Sucheta Dalal :Coalition politics and damage to probity
Sucheta Dalal

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Coalition politics and damage to probity  

May 9, 2000

A free press and an activist judiciary are the two important pillars which keep Indian democracy alive and kicking. But any seasoned hack will tell you that politicians, whatever their motivations or compulsions play a critical role in keeping the first two pillars relevant and powerful. It is simple. Even the most sensational exposures in the press have little impact unless a bunch of members of Parliament (MPs) scream blue murder during the question hour in parliament. That is because public action in India is so ineffectual as to be irrelevant. Even elected representatives care little about their voters' opinions because seats are not won or lost on that basis.

As any MP will tell you, a ticket to Parliament is won by ferrying large banks of illiterate voters to the polling booths or providing them with such sustenance level necessities such as water - these people are unconcerned with the deal-making in large projects such as Enron or Sankhya Vahini or even the leakage of allocations for infrastructure and electricity. They do not understand the continuous rape of public sector units by netas and babus and they are totally flummoxed about how large sums of money are made or lost on the stock market by seemingly innocuous statements from the finance minister.

However, when an issue is raised in Parliament a whole series of actions usually follow. Other newspapers wire agencies and television stations are forced to report and follow up the news as a part of their coverage of Parliament. Even papers, which are partisan or afraid of investigative writing, are forced to inform readers of developments. If the issue attracts sufficient public interest, MPs are quick to find ways of extracting more mileage by organising demonstrations and protests to embarrass the ruling party. Yes, look carefully at any public protest over the last 20 years and politicians always lead it. Even the famous demonstrations for necessities such as water have a politician leading the charge not the ordinary citizen.

Naturally, politically savvy newspaper owners and editors tend to time major newsbreaks when Parliament is in session. And plenty of scoops are planted by politicians out to topple colleagues or to fix somebody or the other. Sometimes the public action does lead to investigation and corrective action.

More often there is an initially flurry of action, some heads roll, there are dramatic arrests which provide photo opportunities to the press and everything finally collapses into a meandering and meaningless investigation. Let's look at a few examples.

The Bofors gun contract toppled the Rajiv Gandhi government but there is still no proof that he or anyone close to him actually received the money. The probe into Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, the Securities Scam trial, Justice Chandrachud's attempt to probe cricket betting, the serial bomb blast trails and the sensational revelations of the Jain diaries which led to the Hawala scam probe - these are among the major scandals of the past few decades that come immediately to mind, and they are all in effective limbo.

In fact, the one and only scandal of free India, which actually led to a swift public hearing and conviction, and also forced the resignation of the finance minister (T T Krishnamachari) is the Haridas Mundhra scandal of the late fifties. Never again did Indian MPs permit an open public hearing. During the Securities Scam of 1992, there was an initial demand that the Joint Parliamentary Committee should hold a public hearing which was quickly scuttled by MPs cutting across party lines. The pathetic report published by the Joint Parliamentary Committee is evidence of the horse trading, negotiations and bargaining that went on behind the scenes and how much the opposition parties too were amenable to the cover up.

Unfortunately, in the last few years we have gone from bad to worse. At least during the Congress rule, you could, almost always expect that the powerful political opposition provided by the Left parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party would always be willing to take up issues that embarrass government. The rise of regional parties and their multi-party hotchpotch which has been allowed to form governments (H D Dewe Gowda and I K Gujral were the starting point) over the last few years has almost killed the concept of probity in public life and irreparably harmed the system. The reasons are obvious. The government is not one ruling party but a score of regional parties each with their own set of skeletons and friends who need to be protected.

Even worse are the opposition parties. They are not an opposition, but in fact, ruling parties-in-waiting. At any point of time, they are busy working and reworking the fragile numbers of the ruling coalition, to figure out which party can be weakened and bought to topple the coalition. The remainder of their time is spent working out even more fanciful calculations about who among the current bunch of ruling parties would be part of their own ruling coalition when they topple the existing one.

These guys have no time for social and economic issues or to notice that four States in the country had a serious drought looming for over three months. Do you imagine that these MPs were even available to their constituents? On the rare occasion that they stir themselves to react, they are easily bought over and silenced.

Enron's power project at Dabhol is the most visible example of this works. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena which campaigned relentless against the project did an about turn once they were in power and not only reinstated the cancelled project but even expanded its size by two-thirds. The Congress chafed at the shenanigans but remained silent. Even after a Congress-NCP government came back to power, it did nothing more that bleat pitifully and one and easily speculate about the manner in which they were silenced.

If this is the fate of project-based political scandals and human issues such as drought or the rotting of millions of tonnes of food grain in public sector godowns, what can one expect when it comes to capital markets or savings instruments. Every political party and politician (there may be a few individual exceptions) is today connected to capital market operators. There is also the belief that only people with surplus money, play in the market (after all savings are a luxury in India where those who can make two ends meet are considered privileged) and they can afford to lose it.

The losers, as always are the 250-million odd average middle class, literate, employed people who refuse to stand up for their rights. They are also the class who refuse to cast their vote during elections and are probably guilty about demanding accountability from their elected representatives.

For Indian politicians, there has been no better time than the last six years to be in public life. Plenty of privileges, no accountability and to hell with their parties too.

-- Sucheta Dalal