I wondered in this column some years ago why top businessmen were frequently prosecuted and convicted in the US but not in India. Answer: crooked politicians had mangled the police-judicial system such that it could never convict them beyond all appeals, and obviously such a moribund system could not convict crooked businessmen either. Solution: only if the system allowed crooked politicians to be nabbed would crooked businessmen be nabbed too.
I feel vindicated—and delighted– to see first politicians and then businessmen arrested in the 2G telecom scam. A very powerful telecom minister, A Raja, was first sacked and then arrested. So were top business honchos of Anil Ambani’s group, Swan Telecom and Unitech. Remarkably, the CBI has even raided the office of Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, once viewed as too powerful to touch. She was raided although it was politically an ultra-sensitive time (during an election campaign), and the raid could be the final nail in the ruling coalition’s coffin.
But don’t assume that those arrested will actually be convicted, or that it will produce clean politics and business. That did not happen in earlier corruption scams that shook the country. The anti-corruption campaign of Jayaprakash Narayan in 1974-75 toppled the Chimanbhai Patel government in Gujarat and contributed to Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the 1977 general election, yet within a few years both politicians were back in power unscathed.
In 1989, voters ousted Rajiv Gandhi because of the Bofors scam, yet this did not lead to any convictions beyond appeals, and one of the accused — Win Chadha — died of old age. Something similar happened in the Jain hawala scam of the 1990s, entailing payments to politicians across the political spectrum. The political class stalled investigation, but then the Supreme Court ordered the CBI to investigate and prosecute. Alas, this was done in such slipshod fashion — because of political pressure — that nobody was convicted beyond appeals.
Will a similar fate befall the latest anti-corruption movement, starting with middle-class rage over the Commonwealth Games and culminating in Anna Hazare’s campaign for a Lokpal (ombudsman) with real teeth? True, the CBI has gone after powerful politicians like Raja and Kanimozhi, yet they are not more powerful than those that emerged unscathed in the Jain hawala case (LK Advani, Madhavrao Scindia, VC Shukla, Sharad Yadav, Shiv Shankar and others).
Nor is it clear that the evidence gathered so far in the 2G scam is any stronger than in the hawala case. The CBI has traced a payment of Rs 200 crore to Kanimozhi’s Kalaignar TV, but the company says this was an inter-corporate loan that was later repaid. Anyway, Rs 200 crore is tiny compared with the supposed scam size of over Rs 50,000 crore.
Maybe stronger evidence will turn up as the case proceeds, but even that may not be a clincher. Remember Sukh Ram, telecom minister in 1991-96? After his party was beaten in the 1996 election, the United Front government raided his house and caught him red-handed with crores in cash, stuffed into suitcases or wrapped in bedsheets.
But it took no less than 13 years for the courts to pronounce him guilty, and impose a very light sentence of three years imprisonment. Sukh Ram has appealed against the verdict. He is 84 years old and looks certain to die of old age before exhausting all appeals.
Given this history, don’t expect too much of the CBI in the 2G scam case. And don’t get too excited about the Lokpal bill because even a strong Lokpal’s decisions can be appealed to higher courts, which are dogged by long delays.
A Lokpal is not enough. We need a major overhaul of the police-prosecutor-judicial system. There is no space in this column to go into the issues involved, but without this the 2G scam will peter out like so many before it.
That apart, we need self-cleaning systems that automatically reduce corruption in the first place. One such, which i have long advocated, is a law providing that all criminal cases against elected legislators at the state or central level should get judicial priority over all other, and be disposed of within two years.
Today, many crooks enter the legislatures to stall cases they face. But once electoral victory means that their cases automatically get top priority over all others, crooks will keep out of elections altogether–electoral victory will accelerate rather than stall their legal headaches.
We cannot depend on occasional movements of the Jayaprakash Narayan or Anna Hazare sort to check corruption. The Lokpal Bill can be no more than a start towards clean politics. We need radical police-judicial reform and self-cleaning laws.