Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Cash for votes" - sensational WikiLeak disclosures

That voters in India are routinely bribed in cash or kind is a well-known phenomenon. In Tamilnadu according to WikiLeaks, it is commonplace, as indeed it is elsewhere in the country. Indians are also familiar with what is generally known as “horse trading” that involves in huge amounts of cash changing hands when, post-elections, political parties engage in government formation to find that majority in the “house” that elude them at the hustings. Likewise, Indians have been taking bribing of legislators for voting for a minority government in the state or national legislatures during trust-votes, by and large, in their stride.

Nevertheless, the expose’ by the highly respected newspaper “The Hindu” of the “cash for votes” cables sent from the US Embassy and procured from WikiLeaks, seemingly, set the cat among the pigeons. The cables talked of millions of rupees being paid to a certain political party at the time of the 2008 no-confidence motion moved against the Manmohan Singh government that lost its majority in the Lower House on withdrawal of support by the Left parties over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal.

The July 22 2008 no-confidence motion moved against United Progressive Alliance government by the Opposition was followed by tremendous amount of theatrics. Three Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MPs came rushing into the Lok Sabha, the Lower House, waving bundles of currency notes in front of the Speaker, alleging attempts by Samajwadi Party (SP), then a supporter of the government, to bribe them with a crore (ten million) of rupees each for voting for the government. The name of Amar Singh, then of the SP and a well-known political wheeler-dealer, was mentioned in this connection. The expose’ was result of a sting operation by CNN-IBN news channel, masterminded by one Sudhindra Kulkarni, a BJP ideologue.

The money was seized by the Speaker and, later, a committee of Lok Sabha was constituted to probe into the matter. Failing to arrive at a definite conclusion even though video tapes and other documents relating records of phone calls etc. were submitted to it by the news channel and the BJP, respectively, the Committee exonerated Amar Singh but labelled his aide, one Sanjeev Saxena, as a bribe-giver who was caught on camera bribing a BJP MP. Unable to probe further for reasons of rules and procedures, the Committee suggested further investigations into the matter. However, neither the matter was probed further nor the case registered at the instance of the Speaker with the local police pursued. The Manmohan Singh government survived the motion with the help of a few abstentions and support of a few BJP MPs who defied the party’s whip.

In the context of what happened in the Parliament in July 2008, contents of the leaked cable are perfectly credible. It is quite likely that as a measure of abundant caution the Congress Party attempted to muster as many votes as possible in favour of the government. After all, the Prime Minister was deeply committed to the Indo-US Nuclear Deal and the government (and his party) had to take all possible measures to ensure its survival to push it through. Apart from using Amar Singh to bribe some BJP MPs, the Congress, apparently, pitched on the MPs of Rashtriya Lok Dal, a regional political outfit of Uttar Pradesh (UP), more open to the lure of money. Headed by one Ajit Singh, a man of dubious reputation, the party has frequently figured in reports of its involvement in lending support for monetary considerations to shaky governments. Apparently, the US Embassy contact was told that the MPs of RLD had been paid a billion rupees each. Their reputation is such that even the Congressman, Nachiketa Kapur, who organised the payment, was not sure whether they would vote in favour of the government even after having been bribed. He, however, boasted that there was enough kept away in chests for further pay-offs, if necessary.

Yet another factor that makes the cable credible is the mention of Capt. Satish Sharma, an MP in Rajya Sabha, the Upper House, who also was met with by the US Embassy contact. Looks like, Capt. Sharma and Kapur were jointly in charge of the operation of bribing the RLD MPs. Once a close friend of the Late Rajiv Gandhi, he is now a close associate of Sonia Gandhi, widow of Rajiv Gandhi and the current Congress President. With a chequered political career and several brushes with the law, he, seemingly, has been involved in the dirty work of the Congress. He was also involved in 1993 in bribing the MPs of another regional political outfit, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), to save the minority Congress government of the Late Narsimha Rao in a trust-vote moved by the BJP. The investigations had revealed that various industrialists had paid Rs 13 crore (130 million) to Capt Satish Sharma, who arranged payments to the JMM MPs out of this amount. Narsimha Rao’s government did survive the trust vote.

Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, brazened out the WikiLeaks disclosures by an outright denial of the allegations of bribery and rejected the charge of the Opposition, which he said was based on “speculative, unverified and unverifiable'' communication, and told Parliament that none from the government or the Congress indulged in any unlawful act during that time. He went on to say that the government “cannot confirm the veracity, contents or even the existence of such communication.” At the then ongoing India Today Conclave he had said, “I have no knowledge of any such purchases and I am absolutely categorical, I have not authorised anyone to purchase any votes. I am not aware of any acts of purchase of votes…I am absolutely certain in asserting that I am not at all, I think, involved in any of these transactions”.

Nobody is buying what Dr. Singh has been saying in denial. Not only there was enough evidence gathered earlier, the US officials have since certified the accuracy and credibility of the cables now released by WikiLeaks. Julian Assange, Editor in-Chief of WikiLeaks, branded Dr. Singh’ statements of denial as “misleading”, a charge that is serious when made against a prime minister. Generally known for his clean image, Indian people are aghast at the way the Prime Minister, with his distinguished academic and bureaucratic background, staked his reputation and all that he had for winning a trust-vote to see a mere deal through. At a recent interview with the editors of Indian TV news channels he had said, that after his academic and bureaucratic stints, politics was a fresh field that was providing him a new learning experience. Apparently, he has been very quick in picking up the tricks of his current trade.

Apart from the image of Dr. Singh, the image of Congress has taken a severe beating. The grand old party, now more than a century and a quarter old, has, somewhere down in the post-independence years, lost its moral fibre and has acquired an insatiable lust for power. This very lust may see the end of it. Mahatma Gandhi happened to say in 1948 “...in the ungainly skirmish for power, it (Congress) will find one fine morning that it is no more.” That may well happen with the contemptible riff-raff that it now constitutes of, unless the party immediately sets about correcting its course.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Of venal politicians and their corrupt parties

The Outlook magazine, a popular national weekly, has been publishing excerpts from the taped conversations of Niira Radia, the now (in)famous lobbyist of, inter alia, the House of Tata, with several individuals, including the former Indian Telecommunications Minister, A Raja. In one of the tapes published in the issue of 14th February 2011 of Niira Radia’s conversation with one Manish, an employee at Vaishnavi Communications (another corporate communication consultancy firm) Radia says “In the middle of the night (Raja, the Minister) called Anil Ambani to come and collect his LoI (Letter of Intent) for a dual technology license” and “...when you ask Mr. Raja why are you doing this, his view is ‘what do you do, I have a party to run”.

The last bit of what Raja said is not only significant but also carries the nub of what has now come to be known as the “2 G scam” (the scam related to frequency allocation for mobile telephony to favoured parties) of the Ministry of Telecommunication & IT that he headed as also of many other scams. That Raja was required to, through his acts of omissions and commissions in the Ministry, ensure that the party coffers are filled as much as possible has now become somewhat of a standard political practice. He, most probably, had the same mandate before he was re-nominated for the Telecommunications Ministry in 2009. And, likewise, before him even Dayanidhi Maran, again of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), may also have had to work according to the same mandate. Clearly, DMK was keen on Telecommunications Ministry only for the reason that it could be milked for the benefit of the party and, of course, its patriarch M Karunanidhi. If, in the process, the ministers involved made some billions on the side the party bigwigs would, seemingly, have no objections.

Whether Raja, in his previous avatar as the head of the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), did not do the same is open to question. After all, during his tenure in MoEF in UPA I government the epithet “rubber stamp” was largely used for the ministry. It would clear each and every project that came its way for environmental clearance regardless of the adverse impact that they would have on the country’s environment. Maybe it is hearsay, but the e-mails that are circulating in the country with photographs of his palatial modern-looking residence with extensive grounds could not have been inherited by a person who claims to be a dalit (a member of former depressed class). How it was built and what the sources of his resources are still a mystery.

