Monday, October 15, 2012

Beni Prasad Verma may be a fool; but he’s spoken two big truths….

When he said yesterday that Rs 71 lacs was a pittance for a central minister to embezzle, the media immediately came out with knives drawn. They forgot that they had themselves accused many in the Government of “shooting the messenger” when an activist brought out uncomfortable facts about our politicians. They were quick to shame Verma. Verma became the laughing stock online in no time. But just pause for a minute and think of what he said. Stop heckling him. Think also of the “advice” he gave Kejriwal. His two statements are profound realities. If we understand them, we will benefit from them.

When the Rs 71 lac story around Salman Khurshid’s NGO first broke, that was my exact same reaction. Rs 71 lacs is a pittance in Indian politics. In fact, when the “VBS” story broke a few days earlier, in which many diary entries were shown containing figures of Rs 5 and 10 lacs allegedly paid to ministers and CMs, my reaction was the same then too. Civil society activists and media get excited by every small thing, but the reality is that these are indeed very small sums. If illegal funding of our elections (and I propose that this be removed from the definition of corruption – but more on this later) was of this small order, we would all be a happy lot! On the contrary, the truth is that more than Rs 5 crores is required on average per Lok Sabha seat. In the more affluent areas (where the “payback period” is shorter!), the spends could go up to Rs 25 crores and some would say even Rs 50 crores per seat. And like the PM said earlier in a different context “Money doesn’t grow on trees”. Election funding money certainly doesn’t. In fact, “donors” to election funds are amongst the savviest of financial investors – demanding much higher returns than the usual financial markets could offer.

Of course, every penny of corruption is unacceptable and Rs 71 lacs is certainly more than a few pennies (though I must point out that Salman doesn't appear to have pocketed any of it). But there was nothing abominable in what Verma said. The problem with our media is that it is way out of line with the market realities. It fails to understand the truth about election funding and finds every small bit of information titillating. What was media’s reaction to Verma’s statement? It derided him; called him a fool; and eventually forced him to withdraw his statement. Fine. He withdrew it. But does that change the reality on the ground? Instead of drawing attention to how much we have started spending on elections, it quickly put a lid on the subject. An opportunity to discuss something so important was squandered away.

Then Verma – who appeared to be in turbo-charged form yesterday – made another profound statement. He advised the Joker (in the political pack – henceforth abbreviated to just Joker) Kejriwal that if he barked everyday (ranted on some or the other politician) then he would merely be a dog. But if he did it only once in a while, he would be a tiger! Rustic and vengeful as this advice may appear to be, it is true. I don’t know what happened to Vadra. Has anyone anywhere filed any case against him at all? Or has it all been left to the Directors of DLF to ask questions of the management and promoters – which should have been the case in the first place? And what happened to VBS? Again, did any FIR get registered? Not sure. Such is the pace at which the Joker wants to reveal the real truth that he cannot wait to catch his breath!

Since we are talking of dogs here, it is worth pointing out that there is another Hindi saying which no one mentioned yesterday and which also has an English equivalent which is relevant here: “to run with your tail between your legs”. That expression is apt to describe the Joker’s “tactical” decision to stop the stir against Salman. What happened suddenly? Did Joker realize he was on thin ice here? Did the defamation suit of Rs 240 crores scare the wits out of him? As a fig leaf, Joker’s team is saying that they haven’t “let him off the hook” and have already “pronounced him guilty” (behaving like Judges that they are!). They have taken the fight to his constituency, Farrukhabad. I feel like laughing at such imbecility. The Joker must realize that the only fuel his party (can be called Joker party???) works on is the fuel of TV cameras. Who’s going to give him that fuel in Farrukhabad for god’s sake. Does anyone even know where Farrukhabad is????

Verma is right. Joker barks too often to be taken seriously. The people are now expected to await the attack on Gadkari. That episode airs tomorrow (Wednesday). Sounds like a TV soap? It is. It is almost fiction. Or a reality show filled with typical over-acting. Either way, its drama galore.

Now the last word on election funding. If politicians require as much funding as mentioned earlier, it is but natural that they are going to get the money from somewhere. The Election Commission’s response to this has been puerile. It has put a lid on official expenses, limiting them to ridiculous levels, thinking such a rule would reduce election funding. This is naivete at its best. One of the reasons why so much black money exists in elections is because of this arbitrary and completely infeasible cap. So politicians have no option but to fund their campaigns through illegal means. If this is going to be called corruption, then everyone is corrupt. If Joker is going to find “evidence” of such corruption, its hardly a story worth putting on prime time. Senior politicians also have to raise funds for their party’s activities. Some of this also goes towards funding the younger politicians. In my humble opinion, corruption to this extent should be taken as an unfortunate reality. People who indulge to this extent should not be bandied around as thugs and dacoits. There are the really corrupt ones of course – for whom entering politics and making money has become a business. Those are the really corrupt ones on whom our focus should be. But all that gets lost in the Joker’s penchant for speaking nineteen to the dozen.

The real truth is that election funding needs to be acknowledged, legitimized and made transparent. Rs 71 lacs is indeed a pittance. The real spends are much much more. We can joke about Verma and his rustic antics….but what he spoke was the truth!

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