Saturday, March 30, 2013

But for the judges who defend fairness, our country would be diminished

We don't hear anything these days about Justice P.D.Dinakaran or Justice Soumitra Sen or Justice K.G.Balakrishnan. That is a relief. We do hear about Justice M.N.Venkatachaliah, Justice J.N.Verma, Justice K.T.Thomas, Justice Santosh Hegde and Justice Markandeya Katju. That is a reassurance. This is one league where The Good outweighs The Not Good.

In our society the political class has lost its moral base. So has Parliament. The famed 'Fourth Estate' also has lost much of its sheen. The judiciary, despite corruption corroding its ranks, has retained a measure of credibility thanks to the outstanding contributions of some outstanding judges and lawyers. They are our saving grace.

When Home Minister L.K. Advani set up a National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, allegations rose about the BJP's intentions. It was the choice of Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah as Chairman of the Commission that muted the criticism. The retired CJI made two points that further emphasised the Commission's credibility. First, he said a Parliamentary Commission might have been better but "the excellent need not be the enemy of the good". Second, he said that "the Commission, given its composition, can never push the agenda of any political party" as was being charged. He was referring to the Commission's members such as P.A.Sangma, Soli Sorabjee and Abid Hussain, considered close to the Sonia Gandhi family. In the end the Commission's report (2002) was left to gather dust, but Justice MNV goes on with human rights and anti-corruption campaigns.

When the nation as a whole was shattered by the horror of the Delhi gang-rape, Justice J.N.Verma Commission's report on what needed to be done provided a balm to aching hearts. Not only was the report compiled in record time; it was hailed as bold, imaginative and comprehensive. To our misfortune, it fell into the hands of an indecisive Government. In its anxiety to please all, including criminal elements in politics, it turned the Commission's proposals into a toothless law. But Justice Verma remains an authoritative voice whose integrity matches his judicial wisdom.

As a member of the 3-member bench that sentenced Rajiv Gandhi's assassins to death in 1991, Justice K.T. Thomas had the courage to say that it would be against the spirit of the Constitution to carry out today a sentence that was not carried out for 22 years. He also referred to uninvestigated aspects of the case, such as the funding of the plot. And he made a significant legal point. A 2010 judgment by Justice S.B.Sinha had ruled, he said, that it was not enough to look at a crime; it was necessary also to take into account the character of the criminals and the circumstances. Thus do the concepts of propriety and fairness progress from one positive mind to another.

Few retired Supreme Court judges have won public admiration the way Justice Santosh Hegde has by bringing to light the depth of corruption in the name of mining. He seems to have upset some politicos again by saying that illegal operations cannot be justified on the ground that such operations provide employment to some people. That, he said, would be like arguing against the arrest of Dawood Ibrahim lest the people working for him lose their jobs. But isn't that a valid argument and a valid example? What is there for political leaders to get angry about? Unless it is a case of the cap fitting the head.

Justice Katju is in a class by himself. His style is brusque, his words cutting. Sometimes they cut too deeply, leaving bruised images around. But his intentions are honourable and he has the guts to fight for what he feels just. He sticks his neck out whether it is pardon for Sanjay Dutt or mercy for Zaibunissa. We should be grateful that he stands tall even in the firing line.

These men may have retired, but their commitment to their calling has not. Their learning, their judicial training and their uncompromising independence remain at the service of the country. They are, in the language of the Gita, the goodness of the good. Our country would be diminished without them.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Free rice, free cow, free TV, free mobile: The next coalition chaos is nigh

Election bells are ringing and politicians have started running around like plucked chicken. But they will triumph again because a hung Parliament will see horse-traders, bargain-hunters, blackmailers and moneybags putting together another coalition as pathetic as the present one. It might take some more time before an Indian Spring saves us from the Plundering Class and gives democracy a chance.

Interestingly, the first bugle for assembly elections has sounded in Karnataka where, only a few days earlier, the urban local area elections had taken place. In that round the BJP lost even its traditional strongholds in the coastal belt, indicating how angry the people had become over the party's corruption record climaxed by its chief minister's imprisonment and the continued jailing of its Bellary financier.

This is an opportunity for the Congress, but there is no evidence that it is seizing it. If the party elders campaign unitedly, if men with tainted track records are kept out, if younger leaders are brought forward, the Congress will regain people's trust. But such are not the calculations that lead this venerable party, even at the high command level. We should not be surprised if the leaders compete among themselves to give Rahul Gandhi all credit for the local area victories.

