Sucheta Dalal :Clean up the mess
Sucheta Dalal

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Clean up the mess  

March 20, 2001

The country is still reeling from's sensational expose of dirty dealings in and the complete absence of scrutiny and security in the crucial area of defence dealings.

The Tehelka tapes are doubly dramatic because the images captured by its spy cameras have exposed the most pious names in Indian politics -- Jaya Jaitly (remember her tirade against the income-tax authorities on behalf of Ajay Jadeja), through her the trade union leader and Defence Minister George Fernandes, and BJP President Bangaru Laxman.

The moving image, as always, cuts through the literacy barrier and informs the most ordinary citizen that the shady world of dollar-and-whisky-fuelled arms deals are not restricted to shadowy pimps, political fixers and those who hang around on the diplomatic and political fringe. It includes much decorated senior armed forces personnel who during war and insurgency send out their brave jawans to battle with these sub-standard weapons.

Yet, within two days of the political tehelka one began to be nauseated by the outraged posturing of opposition. A week of watching Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh and sundry Congressmen clamouring for the resignation of government, finds me in shocking sympathies with the ruling party -- it is a question of the lesser evil. I would indeed want the PMO to be rid of the controversial coterie which runs that high office, and would demand a judicial inquiry into the defence deals; but, in the final analysis, I'd still be inclined to say -- what the hell, this lot is better than the next one that will foist itself on us.

If we insist on forcing the government to resign, look at what we would have instead -- a government formed by a third front cobbled together by opportunistic, geriatric old former Prime Ministers.

Most of them had their brief stab at power, not on merit but because they were the least threatening leaders in some absurd coalitions bound by the single common factor, which was their greed for power.

Otherwise, we could face a general elections costing a couple of thousand crores which would give us yet another fragmented verdict and another coalition government. In fact, the mood of the moment suggests that the BJP may even return to power with a similar formation, despite its colossal humiliation.

An election at this time would throw a good Budget out of the window and destabilise our economy right in the middle of a global recession and a capital market meltdown.

The need today is for a functioning Parliament, where our elected representatives debate issues and put the government on the mat, but not the crowd of noisy hooligans who force an adjournment within minutes after the session begins.

Most of all, we need members of Parliament who understand economic issues and their implications, and do not sleep/chatter their way through key sessions on the rare days that they honour the house with an appearance.

After all, whom are we kidding? Are we really surprised at how corrupt the system is? Haven't we tolerated the most ostentatious display of wealth by our ministers for decades because we the middle class are too lazy to take our outrage to the streets? Look at a few examples.

  • Congress leader Sonia Gandhi declared war on the government over the Tehelka tapes at the Bangalore convention, which easily cost the party a couple of millions of rupees? Will she give us an immediate and true account of the money spent and the source of funds? Let us not even go back into history and trace the role of various Congress Prime Ministers in keeping us poor and backward.
  • Last week saw another event: Gopinath Munde, once deputy chief minister of Maharashtra (and the man who once opposed and later cleared the controversial Enron power project) celebrated the wedding of his daughter at a village in Maharashtra. The girl in question also happens to be the niece of another powerful minister. The cost of the wedding is estimated to have run into eight digits, but the media merely gushed over the festivities. A regular retinue of VIPs and businessmen flew on to helipads, which were part of the wedding preparations -- the media filed amused reports about the village yokels goggling at the choppers and their loaded cargo.
  • These days the use of private aircraft and helicopters is not restricted to politicians and private industrialists. The public sector Steel Authority of India owns six aircraft; the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found that these were being liberally used by the wives and children of the executives. The Indian Express had reported that the managing director's wife of the Bokaro Steel Plant made 31 flights, which were treated as official. An executive director used an aircraft exclusively to avail of "liberalised air travel concession". For the Bokaro Steel Plant, 191 flights were made exclusively for non-entitled passengers, while for IISCO this was 65. In case of the Bhilai Steel Plant, an aircraft which crashed in 1988, showed no passengers as per the flight plan while there were six aboard. What could be a bigger indication of lack of security and misuse of property? SAIL, which was once the biggest flag-bearer of Pandit Nehru's dream about the commanding heights of the public sector, is now a sorry, loss-making monolith.
  • Similarly the CAG has unearthed massive diversion of funds, fudging of records, leakage of funds, wastage and delay in a wide cross section of projects including Food Corporation of India, the Ganga Project, Ordnance Factories and most importantly, a host of defence deals. These findings have been routinely made public since 1995 -- but nobody was agitated enough to demand a change in government.
  • As far as defence deals go, the CAG, at the instance of the Central Vigilance Commission is investigating the controversial Rs 74.97 billion Sukhoi aircraft deal with Russia struck in 1995. The report is supposed to contain a strong indictment of government. Interestingly, it is George Fernandes who ordered this probe.
  • Other defence deals which are already under probe or have been unearthed by the CAG. They include the MiG-29 deal of 1986-90, another for under-powered submarines, which the Navy ordered and then asked for a Rs 40 billion expenditure to upgrade them. There is also the Rs 20 billion spent on Light Combat Aircraft without any major breakthrough for over a decade and a huge cost overrun.

All these instances only go to show that though corruption is a colossal problem in India, and the absence of transparent funding of political parties blurs the distinction between self-enrichment and party funding.

Sensible politicians across the political spectrum probably regret not having tackled this issue before the Tehelka tapes destabilised the system -- after all, what applies to the BJP applies as much or more to other political parties.

Sadly enough, the present government has been most serious about legitimising election funding or basic funding of political parties.

Speaking at the Financial Express's 40th anniversary celebration last Saturday, Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha said that he had planned to introduce some reform in political funding during this Budget, but had dropped it after working on the proposal up to a point. Maybe the government was afraid of a backlash from the people who are already angry at the high salaries, perks, bungalows and pensions cornered by our MPs in addition to the Rs 20 million which are gifted to them for their constituencies -- especially at a time when the savings rate has been cut.

Having said this, I would still much rather have this government under serious pressure and forced to clean up its own act and the system, rather than another election and another coalition which rides into office on a completely fake moral platform.

-- Sucheta Dalal