Head honchos sit pretty, while their flunkies feel the heat
Public anger against corruption has rattled the government to permit an unprecedented set of arrests in the telecom scandal. The enormity of the action is evident seen against the perspective of how corruption scandals have been handled in independent India. Ever since the Haridas Mundhra scam in the mid-1950s, politicians have protected co-conspirators and financiers. Politicians and big business remained untouched, despite innumerable mega-scams—whether it was the Jain hawala scandal (payoffs to top politicians by the Jain brothers who were hawala dealers), Harshad Mehta’s charge of having bribed the then prime minister (PM) PV Narasimha Rao in 1992 or Ketan Parekh who flaunted his corporate and political contacts. In fact, under the BJP government, some of Ketan’s cronies were in the Joint Parliamentary Committee, while the corporates who financed and helped him amass wealth through stock manipulation were let off. It is different this time and only because people across India showed their willingness to take to the streets to fight corruption. Yet, even today, the biggest corporate honchos, who took key decisions, are still being protected. As a policy, Moneylife is against the practice of investigation and enforcement agencies misusing their power to arrest people merely as a media spectacle, a threat or a pressure tactic. We also believe that, in most cases, custodial interrogation is a sham and is only done to avoid a speedy trial and conviction. It is the same with the telecom and Commonwealth Games scandals. As Prashant Bhushan correctly argued, owners of major telecom groups involved in the 2G spectrum allocation case (Anil Dhirubhai Ambani group, Essar and Tatas) have not been touched, while the lesser-known ones (Shahid Balwa and his brother as well as Vinod Goenka of DB Realty and its associates, Sanjay Chandra of Unitech and senior executives of Reliance Telecom), who have recently acquired stupendous wealth, are jailed.
Clearly, no executive could have decided on payments running into thousands of crores. The apex court has not gone into the issue at this stage, but it is clear that the beleaguered Congress government is unlikely to be in a position to assure protection when the PM and former finance minister are also under attack from the Public Accounts Committee.
(This article was first published in the Moneylife magazine edition dated 19 May 2011 that was available on the stands from 5 May 2011.)