Elsewhere the culture of free gifts is heralding election season prosperity. Ever since N. T. Rama Rao launched the rupee-a-kilo rice as an election weapon, the idea has caught on. In Tamil Nadu competing parties now give free rice, free laptops, free mangalasutras, even free cows.

Orissa has learned the efficacy of this kind of politics. In the 2009 assembly elections, the Naveen Patnaik Government gave rice at Rs 2 a kilo. That clinched the Government's victory. So this time it is Re. 1 a kilo. Next time perhaps they will progress to free rice. They are also giving free mobiles to 20,000 farmers and free sim cards to one lakh fishermen, bicycles to class 10 students and Rs 5000 to pregnant women. The Government is spending a total of Rs 60,000 crore for these gifts. Which is a bit much because, unlike in Tamil Nadu, Orissa's ruling Patnaik party has no opposition strong enough to challenge it.

This year, however, the real importance of state elections lies in how they will affect the coming parliamentary elections. Every regional leader wants to become king-maker, if not king himself, in Delhi when the Lok Sabha elections lead, as widely expected, to chaos. In West Bengal, Bihar, UP, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, the ultimate goal is Delhi. People like Mulayam Singh and Sharad Pawar are already seeing themselves as heads of this coalition or that.

Coalition are a curse in India. Any splinter party can hold the entire government to ransom. With the DMK out of its orbit, the Manmohan Singh Government is at the mercy of Mulayam Singh and Mayawati, marvels of democracy even Mephistopheles would be scared to have as partners. One of the biggest scandals in our era of scandals involves irrigation funds in Maharashtra and facts and figures about it are out in the open. But because the portfolio is in the hands of the Pawar Congress, a "clean chit" had to be officially given to it by the Government headed by the other Congress. In Kerala, because the Congress-led coalition has only a thin majority, the Chief Minister has to be a dutiful rubber stamp to grave irregularities committed by the Muslim league and other partners in sin. In the states as well as in the Centre, for the sake of power, corruption and crime are accepted as democracy's privileges.

Coalitions are not a curse in mature democracies. The British Government today is a Tory-Liberal Party coalition. Other European countries have worked under coalition arrangements and worked well. Even Malaysia has been under a coalition system for a long time and achieved modernity and progress. It is not the system that is at fault; it is the people who pervert the system. Our political class has become so malignant that it will contaminate everything it touches. The election about to take place will not eliminate the malignancy or the contamination.

Monday, March 18, 2013

But didn't we know all along that Italians were more equal than us?

Italy is India's made-for-each-other soulmate. The similarities between the two countries are amazing. Rome, like Mumbai, is home to gifted pickpockets. Italians, like Indians, are chaotic, break traffic rules with pride and always shout at the other fellow for bad driving. Cops become as forgiving as their Indian counterparts at the sight of money.

Corruption is the insignia of both countries, recognised as a universal phenomenon and therefore as highly desirable. Italian politicians, as abominable as their Indian brethren, abuse power with a sense of achievement, divert public funds to private purpose, promote crony capitalists and do business with the mafia. Tax evasion is practised in both countries as a birth right. Even bunga bunga is a cherished political pastime in India as in Italy, though Indian politicians are yet to develop Silvio Berlusconi's public machismo about it.

Such umbilical links eliminate differences between Indian and Italian politics. Both are impressively degenerate. Indian and Italian politicians are of the same stock, the same cultural traits, the same worldview. That must be why The Economist once described Sonia Gandhi as "Italy's most successful politician".

What a pity there is an explosion of public anger now in India against Italy's refusal to send its killer marines back to India as pledged to the Supreme Court. All that Italy did was to make a fool of the court, run rings round the Indian Government and generally tell India to go to hell. What's that between made-for-each-other friends?

Actually, "friends, Romans and countrymen" can argue that they have been helping Delhi. For the Sonia-Manmohan Government, surviving scandals has been a fulltime occupation. It would have floundered but for the fact that each time a scandal looked close to devouring it, another came up and gave it breathing time.

