A Boring Subject
Posted on 6-March-2013
In the last month, stories of yet another financial scam in India broke out. In 2010, Government of India had concluded a deal for the purchase of 12 Augusta Westland helicopters whose use would be to ferry Indian high functionaries, described commonly in India as VIP's--there are still higher ranking human beings called VVIP's--on their travels in India. The deal was worth about US$ 750 million. Last year, reports started surfacing that Italian investigators were probing allegations that the managers of the Italian state enterprise Finmeccanica, which owns 30% stake in the company manufacturing these helicopters in plants in the United Kingdom had paid bribes amounting to about 6% of the value of the deal to Indians for securing the contract. These news stories barely created minor ripples in India. No one in the government lifted a finger. The political opposition reacted sotto voce, if at all. It is only after an Italian court sentenced two top officials of Finmeccanica for breaking Italian laws against payment of bribes, that India's political class and the chattering classes stirred themselves. India's defence minister, who like India's prime minister wears his personal probity on his sleeve but is quite at ease with the muck of corruption around him, announced that the deal would be cancelled and that nine helicopters out of the twelve contracted for would not be taken delivery of. He soon had to eat crow. An Indian team was sent to Italy on an obviously futile mission to gather more information, while they should have been looking inside India for information about which Indians received bribes. A Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) enquiry has begun and amid much publicity a former chief of the Indian Air Force and his three cousins have been grilled. There are innuendos in the press that these were the principal recipients of the bribes. But even if reports from Switzerland that these people received bribes are correct, the amounts paid to them according these same reports were a small portion of the total amount of bribes paid. The lion's share must needs have gone to other powerful people among politicians. It is well known in India that decisions on contracts of this nature and magnitude are taken at the highest political levels and people like the chief of the air force can at best be facilitators at initial stages. Since then another red herring has been drawn in the form an announcement of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe the deal. The appointment of this committee is one sure way of burying the scandal and India's main opposition political party has been curiously acquiescent, probably because discussions about the purchase of the helicopters were initiated in 2003 when that political party was in power.
Over the last two and a half years, there have regularly broken out stories of stealing of public money by those in power in the organisation of Commonwealth Games, allocation of radio frequencies to operators of cellular telephone networks, allocation of radio frequencies for transmission of signals from Indian satellites, allocation of coal mines to private operators, manipulation of natural gas prices for the profit of a certain business house whose head was some time ago reported to have called India's Congress Party as his own private shop, and now the purchase of helicopters so that a poor, democratic country's powerful grandees can travel in safety and comfort. In the case of all these scandals, the government's pattern of response has been the same: promises of action, a few token steps and then an attempt to brazen it out in the hope that people will eventually forget about them. Judging from the relatively muted reaction to the helicopter scandal, it seems the government's tactics may well be working. Some time ago, there were credible stories about Wal-Mart, the American retail store chain, having bribed Mexican politicians. Around the same time came stories about Wal-Mart's lobbying activities in the United States as well as their bribing Indians for getting an entry into the Indian market, on allowing which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had staked all his political capital. The Indian government announced the setting up of an enquiry by a judge. Thereafter there has been no more news about Wal-Mart's activities in India. What is remarkable is that neither the Wal-Mart story, nor the helicopter story has attracted as much attention and caused as much of anger as did the earlier scandals about the Commonwealth Games or telecom scandal or even the coal-allocation scandal. This could be due to skilful management of the media by the government and the ruling party. Or it could be that stories about big ticket corruption in India, because of the frequency with which they have come have become boring or that a kind of helpless public apathy has set in. A kind of ennui about corruption in government is potentially the most damaging for India's political and moral health. But there appears no one around to tap into public anger against corruption and generate a durable groundswell against the present day rulers of India. The anti-corruption crusaders of yesteryear have all gone nearly silent because they frittered their energies on a minor issue like setting up a gargantuan anti-corruption organisation called Lok Pal as if that was a panacea against corruption. They forgot that the only thing that keeps the rulers anywhere on the straight and narrow path is fear of popular revolt, either through action on the streets or through the ballot box.
There is a certain kind of pseudo-intellectual discourse in India which almost seems to condone corruption by saying that corruption and bribery are levellers in that they allow the poor and the disenfranchised to obtain those public goods that would otherwise be beyond their reach. This is utter bilge. Bribe collection is merely a form of extraction, illegitimate extraction, by those who exercise any fraction of the state's power and it is a particularly cruel form of extraction when the poor are forced to pay bribes for goods and services they cannot do without. Corruption in high places, where businesses pay bribes to politicians and other officials so that they can in deals and contracts make illegitimate profits is a burden that an entire people carries and the price is paid by the taxpayer. There is in India at present widespread public anger against the present, corrupt and incompetent government. It would be a pity if the Indian public allowed a sense of ennui to wash out this anger. The kleptocrats who are ruling India now deserve to be driven out of power. If the Indian voter were to drive the present set out of power, without being distracted by talk about there being no alternative, he would at least temporarily purge the system. Even a short reprieve would be salutary. If on the other hand, the people of India, out of impassiveness and a sense of helplessness were to vote the same set back to power the next year, they would render the future of their country darker. As Baudelaire wrote in his dedication of a collection of his poems to his readers, that monster boredom is uglier and more dangerous than a host of other demons.