Saturday, May 4, 2013

First corruption case that looks plausible ….Bansal must quit

It’s not closed yet, and we must resist the temptation to pass judgment on the Pawan Bansal corruption case so soon. But from what one reads in the papers, this looks like the type of case that somehow looks genuine. There is something in this case that makes it feel real. It’s different from all the rubbish that has been going around in the last two years – 2G, coal and even CWG. Here’s why:

Firstly, the alleged scam amount looks real. Rs 10 crores is the kind of money one would expect to be exchanged in return for the job of a Board member of the Indian Railways. When the figure of Rs 90 lacs came out, I went “Ohh, that’s impossible. That job is worth more”, but when it was clarified that maybe that’s just the advance, I said “That must be true”. Rs 10 crores is the kind of figure that one believes a minister would be tempted by – enough to (part) fund his next election; and not so much as to cause a major uproar (unless detected). In fact, I would be willing to go so far as to say that almost all ministers in all governments all over the country make this kind of money. How else do they fund their elections? Money doesn’t go on tress after all!

Secondly, the key role of the Minister in clearing appointments to the Board makes it nearly impossible for Bansal to have been kept in the dark. The appointment is finally made by the Minister himself. Further, given the general perception that some posts attract huge bribes (like in excise, customs etc), how is it possible that the Minister was not alert to it? We don’t know what the truth is, but it just looks implausible.

Thirdly, this nephew of Bansal’s was in fact managing his political affairs in Chandigarh. He was not “merely” a relative (I am very wary of drawing mere relatives into political debates). The nephew was part of the core team of the minister. So its not that easy for Bansal to junk him at this stage.

The Congress would do well to ask Bansal to step down, pending an enquiry. In doing so, the party could try to make the point that it acts whenever it sees a charge that looks genuine. Most charges of corruption made by the BJP and others are meaningless. Most are political. Even the one making the charge knows that it cannot be true. But the charge is made nonetheless, because the average person on the street thinks “even if not so much, there must have been quite a lot still made”. It is this must have been that opposition banks on.

In most cases, the only way to reach astronomical figures is to mix up policy with corruption. Take 2G as an example. It is alleged that the government lost, and importantly, by inference (and this is the whole point) the Congress made, Rs 1.76 lac crores. Now firstly, I think it is well beyond the intellectual capacity of any politician to think this big. If he did, he would be a visionary! Secondly, if the Congress did indeed get this money in its hands, it begs the question: “who paid”? It could have been the incumbent telcos, to profiteer from cheap spectrum, but then they should have reported high profit margins. They haven’t. Even otherwise, incumbents would pay to keep new players out, not to welcome them in! If the contention is that the new entrants paid, then my only response is “pleeeaaassseee”; none of them has the capacity to pay that much. In reality, no one paid, and no one made any money. The state’s loss (notional remember!) was the public’s gain in the form of cheap rates. It’s the same with diesel and kerosene pricing. The state’s loss is the public’s gain. It’s call subsidy, not scam! And lastly, if the Congress did make so much money, no force on Earth can prevent it from forming the next government! The party would simply buy out everything and everybody. It would buy out Sushma Swaraj, Advani, Jaitley and Modi, all put together, many times over. And if you thought they were saints and not for sale, remember the “loot” in Karnataka, the “crorepati babus” in MP, the “no Lokayukta at whatever cost” efforts in Gujarat….!

It’s the same story with Coalgate. Even more so. Here was a PM who conceived the idea of auctions; but failed to convince anyone, including opposition parties, to support it. So the old policy of administered allocations, followed since 1993, continued beyond 2004. Finally, the same PM managed to introduce auctions. And the BJP alleges that this PM is corrupt? Read TK Arun’s well written article “Hypocricy of blaming PM” in ET last Friday. Was there corruption in the screening committee? Of course there was! That’s why 11 chargesheets have been filed by the CBI, which not surprisingly, covers members of all political parties.

Likewise CWG. How it became a Rs 70000 crore scam, I still don’t understand. Even if you add up the spanking new airport (where no scam has been alleged till date), the metro (ditto), the brand new roads (ditto), the games village (ditto), the infrastructure facilities (ditto), it won’t add up to that figure. Besides, even Kalmadi’s “baap” (in reference to a popular Hindi saying!) wouldn’t have the guts to think so big. Yes, Kalmadi may be corrupt (not proven yet)…..but the only charge against him is some TSR contract worth Rs 90 crores or so, in which he (and the entire paraphernalia of babus and opposition leaders) must have made Rs 10-20 crores. There….the same number crops up again! Somehow, a Rs 10-20 crore scam looks feasible; beyond that, impossible. A whole bunch of such scams looks feasible; but one mother-of-all impossible.

By conceding on Bansal, the Congress will achieve two things. One that it acts when cases look genuine (even before they are finally settled). Second, by portraying the BJP to be a party that cries wolf all too often. If played well, Bansal’s sacrifice can be made to make the BJP look unreasonable. If it’s a game of chess, it is good to take a few small losses, but win the larger game! Besides, its not as if Bansal started this game. It pre-dates him by a long mile. Every past minister – including those of the NDA – has played the same game.

One last point. So is the CBI independent????! How/why did it act against a central minister????! But we’ll leave this for another day!
The real truth is that for once the charges against a Congress minister look plausible. We don’t know the truth yet. But even the mere plausibility should be enough to step down. This is not the same as political scams like 2G, Coalgate and CWG (there will be more in the future – including indeed in an NDA regime if one were formed). Bansal’s scam looks genuine. Like did Kripashankar’s disproportionate assets case in Mumbai a year back…..back then also, I had argued for him to be sacked…..

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