Parliament convened this time with P.J.Kurien's woman-related scandal raging high. Does anyone remember it now? It was neutralised by the Italian helicopter scandal. When that began to damage the Government, the CAG's "coalgate" report opened an escape latch. The CAG report was a nasty one revealing massive corruption. But in the nick of time the Italians again came to the Government's rescue with its decision to tell the Supreme Court to go fly a kite.

This time the Government can try to ease its way by empathising with the angry public and leaving half the job to the Supreme Court. But can it, really and truly, get away this time? Its track record is one of kneeling before the West in critical moments. Remember, the only issue on which Manmohan Singh acted with firmness was the US civil nuclear agreement -- which gave the US what it wanted. More injurious to India's health is the latest Delhi decision to bow to America and stop crude oil imports from Iran despite contracts that are long-term. By contrast, Pakistan which is a virtual US dependency defied America and formally inaugurated the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project a few days ago. Iran will now help build a refinery in Gwadar port already under Chinese management. The all-round benefit to Pakistan will be huge.

Economic interests apart, India has swallowed its pride when white men turned offenders even in criminal acts. The Government provided state facilities for the Bhopal gas-leak culprit Anderson to escape. A grave security breach occurred in 1995 when an unauthorised aircraft dropped large quantities of arms in Purulia. Its Danish kingpin was allowed to escape while a British associate was jailed, then released on the request of the UK Government. The case remained uninvestigated and unresolved.

Then of course there was our all-time hero, Ottavio Quattrochi. When the law was about to catch up with him, he was informed by ministers of the Congress Party and he escaped to Malaysia. We must be the only country in the world where ministers sworn to defend the country work against its interests.

Italians don't play games with their national pride. The lesson to learn is clear to all. In India white men are more equal than Indians. Among whites, Italians are more equal than others. We deserve to be ruled by them.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Monsters became rulers in Rome too -- And see what happened there

In terms of moral decay, India's present phase is similar to the collapsing years of the Roman Empire. We are no empire, yet we have the vices that felled one of history's mightiest. As one chronicler of the Roman saga put it, "the spirit of the times was to corrupt and to be corrupted". Another noted that "the emperors were monsters of crime".

Sounds familiar? Come up with any system, any project, and the Indian genius finds a way to abuse it. Be it elections, defence procurement, loan waiving, even garbage collection, the guiding spirit is to corrupt and to be corrupted. In our legislatures and police stations, monsters of crime prevail. One in a hundred crimes catch national attention, then the monsters lie low for a while. The hullaballoo dies down and the monsters return to their ways.

If all parties and all citizens agree on one thing, it is that Raja Bhaiya is a dangerous man. When he stands for election from his Kunda constituency, people get so scared that it becomes a virtual one-horse race. BJP's Kalyan Singh once called him Kunda ka goonda. Yet Raja was in two BJP cabinets, Kalyan Singh's and Rajnath Singh's, and then went on to join the cabinets of Mulayam Singh and Akhilesh Yadav. Several cases against him were withdrawn. Eight still remain, five of them involving brutalities.

The latest case is the torture and then murder of a police officer in the Kunda region. Raja Bhaiya denied any involvement, but resigned anyway. He remained at large, free to tamper with evidence and potential witnesses, while the state Government announced a CBI inquiry. Rather like the Central Government announcing a 30-member Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate the Italian helicopter scam. The emperors are not just monsters of crime, they are also monsters of sabotaging justice.

The irony is striking. UP was suffocating under Mayawati's autocracy. Her ministers and MLAs included criminally implicated people. When she was thrown out and a young and educated Akhilesh Yadav became Chief Minister, it looked like a good augury. But all that happened was: A new set of criminals came in. Can only monsters win?

Flip the eye to Punjab and see what happened there. A young woman, harassed by taxi drivers, went to nearby police officers to complain. The police officers kicked her, slapped her, caned her until she fell on the road. Her old father was also roughed up. The entire scene was broadcast by television channels, providing evidence no one could deny. Yet the Punjab police chief denied it. There was "ample provocation" by the young woman, he said. The video could not be seen in isolation, he said. The emperors are monsters who see themselves as angels -- and see passing angels as monsters.

In neighbouring Haryana, the ghastly record of Minister Gopal Kanda is not forgotten. An airhostess he had employed was driven to suicide and she left a note accusing him of harassment. He remained free for long; the police said he could not be traced when he was very much around. This was another case of a man with several criminal cases against him becoming a minister and defying the law he had pledged to uphold.

