Exposes need convictions to have impact

Will the Robert Vadra expose help end corruption? Or will it be just another rib-tickler that titillates the middle class for a few weeks and is then forgotten? Will politics remain India\’s biggest business by far?

I am not optimistic. Politicians of every party love slinging mud at rivals: as good businessmen, they hope this will improve their market share. But will they cooperate in closing down the business altogether and moving to a less lucrative one? I doubt it.

Remember Anna Hazare\’s anti-corruption movement last year. He captured the imagination of citizens, and massive public pressure obliged political parties to take up the Lokpal Bill, aimed at creating a new institution that would speedily prosecute crooked politicians. All parties assured Hazare that the Bill would be passed in the winter session of Parliament. But then they used theatrical devices to stall it. They promised action as soon as the next Parliament session began.

But by that time the fickle middle class had lost interest, and Hazare could no longer attract huge crowds. The Bill was referred to a parliamentary committee, where it will moulder for a long time, and probably lapse. An unwritten understanding between parties ensures that no anti-corruption legislation has real teeth. This has been the fate of all Lokayukta legislation in sundry states: no Lokayukta has made any significant difference to state-level corruption.

Arvind Kejriwal deserves kudos for exposing how Robert Vadra, one-time scrap dealer and husband of Priyanka Gandhi, has become rich. Convenient loans from public sector banks, clearances from the Haryana government, and advances from DLF helped him convert a few lakhs of equity capital in unknown companies into hundreds of crores. The Vadra affair has produced a million chortles and left Congress spokesmen looking comic as they try to defend the indefensible. Everybody knows this is just the tip of the iceberg: the deals in question are in white money, while political business is mostly black.

If Kejriwal now exposes shady deals of sundry opposition figures, what will happen? Will all politics change? No, politicians of all parties will gang up against him, and try to reduce his credibility. Instead of being feted as a scam-buster, he will find himself investigated for minor or imaginary transgressions, and hauled up on technicalities. This happened last year to members of Team Hazare, and will happen again.

Worse, Kejriwal will probably find middle-class interest waning if he makes mass exposures of politicians of all parties. The public is cynical and fickle, and has a limited attention span. It likes a scam with a star celebrity, one that can be spun out in installments, with new revelations providing fresh titillation day after day. This was true of Bofors, 2G and coal allotments. It is also true of Vadragate.

But if different allegations are leveled at a dozen politicians, TV anchors and the middle class will suffer from data overload, and their eyes will glaze. This happened earlier when Team Hazare demanded an immediate probe into charges against 15 ministers (including the Prime Minister), plus the fast-tracking of 150 criminal cases against sundry MPs. The public could not digest so much information, and failed to get excited about it. Hopefully, Kejriwal has learned from this, and will space out accusations against others.

But even if he exposes goons in all parties, will this end corruption? No, because that is possible only with major reforms of the police, judiciary and prosecutors. As of now, cases take so long that the accused is likely to die of old age before being convicted beyond appeals. The LN Mishra murder case has meandered on for 37 years through 30 different judges, most of the witnesses have died, and yet the Supreme Court recently held that the system could not be blamed for the delay!

Cases against Lalu Yadav in the fodder scam, and against Mayawati in the Taj Corridor case continue forever without end. A 2006 raid on Om Prakash Chautala, former chief minister of Haryana, unearthed a whopping Rs 1,400 crore of shady assets, far exceeding the Vadra deals. Yet Chautala\’s case meanders on at snail\’s pace. The public has lost interest, so Chautala looks likely to become the next chief minister, not the next jailed crook.

Outrageous? Yes, but when the judicial system cannot convict crooks, then crooks will flourish in politics and much else. Systemic change is possible only through radical reform of the police and judiciary to ensure rapid investigation and conviction. But this does not make for popular TV, so neither Kejriwal nor TV anchors focus on this. Instead they focus on the latest titillation.

1 thought on “Exposes need convictions to have impact”

  1. Dear Sir,
    I read the book Drs Daron Acemoglu of MIT and James Robinson of Harvard (authors of the bestseller and thoroughly researched book “Why Nations Fail”). There is considerably less coverage on India, w.r.t China. However, even when they deal about India, the description is not very optimistic, at least to me.

    In their blog that tries to interact with the readers of the book, and clarify their queries, they mention outright that there is no meaningful democracy in our country. Specifically, they state that “We go to pains in the book to emphasize that electoral democracy isn’t the same as inclusive political institutions. This becomes particularly binding when it comes to India. India has been democratic since its independence, but in the same way that regular elections since 1929 don’t make Mexico under PRI control an inclusive society, Congress-dominated democratic politics of India doesn’t make India inclusive. Perhaps it’s then no surprise that major economic reforms in India started when the Congress Party faced serious political competition. In fact, the quality of democracy in India remains very low. Politics has not only been dominated by the Congress party but continues to be highly patrimonial, and as we have been discussing recently, this sort of patrimonialism militates against the provision of public goods. Recent research by Toke Aidt, Miriam Golden and Devesh Tiwari (“Incumbents and Criminals in the Indian National Legislature”) shows there are other very problematic aspects of the Indian democratic system: a quarter of the members of the Lok Sabha, the Indian legislature, have faced criminal charges, but alarmingly, such politicians are more likely to be re-elected than those without criminal charges, reflecting the fact that Indian democracy is far from being an inclusive ideal.”
    More details are available here: http://whynationsfail.com/blog/2012/11/2/china-india-and-all-that.html

    Let there be some substitutes for this Mom-Son duopoly, supported by their power-hungry vassals. I don’t care if the substitute is Narendra Modi, who has been served a continued smear campaign due to 2002 riots, just to make sure that he will not be able to stand up to the duo any time. But I hope our country awakens at the right time.

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