Sucheta Dalal :How to find a lotus in the muck
Sucheta Dalal

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How to find a lotus in the muck  

August 13, 2002

Far from being the party with a difference, the Bharatiya Janata Party is out to prove that it is in fact 'no different' from the Congress. If the latter strived for over four decades to make us one of the most corrupt nations in the world (you can add poor and illiterate to their achievements too), the BJP hopes to take us to a new low in a fraction of the time.

Completely unfazed by the petrol pump scam and the daily dose of revelations by The Indian Express and other media outfits, the BJP has decided on a counter campaign to expose the Congress.

In fact, they have done pretty well so far. They have embarrassed some of the most reputed names in the Congress party, even as they cancelled 3,000 petrol pump allotments.

They also seem determined to wreck Petroleum Minister Ram Naik's political career by letting him retain his job and offer himself up as media fodder in attempting to defend himself.

Unfortunately, Ram Naik's pathetic pleas of innocence and the Congress's fake piety are both sending the Indian people into deep depression. But wait a minute… is there a lotus in all the muck that is being flung around?

Yes; you can see it if you look hard enough.

It lies in the fact that when political parties stop colluding and start flinging dirt at each other, we can hope for some real cleansing.

If India is notorious for never punishing scamsters and letting politicians get away with loot, rape, murder and worse, it is because they are part of a cozy conspiracy of silence. There are innumerable instances of how politicians as a class let each other off the hook after kicking up some dust in parliament.

That is precisely how the Bofors investigation has remained alive but inconclusive for over 15 years; it is why the Jain hawala case was all sound and fury but fizzled off into nothing; or why the Congress, the BJP and the Shiv Sena brazenly supported Enron's Dabhol Power Company and gave the now discredited US corporation a sovereign guarantee on its profits from India.

It is also why, unlike the US Congressional hearings, our multi-party Joint Parliamentary Committees prefer to hold in-camera proceedings so that the people never know that over half the members either do not attend or are clueless about the subject of their investigation.

There is no guarantee that the petrol pump scam will not go the same way as all the others. The silver lining is in the fact that people now have the ammunition to make a difference.

With the government itself releasing scores of letters and documents, ordinary citizens, NGOs and activists can file litigation and hope to change the system.

This is not the only case where mudslinging has resulted in much needed transparency. You would recollect that Parliament opened at what many considered a new low in debate when Samajwadi Party MP Amar Singh asked about the Essar Group's large borrowings from banks and financial institutions and its default on payments.

He also demanded to know how Shashi Ruia, who heads the Essar Group, could be on the prime minister's trade and advisory council.

Since Singh openly flaunts his friendship with the Ambanis, the media went to town with headline stories saying 'corporate rivalry enters Parliament.'

Until Amar Singh broke convention, MPs usually cloaked their queries on behalf of their industrialist friends under the garb of macro-economic issues or larger industry concerns.

Singh's questions caused alarm and disgust among those who thought that the sparring between apologists for rival business houses signalled a new low for the venerable House of Representatives.

But look at it differently. The unfortunate truth is that government reacts only when opposition MPs threaten to embarrass it in Parliament - they don't give a damn about public opinion.

When Ruia was appointed to the prime minister's trade council, I had written (in another publication) about how he had been preferred over stalwarts such as Rahul Bajaj of Bajaj Auto and Azim Premji of Wipro to advise the PM.

Was government embarrassed? Certainly not. It simply ignored the criticism.

But when Amar Singh raised the question in Parliament several months later, the new Finance Minister Jaswant Singh was forced to say that the government was considering removing Ruia from the prestigious council of advisors.

He also disclosed that the Ruias owe a whopping Rs 71.380 billion (Rs 7,138 crore) to various banks and financial institutions.

No matter what his motivation, an MP can achieve what the ordinary people cannot. If only the other steel sector industrialists had equally powerful enemies - then non-performing assets of the steel sector would not have run into billions of rupees.

And they would not have formed the single largest component of bad loans of the financial sector.

In fact, the politicians who supported them would have been exposed and they would not have been allowed to place their representatives on the boards of financial institutions.

For several years, Kulwant Rai, head of the Usha group was on the Industrial Development Bank of India board and it is during his term in office that several billion rupees were disbursed to the group for mindless expansion.

Action to recover loans (including the takeover of Malvika Steel) was initiated only after he stepped down from the board.

The Jindal family patriarch is an MP himself and the group had their representative on the IDBI board for years. If these industrialists had bitter enemies who asked uncomfortable questions in Parliament, one can safely bet that the flow of funds to them would have been much slower.

Corporate rivalry as a cleanser will become even more important in the future. Industrialists have begun to realise that they would probably be better at influencing policy themselves, rather than depend on some political stooge or corrupt bureaucrat.

Two industrialists have made an expensive entry into the Rajya Sabha recently. One is the flamboyant liquor baron Vijay Mallya, who came in as an independent MP elected on a curiously divided vote.

He has recently joined the Janata Dal and become its spokesperson. The other is Rajkumar Dhoot of the Videocon group who walked in on a Shiv Sena ticket and is now on the standing committee of Parliament for finance.

Mallya, in his new avatar, has already been making his presence felt on behalf of the liquor industry with his superb communication skills and persuasive arguments.

As an MP, he seems well placed to campaign for lower taxes on low alcohol drinks like beer and wine and to counter the growing restrictions on advertising by liquor companies.

His bad own loans too, may attract less recovery efforts from lenders unless he makes bitter enemies.

Dhoot's Videocon is ambitious and sometimes controversial. It was recently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Board of India, but all that may now be firmly in the past.

Lets look at other examples where muckraking had a cleansing effect. It played a role in pushing privatisation of public sector units and taking them out of the clutches of unscrupulous politicians.

Divestment Minister Arun Shourie used it with devastating effect to counter his colleagues and other opponents of privatisation through a series of articles in The Indian Express.

Shourie's expose of the utter dereliction of the Indian Tourism Development Corporation hotels, the rampant corruption, their exploitation by the political system and the brazen flouting of rules and illegal construction had changed the debate.

Instead of worrying about the family silver being sold for a song, we now wonder why anyone is even willing to buy these decrepit properties. Especially since many of these hotels were earning less than their annual losses and would need large investment in refurbishing them and retraining staff!

Clearly, muckraking and corporate rivalry can have a cleansing effect on the system - but in order to find the lotus in the muck we need to use all the information that is being spewed out by warring politicians and industrialists and use it to cleanse the system.

-- Sucheta Dalal