Do Business Crooks Deserve Amnesty?

Keeping a diary can be a dangerous pastime, as the Jain brothers will testify. Yet any businessman or politician worth his salt will tell you that it is simply not possible to operate in a control-cum-kickback raj without keeping meticulous accounts. The sums are large, the entries multiple, and colleagues have to be satisfied that they are not being cheated of their share in the loot.

So the keeping of records is inevitable, and coded diaries are a good way of doing so.

Sukh Ram diaries are being decoded, and dozens of star business names will appear there. The diaries of Jayalalitha should be another treasure trove. And then there are the diaries of Santosh Mohan Deb.

Till recently, no influential person had the lightest fear of being raided witnout being given advance notice (which enabled him to hide his diaries). Now, suddenly, there are raids on the best connected people, diaries are unearthed, and even private secretaries are becoming stool pigeons. In the Jharkand Mukti Morcha bribery case, the CBI says five top industrial groups – Ambanis, Jindals, Ruias, Oswals and Dhoots – have paid sackfuls of money to Mr Satish Sharma (an allegation they have denied). This is only a first list -business circles speak of a second list with 19 names, all corporate stars.

The Sukh Ram diaries are being decoded, and dozens of star business names will appear there. The diaries of Jayalalitha should be another treasure trove. And then there are the diaries of Santosh Mohan Deb.

So, the arrest of ITC directors may simply be the tip of the iceberg. The heads of most of the 30 Bombay Sensex companies may soon stand accused of pay-offs. Those who used to be awarded businessman of the year titles may be awarded jail sentences.

The juvenile left will doubtless say this is all the fault of liberalisation. Businessmen, of course, will laugh at the very notion that kickbacks were invented in 1991 – they have been paying their dues for decades. What has changed since 1991 is judicial activism. After long slumber for ages, the courts and police are suddenly waking up to the fact that venal politicians have left a long trail that is not difficult to follow.

The expose of politicians is bound to lead to the expose of businessmen too. After all, where do corrupt politicians get cash from? It does not fall from the heavens, even if you have excellent connections with the almighty through Chandraswami and other godmen. No, politicians rely on more reliable, earthly sources of cash like businessmen. The unearthing of money-taking politicians was bound to be followed by the unearthing of money-paying businessmen, as surely as night follows day. So soon the country’s top businessmen may be in roughly the same position as the Jain brothers in the hawala case.

The businessmen will argue that the whole socio-political system has been so rotten and corrupt for years that no businessmen could function without paying his political masters. You could either pay up or commit suicide. And few had the stomach for hara-kiri.

Many businessmen say it is unfair to accuse them of criminality when such behaviour was forced on them by the very people who are supposed to be guardians of the law. Many will argue, indeed, that they have been victims of extortion, not beneficiaries.

Critics will jeer at this line of argument. They will say that the businessmen were not giving bribes as a form of social service but to feather their own nests; that they received handsome returns on their investment in political friendships; that politicians and businessmen joined hands to loot the general public.

The truth lies in between. It is certainly true that some inefficient but crooked businessmen have fared well in the kickback raj, and are the sort that would have been wiped out in a competitive economy. But by far the biggest category of businessmen is those that registered some progress under the kickback raj, but would have fared infinitely better in a liberalised system. Many of the most famed manipulators in the licence-permit raj have fared even better in the liberalised raj without controls, suggesting they were net losers rather than net beneficiaries of the old system.

Take a look at the countries in East Asia and South East Asia that were reckoned to be way behind India in 1947, and see how far ahead they are today. In retrospect, it is clear that the command economy stunted Indian businessmen. They will say: A man who pays protection money to the mafia may be breaking the law, but is he really guilty?

Some businessmen say that there should be an amnesty for kickbacks of old, followed by harsh penalties for new defaulters. This, they say, is the only way of dealing with a system in which everyone was guilty, and those who broke the law actually built the economy. Now, amnesties are indeed part of the global process. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela has said white supremacists who confess their old sins in racist days will be forgiven. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel (who took over after the Communist collapse) forgave communist oppressors.

Is similar forgiveness appropriate for Indian businessmen? I do not think so. It cannot be said that the old system in India has been replaced by a new one, as in South Africa or Czechoslovakia. The kickback raj has been pruned by delicensing but remains very much in existence. Some arrests have taken place, but we are a long way yet from securing convictions. Cynics will say the influential crooks will die of old age before exhausting appeals.

The only way a corrupt society can cleanse itself is to catch the few crooks against whom evidence can be found, and follow those cases relentlessly to their conclusion. There is no case today for even considering an amnesty. It is not businessmen alone who claim that bribery was inescapable in the bad old days. Politicians too will say that taking money was essential for the great enterprise of fighting elections, and actually helped build democracy. Politicians have argued in states like Bihar that booth-capturing and musclemen are essential to survive. There is some truth in the all these statements. Yet the solution cannot be an amnesty for transgressors. On the contrary, it must be to catch the few who have been careless enough to leave tracks. Maybe these few are less crooked than hundreds who escape Scot free. But we have to start somewhere in cleansing our society, and the starting point must be those cases where concrete evidence is available.

Critics will say that the businessmen were not giving bribes as a form of social service, but to feather their own nests; that they received handsome returns on their investment in political friendships.

If we really get a stage where all crooked politicians and businessmen are in jail, it will indeed be time for a rethink. But I see no sign yet of such a revolution. So, while I readily concede that there were extenuating circumstances for businessmen forced to pay bribes, while acknowledge that many of them played a nation-building role, while I sympathise with the plight of many of them, I still look forward to seeing them behind bars.

What do you think?