Fighting the neta, babu, lala, jhola and dada nexus
April 11, 2000
NVittal's appointment as India's chief vigilance commissioner has held out hope of an organised war against corruption for the first time. Vittal is dynamic, unafraid and determined to make a difference. He is also a powerful and passionate speaker who connects instantly with his audience. This has already earned him the label of being a crank and a publicity seeker -- the ultimate accolade for anyone who seriously attempts to buck the Indian system. A system, which Vittal describes as being in the stranglehold the "neta, babu, lala, jhola and dada nexus" — which translates into the politician - the bureaucrat - the businessman - the non-government organisation (yes that too) and the mafia nexus.
As CVC, I heard Vittal speak for the first time two years ago and again last fortnight. Large chunks of the speech, including his quotations from the Bhagwad Gita and elsewhere, were the same but he managed to deliver his lines with the same passion as he did the first time around.
As usual his audience lapped it up and cheered madly. He has set himself a fairly modest agenda — to raise India's ranking in the Corruption Perception Index from the current low of 73rd out of 99 countries ranked by Transparency International of Berlin to half a dozen notches up the scale.
In concrete terms, he has stirred up a hornet's nest and bought himself some powerful enemies by posting on the CVC website the names of all bureaucrats who have corruption inquiries launched against them.
Why bureaucrats? Because, he says, under the Prevention of Corruption Act, only public servants can be corrupt and his writ extends only over public servants under the employ of the central government and public sector undertakings.
The bureaucracy is livid -- it sees this as an attempt to malign administration. The babus insist that only when corruption charges are proved should their names be posted on the Net. Vittal himself counters, that official inquiries are launched only after a preliminary procedure, further the conviction rate is so low and the process so slow, that it is meaningless to post any names later.
Vittal has also begun to post the names of politicians who have cases registered against them. The second move has no real significance in a country where a majority of politicians have cases filed against them and several have won elections from jail.
He has launched a drive against corrupt customs officials and insisted activating the closed circuit cameras being installed at airport cargo and other customs clearance offices. He discovered that the provision for such vigilance already existed, but the cameras had been made redundant by blocking the lens with chewing gum etc.
A measure of Vittal's credibility and integrity is the invitation by Defence Minister George Fernandes to the CVC to probe the highly secret defence deals and contracts awarded over the past years.
He has cleverly pegged his drive against corruption as a fulfillment of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's call to the nation on October 16, 1999 for "zero tolerance of corruption". He explains how corruption is anti-economic development, anti-consumer, anti-national and exhorts the public to join his battle against corruption. But it is here that Vittal is in the greatest danger of faltering — partly because of his own operating style/constraints and partly because of the apathy of the people.
Vittal is aware that his success depends on his ability to "mobilise public opinion and public involvement in the fight against corruption". In India this would mean mobilising the educated middle class into action — a task which others have attempted and failed.
Typically, it is the middle class which pays the biggest price for corruption. The rich don't, because they are usually the ones greasing the system to benefit from it; and the poor suffer, but not as much because they already have so little to lose.
The middle class is worst affected, but unfortunately the least willing to fight. The absence of public outrage and agitation against the most brazen corruption is because the infinite tolerance of the middle class, which simply cribs and get on with its business. This is the class which is always looking at someone else to do the fighting for them. The press, the politician, the government, or anybody but themselves.
Ever so often, I have readers writing in to demand that I should follow up my articles by filing a Public Interest Litigation; they are full of suggestions about what I ought to investigate or write about and how I should make my columns more hard hitting.
I usually make it a point to write back asking what the reader is willing to contribute to the fight by way of filing litigation or helping the investigation. Barring a couple of exceptions, it usually ends the correspondence or leads to a reply full of whining and excuses about how they are struggling to make two ends meet, how they need to focus on their careers and how they would consider public activity post-retirement. Some want assurances and guarantees that before they reveal anything I would promise front-page coverage and a jail sentence for those involved.
Hey, all of us need to earn a living and there is no agitation without pain. Vittal's drive will yield results only if he can galvanise the millions of armchair supporters into protest and action. Without that, even their support is meaningless. The CVC after all is not yet a statutory body and the neta-babu-lala brigade is already hard at work to clip his wings. Plans are already afoot, to dilute the powers of the CVC by bringing in two additional Commissioners to share his authority. Remember, this is exactly what was done to T N Seshan, the Chief Election Commissioner, who changed the way in which elections are conducted in India.
Vittal hopes to gather public support through non-government organisations and that is why he spends so much time touring the country and speaking at public meetings. But public support cannot come his way unless he responds to people writing to him. At his Mumbai meeting last week, it was so obvious that the NGO organisers were merely using the meeting as a platform to enhance their own credibility. One activist raised an issue which troubles me too. He asked Vittal why his office did not have the courtesy to so much as to acknowledge the receipt of information that was sent to him. This has been my experience too.
Mr Vittal's reply was interesting. Replying to people was certainly on the agenda of his office, he said, but not as a priority. Personally, I think that unless this does become a priority and people see direct results in cases that they can relate to, his support base will soon vanish.
In recent times, India has seen only two real instances of the public supporting an honest civil servant. The first was the massive demonstrations in support of K B Chandraashekar, the municipal commissioner of Thane in his civic improvement effort and the similar support for Pune Municipal Commissioner Arun Bhatia who launched a drive against illegal construction. Only Mr Chandrashekar has managed to deliver on his promises, has transformed Thane and continues to enjoy popular support. Mr Bhatia took on too many issues, alienated his staff and was quickly transferred.
Mr Vittal has a statutory post and cannot be removed as easily. He can deliver results, but only if he builds and retains public support. Unfortunately, the initial momentum created by Vittal is already flagging, and unless he changes his gameplan it could disappear altogether. That would indeed be a tragedy for the country and a great opportunity lost.
Business India gives out one of the most prestigious awards for Indian industrialists -- The Business India Businessman of the Year Award. This time the award was given away by the finance minister to Mr Narayana Murthy of Infosys, a new economy success story and an icon for good corporate practices. Yet, the publishing house itself has an almost horrific financial record. Scores of cases filed against it for the issue of bad cheques are pending in various courts.
The employees of its television venture have not been paid for months and hold frequent demonstrations demanding money. Those who have found themselves other jobs have simply written off their dues. We now discover that it owes Rs 2.79 crore (March 1999) to Bank of Madura through Business India Television, Rs 3.05 crore to Central Bank of India through Business Publications Pvt Ltd and Rs 4.15 crore to Bank of Maharashtra through Usha Offset Prints Ltd. It is the Indian story of business contradictions.