mess. For starters, we need to look at the issue of electoral funding. A wise economist-turned-politician once told me that it takes Rs 5 crore per candidate to contest a Lok Sabha election. Assuming there are just 5 candidates per seat, that comes to Rs 25000 crores every five years just for the Lok Sabha elections. Add state elections, and the corruption adds up to a minimum of Rs 1 lac crores every five years. Can we make at least this known bit legal? Can we replace the “education cess” we now have (10% surcharge on Income Tax) with “electoral funding cess”. If the corruption in politics is removed, education will take care of itself. The monies so collected can be distributed amongst political parties using some formula based on electoral votes gathered in the last elections....or some such formula. Once electoral funding is cleaned up, we can rightfully demand that our politicians be clean. There are of course, many other things that we need to correct. Ministers and bureaucrats need to be paid much better – so that we can have better people (People like us!) joining the government and so that the good people who are already there (and there are many) don’t see any reason to become corrupt. We talk of the Singapore PM and government employees getting market-linked salaries. The US government pays a decent salary to Obama. Why then does our PM or our Cabinet Secretary get less than Rs 1 lac a month in take home salary (Don’t inlcude the house, the free phone calls, the free air travel.....all that cannot be taken home after retirement.....maybe all that should be removed).

The real truth is that all political parties are corrupt. It is impossible for the BJP to build its positioning on an anti-corruption plank. That also explains why the anti-corruption plank belongs to Anna and not to the BJP. All political parties need to clean up their act. The environment in this country has changed. The parties better change now.....

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