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India's political class under attack over brazen corruption

Thursday November 18, 2010 05:24:51 PM, M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS

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New Delhi: A chief minister allegedly undervalues precious state land and sells it cheap to his sons. Another's mother-in-law gets a seafront flat meant for families of dead soldiers. A cabinet minister disposes spectrum to companies violating rules, causing whopping losses to the exchequer... India's political leaders are in the dock following accusations of outrageous corruption that has stunned a country where sleaze in public life is an accepted fact.

In tune with the kaleidoscope of Indian politics, the disgraced politicians belong to different shades: the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - the country's two main national parties-and the DMK, a regional outfit which is now a Congress ally.

The hunger to make easy money runs deeper, through virtually every party, making one politician who still believes in austere living to say that India faces "a moral crisis". Some are questioning the very system of governance which allows wrongdoing and cronyism, often letting the guilty to get away.

And for the first time, besides bureaucrats who help politicians run the world's seventh largest country, even retired military officers - a breed that until now stood apart - are in the dock.

Popular anger has led to the resignation of two of four guilty politicians: Maharashtra's Congress chief minister Ashok Chavan, who took charge only two years ago, as well as central communications and IT minister A. Raja of the DMK, whose meteoric rise in politics has been the subject of much speculation.

"It is an extremely serious situation," political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan told IANS. "The situation can be compared to what prevailed in Italy in the early 1990s before there was an upheaval. What form it will take here, we will have to see."

The recent cases of corruption began with Congress leader Suresh Kalmadi, who fell into disgrace over the shoddy preparations to the Commonwealth Games here. After some countries threatened to boycott the October event, a worried Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to intervene.

Kalmadi's wings have since been clipped in the Congress and two of his closest aides have been arrested for alleged corruption. Like everyone else, Kalmadi also pleads innocence.

Karnataka's BJP Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa - who seems to be married to troubles -is under pressure to quit after allegations that he 'denotified' valuable state land and sold it cheap to people he knew, his sons included.

Chavan had to go after reports that flats in a high-rise building in Mumbai meant for families of soldiers killed in the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan were taken over by a clutch of politicians, officials and retired military officers - and others.

But the man who gets the cake is DMK's Raja, whose allocation of 2G spectrum two years ago in brazen violation of established norms has caused a massive loss to the government on a scale unprecedented in India. The parliament has been crippled for days as a result.

Now, in another first, the Supreme Court has asked the prime minister himself to explain why he remained silent to earlier requests from concerned citizens to take action against Raja.

Communist politician Doraiswamy Raja spoke of "a moral crisis".

"The corruption we see now is mind boggling," Raja told IANS. "We have a situation where easy money is making more and more people billionaires while a very large number struggle to survive. What a tragedy...

"There is a moral crisis in the country. This is a dangerous trend."

Political analyst G.V.L. Narasimha Rao said the country's neo-liberal economic policies were also to blame.

"People who said that the abolition of the License Raj will end corruption have been proved wrong," Rao said. "In fact the present system offers many new ways to make illegal money. "

Rao, who is close to the BJP, admitted that the number of honest people among the leading figures in Indian politics could "be counted on finger tips, perhaps less than 10."

A Congress leader admitted they were embarrassed.

"In this television era, it is not easy to escape scrutiny," he said on the condition of anonymity. "It is very difficult to defend tainted colleagues. And with so many 24-hour news channels, there is no escaping the reality."

Even as India was grappling the actions of the tainted politicians, veteran industrialist Ratan Tata threw a bombshell when he accused an unnamed Indian minister of demanding some years ago Rs.15 crore ($3.3 million) as a bribe to allow the Tatas to form an airline in association with Singapore Airlines.

Tata declared he refused to pay - and his airline never became a reality.

So, where does Indian politics go from here?

Analyst Rangarajan says he is optimistic about the future. "No doubt these are issue of governance touching the lives of millions. But what Raja and others have done doesn't mean the entire political class is bad.

"Remember there are three million Indians who hold public office, from the panchayats (village councils) and above. The politician here is still notionally accountable. What of the corrupt bureaucrats? They are not even notionally accountable."

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at








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