Rather than treat the Tehelka disclosures as a 'wake-up call' and acknowledge the prevalence of corruption, Vajpayee & Co. are weaving 'conspiracy' stories and adopting a confrontationist approach, thus undermining their own credibility.
WHY is it that Railway Ministers are expected to resign - and often offer to do so - after grave accidents, although they are never accused of having personally failed to tighten the appropriate nuts and bolts on tracks, or ignored red signals or loose-coupled fast-moving wagons? Their contribution to mishaps is indirect. Indeed, most Railway Ministers are not even accused of having specifically contributed to the lack of a safety culture, leave alone the "human error" that causes the vast majori ty of accidents on the Indian Railways. The notion of responsibility involved here is different from nuts-and-bolts culpability. It is called constructive responsibility.
Going by this logic - itself important to democratic accountability - the right official response to Tehelka's exposure of the monumental corruption in India's armaments procurement system (and more) would have been to ask the top functionaries of the Mi nistry of Defence (MoD) and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to step down. The Prime Minister himself should have quit without any prompting. That alone could have met the demand of constructive responsibility for a mega-racket that runs through the ent ire National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government which is covered in sleaze and venality.
The ramifications of the scandal do not stop at the walls of George Fernandes' living room (no matter how many people queue up there) nor even in the MoD. The scam penetrates even the party system through corrupt middlemen working in league with b ureaucrats and soldiers, fixers and apparatchiks, top-ranking politicians and the PMO itself.
Instead, the government first adopted a strategy of denial and counter-accusation (Bangaru Laxman's March 13 "conspiracy" charge). Its second response was limited damage control. This took the form of suspension of Defence officials and then the resignat ions of George Fernandes and Jaya Jaitley. The third response, since March 16, has been to return to denial and counter-accusation in an aggressive mode. This has taken many forms: pressure on television channels to stop replaying the Tehelka videotapes; staged interviews with NDA functionaries; the announcement of a judicial inquiry; a press conference by PMO officials Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh; and now hair-splitting over details of the tapes involving the payment of Rs.2 lakhs to the Samata Party .
The NDA is trying to turn the tables on the Opposition by accusing it of "avoiding" an inquiry and parliamentary debate. Vajpayee even charged it with ducking a trial of strength - as if truth, morality or political responsibility could ever be settled t hrough brute majority. The so-called judicial inquiry is a shoddy cover-up job. Its terms of reference, including a probe into the "making" of the Tehelka allegations, renders the exercise ludicrous. The Supreme Court's refusal to make available a sittin g Judge to head the inquiry makes it unworthy of public respect. The government's statements about Fernandes' "unparalleled performance" in Defence and his assured return to that portfolio after the inquiry, further undermine public confidence in the pro cess.
MEANWHILE, Vajpayee and L.K. Advani have, disgracefully, joined the conspiracy chorus, negating the effect of the "wake-up call" address. They too are, pitiably, parroting the line that there are no specific bribery accusations against Fernandes. This is akin to saying that no one has ever accused Mamata Banerjee of specifically removing fishplates from railway lines or that a Finance Minister need not take responsibility for a budget leak simply because the last link in the chain of culpability may be a clerk.
Equally specious is the claim that the PMO functions independently of both the Bharatiya Janata Party as a party and the normal machinery of the government. There is overwhelming evidence of interference in critical official decisions including the Union Budget, power and road projects. And there is little separation between the PMO and party politics - as PMO official Sudheendra Kulkarni's latest political letter to the Trinamul party shows. This is all the more deplorable because Kulkarni's sal ary comes from taxes which the public pays.
All this negates the constructive responsibility principle. But such responsibility is both a way of acknowledging the seriousness of malfeasance, and bringing the guilty to book. Accountable governments do not wait to establish legally the guilt of spec ific individuals. They act immediately - their high functionaries quit. Later, over a period of time, they also establish the causes and possible remedies. Their top functionaries step down because a free and fair inquiry cannot be undertaken if those wh o have a stake in covering up malfeasance are themselves in command. The consideration of conflict of interest demands this, independently of the functionaries' intentions or past record.
Clearly, the NDA government is following a deeply contradictory approach based on cheap sophistry and double standards. Vajpayee's crisis managers admit that the Tehelka tapes are authentic, and their content damaging enough, to warrant extraordinary ste ps such as the resignation of the Defence Minister and the suspension of the MoD officials. And yet, they deny the force of the same tapes as regards other top functionaries, including PMO officials.
This will not wash with the public. No one will believe that the role of middlemen, officially abolished in defence deals 15 years ago, has ceased to exist; that Fernandes cut them out in recent contracts; that his hand-picked party treasurer (R.K. Jain) consistently lied on the tape about the extent of deal-fixing; that graft and unreasonable influence do not affect the choice of weapons; or that the case of the Krasnopol laser-guided shells which repeatedly failed is exceptional.
There will be even fewer takers for the claim that the defence services' morale has not been affected by the Tehelka disclosures. The very fact that lakhs of rupees changed hands in Fernandes' government bungalow should cause great embarrassment to our s oldiers.
