Let a thousand Lakhubhais Bloom

There is an old Indian joke mat an honest politician is one who takes bribes and delivers the promised contracts, whereas a dishonest politician is one who takes money but does not deliver. In Mr Narasimha Rao’s case, this looks like becoming official legal doctrine.

Mr P V Narasimha Rao today stands accused (along with his old guru, Chandraswami) of cheating Mr Lakhubhai Pathak, a non-resident businessman. Way back in 1983. Mr Pathak wanted to sell newsprint to India.

He was aware that getting a government contract was far from easy, and that various gods and godmen had to be propitiated first.

Since the Hindu scriptures provided no guide as to what rituals and sacrifices would suffice, he decided to consult godman Chandraswami. The godman told him that $ 100,000 would suffice.

And, says the businessmen, Mr Narasimha Rao (who was then external affairs minister) assured him that this ritual sacrifice would yield it due reward.

Alas, Mr Pathak never got the contract. Some might regard this as poetic justice. However, while there is some poetry in a giver of bribes losing money, there is none in a taker of bribes profiting. Mr Pathak decided this was a case of poetic injustice, and accused the godman and Mr Rao of cheating him of $ 100.000.

This must be the first lime a politician has been charged with cheating on the ground that he failed to misuse his influence to wangle a contract. Normally shady politicians are accused of subverting the public interest by wangling contracts.

Mr Rao, however, stands accused of failing to subvert the public interest. He probably regards this as unfair. Yet public disgust with politicians is so widespread that nobody has much sympathy for him.

I would like to raise two issues. First, why was Mr Pathak not arrested at the very beginning as a self-confessed giver of bribes? The answer, I think, is that this would have inconvenient for the political class. Had Mr Pathak been charged and tried, a lot of dirty linen would have been washed in public. And so the political class thought it more convenient to try and kill Mr Pathak’s complaint through inaction.

The second issue is why did the godman and his political sponsors not simply return the $ 100.000 to Mr Pathak? As kickbacks go, this is a tiny sum. Why place yourself at risk for such a trifle?

One answer is that, given their influence, the accused did not think they ran any risk. But I think there is a second and more important reason.

From the politician’s viewpoint returning Mr Pathak’s money would have set a very unhealthy precedent. It would have encouraged all aggrieved bribe-givers to demand their money back from the Congress Party, and this would have plunged it into a financial crisis.

The same would be true of several other panics too. No party can afford to get the reputation of returning money simply because it does not deliver.

The new activism of the judiciary means it is no longer so easy to kill cases through inaction. Judicial activism simply reflects public disgust with the entire political class, that has made a mockery of the rule of law.

The public today cheers activist judges as folk heroes. And so judges are getting increasingly aggressive, making scathing remarks about politicians that would have been regarded as grossly improper two decades ago.

Some purists feel judicial activism is going to far, and may degenerate into vendetta. They point out that all the top politicians in the hawala case have all got bail, yet Chandraswami has not although he looks less capable of influencing witnesses than the politicians.

The purists also ask why the trial judge has entertained a public interest suit in the middle of a criminal trial, something unheard of earlier.

Should the judge be treating an attempted bribe on par with a legally enforceable contract? Even if so, breach of contract is a civil matter, not a criminal one. It becomes criminal only it intent to defraud can be proved, and is this really possible in such a case?

Mr Rao may also complain that he is being treated unfairly. Why is something being raked up after 13 years? Why is the word of a self-confessed giver of bribes being treated more seriously than that of a former Prime Minister?

The main answer is that people today regard politicians as more crooked than bribe-giving businessmen. Since the rule of law does not bring shady politicians to book, people are willing to go along with any device that jails powerful politicians, even if these stretch the normal limits of law.

This may be rough justice, but is better than no justice. Politicians who have subverted he rule of law for so long cannot suddenly take refuge behind it – in these circumstances, I appeal to all businessmen who have ever paid money in vain to politicians to follow Mr Pathak’s example.

Ladies and gentlemen, please come forward in thousands and complain that you too have been cheated. In the past this would have too risky, since the politicians would have gone scot-free and wreaked vengeance on you.

But today you can rely on judicial activism and public interest litigation to hit your political targets harder than they can hit you.

And please do not worry that confessing to attempted bribes will get you into trouble. Mr Pathak has demonstrated that far from being prosecuted you are likely to be regarded as a son of public saviour.

What do you think?