Enemy within

Print edition : January 29, 2010

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi at the 125th Foundation Day celebrations of the Congress in New Delhi when the foundation was laid for the Indira Gandhi Bhawan, on December 28. Manmohan Singh listed terrorism, communalism, naxalism and regionalism as the four major challenges before the country.-AFP

ON the 125th anniversary of the Congress party, observed on December 28 in New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh listed the four major challenges before the country: terrorism, communalism, naxalism and regionalism. One cannot quarrel with that statement, as these are indeed formidable concerns. But he might have added one more to the list, something that is an insidious and persistent cancer in public life, that has vitiated every arm of governance and every public institution, including the judiciary and the armed forces. Corruption.

It is a phenomenon that never ceases to astonish that so many persons who are educated, and educated well in many cases, who are trained to serve the country, who are shaped and disciplined to act even if it means sacrificing their lives, should then become common thieves, helping themselves to bribes, to pilfering public funds and behaving in the same manner as burglars and ruffians. One wonders how these people can face their families, their wives, sons and daughters assuming they are not party to the thievery of their fathers. They will, of course, have the usual, and often comic, defence they are innocent; they have been set up; they are victims of a deep and dark plot by deep and dark people. But given the elaborate provisions of the law that this privileged lot has to protect itself, put in place many years ago by those who needed them to help themselves to public funds and fat bribes, it is a wonder that they have been caught and charge-sheeted. And if they have been, the Central Bureau of Investigation must have foolproof cases; its officers would not risk their own careers otherwise.

Where and how does it start? Consider an Army officer. He starts out with his course-mates, and while some of them sacrifice their lives in a major conflict or a skirmish, he goes on to become a general, even an Army Commander, and while becoming one, begins to steal and thieve. He enters into sleazy deals with people who are the scum floating in the darkest levels of society, people with whom he would, in normal circumstances, never have had dealings of any kind. But he does. Consider an Indian Administrative Service officer, who is assumed to be bright he does pass two examinations to get in, one of which is fairly rigorous. As he is entrusted with more and more responsibilities, eventually as Chief Secretary in a State, he has begun to put his hand in the till, no different in any way from the traffic constable who takes hafta from truck drivers every evening to buy his drink. Except that he takes much more, crores, to be precise, and he wears a suit, or that dreary uniform of the bureaucrat, the bandhgala, the buttoned up suit.

We have examples in the judiciary as well, not only in the lower courts but in the highest court in the state. What happened? Were they not earning enough as lawyers before they were made judges, and as judges, was their salary really inadequate? When they were made judges, were they not selected because of their distinguished record as lawyers or in the judicial service? What happened after that?

Going down the ladder, all of us know that there is not a municipal corporation or municipality that is not eaten up by corrupt officials at all levels and that nothing, literally nothing, can be done without paying them. The police forces are, of course, no less corrupt, and it is said that an honest constable is generally considered by his peers to be a consummate fool.

This cancer is something the Prime Minister has mentioned in some of his public addresses or statements, but it is something about which, one has to say with great sadness, nothing of any substance has been done. Commissions and committees are no remedy. This is a disease that has to be diagnosed and studied by the Prime Minister and some of the close colleagues carefully selected by him personally acting quietly and in secret.

Only then can they come up with some answers and some action to eliminate corruption, or at least make it difficult for public functionaries to take to corrupt ways. The answers have to be imaginative and unusual because the corrupt are among the most clever and perceptive and will find their way round things as simple as an order to declare assets and the like.

They must begin by trying to determine what makes an officer corrupt. Education? Family influence? Values learnt from associates? If they can identify the factors the remedies may suggest themselves. Again, the temptation to appoint a committee must be resisted. They can call in some whose opinion they feel will help them and talk to them. But that is all they must do. They will, of course, know that there will have to be different courses of action for different levels of public activity. There can never be one answer to this problem.

It is important that no less a person than the Prime Minister considers this urgently because he knows that the work planned by his government may come to nothing because of this all-pervasive disease.

There is something else that he surely knows only too well that corruption goes hand in hand with influence and nepotism. Not too long ago the country was appalled to learn of the manner in which a senior police officer sexually molested a 14-year-old girl and then stalled all proceedings against him for 19 years, until the media blew the whistle on him. The case of the Indian Police Service officer, S.P.S. Rathore, highlights what influence can do to derail all attempts to get justice.

What is absolutely essential in public life, in our institutions, is not getting justice. Justice is a word that is defined differently for different things, and tied up with fine, legal interpretations that usually make it ineffective or inadequate.

What is essential is that right is done. This is non-negotiable. If right is done, or is sought to be done, by the one single power in the country that does not have even the faintest stain of corruption, then we may survive through this new year to the next.

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