THE NDA is caught in a web of blackmail. Fernandes quit with the utmost reluctance and sullenness - only after Mamata Banerjee (openly) and other partners like the Telugu Desam Party and the Janata Dal (U) (covertly) forced Vajpayee's hand. But Fernandes extracted a price: an assurance of re-appointment as NDA convener and principal spokesman, and a promise that he would be given back Defence as soon as (not if) the inquiry exonerates him. This he did by getting Samata MPs to demand that Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh too quit. This left Vajpayee with few options: concede Fernandes' demand for partial rehabilitation, or empty out the PMO. He chose the first option, hoping that he would not have to take the second step. But Vajpayee is not on top of the situation. Under pressure he may have to take the second step too.
Vajpayee does not know from where the next blow to his government could come - the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (which has already indicted the PMO's "unconstitutional" and "incompetent" functionaries) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, or from Samata malcont ents, the Janata Dal (U), the Biju Janata Dal, or some other ally. Even the Shiv Sena is acting up. Some of the regional parties are at one remove from the defence scam. They are uncomfortable at the thought of courting unpopularity on its account; they are not averse to a serious inquiry. But the only way the Praetorian Guard around Vajpayee will try to protect him is by strenuously denying that there is any wrongdoing and by closing ranks. Except that in some circumstances, there will be no ranks left to close. This would well happen after the elections to four State Assemblies (and one Union Territory), in which the BJP is expected to fare badly.
The BJP has long perfected the art of duplicity. It claims to be the guardian of public decency, "the party with a difference", clean and incorruptible. But all too often it has relied on defectors and politicians who are self-admittedly corrupt. It held up parliamentary proceedings for a fortnight against Sukh Ram, but now condemns the Opposition for doing so for an infinitely bigger scandal. The BJP has a high proportion of law-breakers in its ranks in States like Uttar Pradesh and yet it claims to be the upholder of "principle".
THE BJP claims to be uniquely patriotic. And yet it has compromised national security in reckless ways. When committing a particularly vile act, it declares it to be a form of aapad-dharma, to be practised just once. It then routinises it as norma l conduct. It is hard to believe that the party leadership will mend its ways for considerations of conscience or under its allies' pull - unless there is external pressure too.
A BJP or an NDA that is bent on stonewalling the real issues raised by the Tehelka tapes cannot be brought to book unless the larger public enters the ongoing debate. The people have so far remained a silent actor, with only indirect references made to t heir perceptions and likely responses. They can occupy the centre-stage only if political parties take the corruption issue to the streets. The Opposition must not forget that Doordar-shan accounts for 65 per cent of the homes connected to TV channels. T o its abiding disgrace, and the BJP's censorship, it blacked out the Tehelka expose.
The Opposition is thus called upon to fill the information gap. But it cannot stop at disseminating the corruption disclosures. It must offer to reform the political system and combat corruption comprehensively.
To carry conviction, its agenda must have three components. First, it must propose an alternative system of awarding defence contracts through a high-level standing commission of former defence officials, technical experts and representatives of the publ ic - all of impeccable integrity. The Commission must have full information on technology, the market, prices, and so on. It must blacklist unscrupulous middlemen and fix modest commissions. It must be empowered to open up all suspect deals.
Secondly, the agenda must address the issue of corruption in government and in political parties. One critical task is to remove public servants' immunity from prosecution, and extend the Prevention of Corruption Act to functionaries of political parties . Equally imperative are electoral reform and regulation of party funding.
The agenda's third component is the public's right to inform and be informed. Nothing transacted inside the government, barring matters of demonstrably strategic importance, should be secret. People must be guaranteed access to their own records and to o fficial deliberations as regards policy, decisions, actions and so on. Transparency must be institutionalised. Offices dealing with the public must follow open-access filing.
Some of the Opposition parties themselves have a tainted record so far as secrecy, censorship and corruption are concerned. The public will not take seriously their promise to provide a clean government unless they can be held down to an agenda of transp arency and corruption-free governance. They must see this agenda as a step towards self-reform. Only a thoughtfully conceived, sincere, agenda can impart substance to the "systemic cleansing" slogan which remains vacuous in Vajpayee's mouth.
The Opposition parties are divided into three camps: the Congress(I) and its allies, which hold about 130 Lok Sabha seats, the Left with 41 seats, and another bloc of 75 led by the Samajwadi Party (26 seats). There are serious incompatibilities between t he first group and the rest. There are also differences among the latter. The Left represents the cleanest segment in Indian politics without a stake in corruption. This cannot be uniformly said about the third group, with a section of which the Left has floated a "People's Front" (P.F.).
Much of the media have unfairly run down the P.F. This is wrong, but one must note the Front's weaknesses. The P.F. has not evolved as a result of the people's struggles. Its joint programme, going by the United Front precedent, is likely to be the lowes t common denominator of many disparate orientations, plus a dose of economic neo-liberalism.
One must hope that the Left will not compromise on such a policy which runs against its own principled orientation. Pragmatically, the Left should help build an alternative to the NDA. It can do so through joint actions in the streets, through parliament ary coordination, even seat adjustments - but not a programme which dissolves its distinct identity. Whether the Opposition's efforts coalesce into a real alternative will depend less on "palace politics" than on mass mobilisation. It must gird up its lo ins for this.