Obviously, Raja’s party, the DMK, a regional outfit, has imbibed what its senior alliance partner, the Indian National Congress, has been adept in for a long time. The latter has, according to credible reports circulating for years, has been creaming the government decisions taken during its decades in power at the Centre and in the states to fill its own coffers. In the early years, Soviet money found its way not only to the Communist Party of India but also to the Congress. The thriving rupee trade between the two countries, particularly big-ticket imports of defence equipment, facilitated the illegal transfer of funds. That the Soviets had infiltrated into the Indian establishment within the country and abroad is, of course, another story. The Mitrokhin Archives threw generous spotlight on it and is now a part of history. It, inter alia, made a mention of the Soviet money getting to India with minsters like Lalit Narain Mishra, the then Minister for Foreign Trade, as conduit. His corrupt ways were legendary but in no way comparable to what happens today. Tales about his accepting briefcases full of currency used to be rife in Delhi during the early 1970s. Not only did he enrich the Congress, he enriched himself, too, but, unfortunately, to no avail. He was, reportedly, bumped off in 1975. He was, after all, “the man who knew too much”.

If the Soviets transferred funds to the Congress, the US could not have been left behind. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a one-time US ambassador to India, in a collection of personal letters and journal entries edited by Steven R Weisman, a public policy fellow at Washington-based Peterson Institute, in a book “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary”, asserted that US had paid money through the CIA to the Congress Party. The charge was later taken advantage of by the late Jyoti Basu, a former communist chief minister of West Bengal, who speculated that the money was, probably, disbursed in the early 1970s to contain Naxalism, a violent and rabid movement of the Left, which had spread like wild fire in West Bengal. Although, the current Congress spokesperson rubbished the allegations, he wouldn’t know what transpired forty years ago between two hardnosed politicians like the late Indira Gandhi and the then all-powerful US secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger.

Last year the octogenarian eminent lawyer, Ram Jethmalani, accused the Congress of receiving payments from the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) after the Bhopal gas tragedy and demanded that all the correspondence between the Union Government and the company should be made public. He said that the then Union Government enacted a legislation abrogating the rights of thousands of dead and grievously injured victims to sue the company for compensation and appropriated the same to itself without the victims’ consent. It then promptly filed a suit for payment of adequate compensation the results of which are well-known. Not only a measly sum of $ 470 million was settled as compensation in an in camera sitting of the Supreme Court in the chamber of the then Chief Justice to which the UCC lawyers, reportedly, had come straight from the Prime Minister’s Office then headed by the late Rajiv Gandhi, the settlement also extinguished all financial liabilities of the UCC and the rights of the victims to file civil and criminal cases against the corporation – a very favourable turn of event for it.

Apparently, the quantum of compensation to be paid by the Corporation was also treated like a deal like the ones struck during those very years for import of Westland helicopters, HDW submarines and the (in)famous, though very effective, Bofors howitzers. However, the intense public resentment that was aroused as a sequel to the farcical judgement of June 2010 in the criminal case against the Indian bigwigs of Union Carbide India Ltd. the current coalition government led by the Congress at the Centre was forced to file a curative petition in the Supreme Court against the 1989 compensation settlement –generally branded as “collusive”. Agreeing that there had been an error in settling for the very meagre amount of compensation, it has now sought enhancement of compensation to the victims from Rs 750 crore (75 billion) to Rs 7,700 crore (770 Billion). That and the chain of events that followed the tragedy made it amply evident the collusive arrangement between the then Union Government and the UCC. In the aftermath of the tragedy, an overriding desire, among other things, on the parts of the state and Union governments, both then ruled by the Congress, to protect the interests of the company was clearly discernible. Jethmalani may well be right in making his accusation.

In our kind of democracy, which has progressively assumed an aberrant form, priorities of the political participants in the act of governance have got mixed up. Political parties seek power to exercise it not on the basis of Jeremy Bentham’s “Greatest Happiness Principle” but to ensure their own happiness and well-being as also of their members. This is true both, at the Centre and in the states. The ministers, like Raja, who are in a position to swing deals, direct their efforts towards enriching their party as also themselves. The basic idea is to enable the party to have enough means to swing elections in its favour by buying votes or managing polling booths or even buying legislators, if it came to that, for garnering support when it fails to get a clear majority. Having enough cash in party coffers is very essential as the going rate of a legislator could be in billions. All major national and regional parties are guilty of this sin.

Hence, it would seem as if governments in India exist only for the political players who happen to capture their reins. Milking of the state by way of foul means permeates the system spreading an environment that is utterly unethical. No wonder, party men like Raja who are pushed to head ministries for their proven record of venality indulge in massive scams, stoking further the already pervasive corruption in the Indian administration.