We are repeatedly told of the percentage of MPs and MLAs with criminal antecedents. When Manmohan Singh wanted to win a life-and-death vote in Parliament over the US nuclear defence deal, some honourable members came from their jail cells to vote. One of them was a convicted murderer. Why has the system become so rotten that it needs murderers and rapists to sustain itself?

Indian voters have the sense to throw out bad rulers, even of Indira Gandhi's eminence. We also have an election machinery that is reasonably tamper-proof. But we don't have the laws that will keep criminals out of the electoral system because the criminals themselves sit in the legislatures. Nasty characters who are not representative of the people become representatives of the people. If we do not stop them in time, the monsters will take our country to where they took the Roman Empire.

Monday, March 4, 2013

When budgets are made by politicians, they become missed opportunities

There is an accepted way to handle budgets -- and there is the Indian way. Our budgets are the handiwork of politicians, not financial experts or railway specialists. They do not seek long-term plans aimed at public good. Some ministers are smart and some are naive, but all focus on short-term advantages. Budgets are, year after year, our country's biggest missed opportunities.

Consider Railway Minister Bansal's performance. This was his maiden budget, the first time in his career that he was the cynosure of all eyes. It was a good opportunity to show a whiff of wisdom, a touch of leadership. But what did he do? He proved that his priority was to please his boss. He went out of his way to say that Rajiv Gandhi had introduced him to the most sacred temple of democracy, that Rajiv Gandhi had turned India into a giant in information technology. In a laboured effort to relate this to his portfolio, he said that information technology had benefited railways also. How sad can our politics get.

Actually it can get sadder. Bansal did not stop with the icon of the ruling Congress dynasty. He saw to it that the budget paid special attention to Sonia Gandhi's constituency, making opposition members mock him by calling it a Rae Bareily budget. As for the general public, the naive minister let Rail Bhavan bureaucrats to trick them. They ruled out fare increase and announced price increase; all surcharges, like reservations, were up. It was like saying there was no robbery, only burglary.

The likes of P. Chidambaram won't do anything so amateurish. They are more wordly-wise, but the ground rules are the same: Tributes to the bosses, a feel-good feeling to the masses. With elections getting closer, he was politically correct and did some gallery play. Who wouldn't love a bank exclusively for women? Even Sushma Swaraj put on a beatific smile as she thumped the desk. A "Nirbhaya" fund for women, tax increase, apologetic and nominal, for the super-rich, concessions, condescending and nominal, for the super-poor -- Chidambaram did succeed in presenting a glass half full.

But where was the vision, the change of direction? High prices have been he biggest problem for ordinary people in recent months. Where was the solution? This budget will not go into the history books as a few have. Chidambaram's own 1997 budget was called "Dream Budget" for the way it reduced taxes and increased revenue. Yashwant Sinha's budget in 2000 was called "Millennium Budget" because of its timing. The "Epochal Budget" deserved the name because it referred to the 1991 Manmohan Singh budget that implemented Narasimha Rao's vision of economic liberalisation.

The best budget-makers were in the early years of independence. Shanmukham Chetty and John Matthai were path-breakers, but too professional to fit into Jawaharlal Nehru's then-popular socialistic pattern of life. C.D.Deshmuh and T.T.Krishnamachari who followed them became known as the men who shaped new India's economy. Deshmukh was an ICS officer and the first Indian Governor of the Reserve Bank. His vision included social control of the financial sector. TTK, an industrialist himself, was criticised by many business leaders for his penchant for controls and taxation. With Morarji Desai in 1958 began the era of truly unpopular budgets. Yet he created a record of sorts by presenting ten of them in his career.

The culture of budgets -- as the culture of politics itself -- changed with Indira Gandhi. Even TTK and Morarji Desai had the freedom to chart economic policies largely in line with their convictions. Today Congress ministers have to fit their policy ideas into the larger rubric of dynasty politics. They must also submit to powerful corporate cronies. Pranab Mukherji's term was marred by their influence, and Chidambaram is known to have his own crony capitalists. He has an additional pressure : The ambition to become Sonia Gandhi's next choice for prime ministership. Concluding his budget speech, Chidambaram said we were one of the world's biggest economies and that we could become bigger and still bigger; it all depended on us.

'Us' of course meant 'them'. And that is the problem.