Sucheta Dalal :Convenient morality
Sucheta Dalal

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Convenient morality  

February 8, 2011

India’s industry associations have rarely, if ever, lobbied for good governance, accountability or clarity in regulations. This time too, only the CII has belatedly endorsed the open letter by a group of concerned citizens to the government on ‘governance deficit’ and large-scale corruption

On 19th January, the Supreme Court added its powerful support to the raging public anger against corruption by pulling up the government for protecting those responsible for what it called ‘national plunder’ by way of billions of dollars of illicit wealth stashed away in Swiss bank accounts. A few days earlier, a group of ‘concerned citizens’—which included two members of Parliament (MPs), a judge, couple of former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governors and business leaders such as Deepak Parekh and Azim Premji—wrote to the government about the ‘governance deficit’ and large-scale corruption that’s preventing the benefits of economic development from percolating to the poor.

The pointless shuffling of Cabinet portfolios that occurred a day later shows that the Congress-led government simply does not get it. It fails to understand that anger over corruption and mis-governance is not restricted to the ‘chatterati’ or a set of retired business leaders, judges and central bank governors. It is hurting every segment of society. The poor and the middle class are reeling under the pressure of galloping inflation.

The fact that fat and frequent pay revisions for politicians and government employees has not resulted in even the tiniest reduction in sloth, corruption and delays, does not stare the government in its face. Worse, there is a growing sense that netas and babus, in cahoots with businessmen and bankers, are busily apportioning public land and natural resources to enrich a small oligarchy.

The ‘open letter’ took me back a couple of decades when I wrote about another such ‘group’ that I called the ‘Bombay Club’. While the ‘concerned citizens’ are a predominantly Bombay-centric group, the difference is that the Bombay Club comprised established industry houses, worried that rapid economic liberalisation would drive them out of business.

Over the next two decades, many of those who thrived in an economy of shortages and protectionism have ceased to matter, but a brash new crop of industrialists emerged to ensure that it was they, and not the powerful multinationals, who could cash in on our corrupt and non-transparent decision-making structures, in a cosy nexus with politicians.

Over the years, we have created a mass of confusing, and often contradictory, statutes, building on existing rules without correcting inconsistencies or scrapping what is redundant. For decades, many of us believed that this was just a reflection of sloth. Only victims of these rules realise that the confusion is deliberate and the biggest beneficiary of our slow and corrupt system is the neta-babu class.

While one applauds the courage of our ‘concerned citizens’, it is tempting to examine the composition of the group and the timing of their ‘open appeal’. Of the lot, Deepak Parekh is one of the few business leaders who does not hesitate to speak his mind on a wide range of issues. Azim Premji of Wipro is a business leader we are really beginning to admire. Apart from signing this appeal, he had the courage to write a signed, hard-hitting article about the Commonwealth Games scandal on the front page of a national newspaper.

But many eminent names who have often spoken about the need for good governance are curiously missing from the list. But, as the usually outspoken Rahul Bajaj says, he would have signed the letter, as it stands, but nobody asked him to.

India’s industry associations have rarely, if ever, lobbied for good governance, accountability or clarity in regulations. This time too, only the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has belatedly endorsed the open letter to the government.

Barring Azim Premji, no Indian who features among the top 50 in the Forbes list of richest persons has apparently been approached to join the plea for good governance. One can understand the anguish of two retired judges (Justice Sam Variava and Justice BN Srikrishna) in this group, but the signatures of two Rajya Sabha members—Dr Ashok Ganguly and former RBI governor Bimal Jalan—is significant. Both are nominated members of the Rajya Sabha. In effect, they are part of the 700-odd legislative elite of India and are also in touch with the top executive machinery. Their concerns about corruption and the lack of accountability ought to have been expressed on letterheads carrying the national emblem, not as a bunch of ‘concerned citizens’.

What is the purpose of nominating distinguished members of civil society to the Rajya Sabha if their voices are not heard in Parliament? Rajya Sabha MP and industrialist Rajeev Chandrasekhar says that we aren’t facing just a “governance deficit” but a “big yawning hole in our governance system” caused by “rampant corruption, crony capitalism and capture of public policy and regulators by some corporates.” The bigger problem, he says, is “that those with the power and capacity to hold governments accountable don’t do so because they are either in a cocoon and don’t care or they are beneficiaries of the system and so can’t speak out.”

This silence is harming corporate India whose image, he says, is “increasingly one of exploiters rather than responsible partners in nation building.”

Mr Chandrasekhar also identifies Azim Premji as an exception, but his comments on corporate behaviour only underlines the fact that neither our elected representatives nor the eminent nominated ones can do much by way of improving governance or highlight corruption in their capacity as public representatives.  

Mr Chandrashekar’s view is reflected in public reactions to the ‘open letter’. As is evident from comments on various websites, people are not very impressed by the plea for better governance by this motley group. Like me, several people believe that many signatories to the letter could have done a lot more in their personal capacity to fight corruption and bad governance.

Many in the corporate world, who claim that they do not pay bribes, are happy to ‘outsource’ the dirty job to sundry consultants, event managers, lobbyists and PR managers. They also do little to support those who highlight wrongdoing by business and industry. One of the signatories has actually told me that although he would never pay a bribe in his personal capacity, he was quite aware that his company had to make payoffs for large government contracts.

This convenient morality ensures that those with access to policymakers do not have the courage to tell our political emperors that they have no clothes. The consequence: rampant corruption, mis-governance and a loot of national assets.—
Sucheta Dalal


-- Sucheta Dalal