With all the scams that have been tumbling out in India one after the other and the government’s blind rejection of any wrongdoing, it would perhaps be appropriate to acknowledge that Aseem Trivedi’s acerbic cartoon ‘The Gang Rape of Mother India’ has captured the spirit of the times. Perhaps, more effectively and certainly more forcefully than what could have been depicted by India’s most popular cartoonist, RK Laxman.
Juxtapose Trivedi’s cartoon with what happened last week and consider the merits of the case: the Manmohan Singh government’s inept handling of the black money issue raked up by activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Vinod Rai’s observation about the appalling brazenness with which decisions were being taken by the government and the murkiness around the first family of Indian politics as exposed by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy in the National Herald acquisition case. So far, the Congress has been unconvincing in its defence of making unsecured loans of Rs 90 crore to Rahul Gandhi’s firm, Young Indian.
When you put all the scams together, be it the unchecked flow of black money estimated at $462 billion, the Coalgate scam, the 2G spectrum scam, the Maharashtra irrigation scam, the Adarsh Housing Society scam and other such, the feeling that India is being raped and robbed by a nexus of corrupt politicians-bureaucrats-corporates-builders is unmistakable.
Many of Trivedi’s cartoons are at their crudest best and one can well understand where he comes from. All of his powerfully obnoxious cartoons—including the one showing the Indian Parliament as a toilet bowl—capture the frustrations of the common man. Howsoever offensive they may be, these cartoons passed judicial muster under the right to freedom of speech and expression and it is now a matter of record that the Maharashtra government was forced to withdraw its charge of sedition against the cartoonist, an avowed supporter of India Against Corruption (IAC).
The fact is that the politicians of the day and the governments they control have lost the power to silence the people. The most striking example is the manner in which Kejriwal revived the black money issue on the national agenda. What was astonishing was Kejriwal’s audacity in naming corporates and private individuals while openly admitting that he did not have any evidence to substantiate his charge.
We do hear seemingly incredulous stories of corruption and sleaze in news establishments, but they are trashed as hearsay the moment a reporter says he has nothing to show for evidence. That didn’t happen with Kejriwal.
He has acquired such high credibility—or nuisance value, if you please—that once again, he managed to set the news agenda for the day without a shred of evidence in his defence. His list of names and the amounts these people purportedly held in Swiss bank accounts was flashed across the nation last Friday and each of the entities named issued a swift denial. A day later, the finance ministry, said in a statement that the names received from the French government could not be revealed under the confidentiality clause of the Double Taxation Avoidance Convention (DTAC) between India and France "and can be used only for the tax purposes specified therein".
On 14 December, the then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had cited a different reason for withholding the names. Mukherjee said, "It will have its impact on the industry, on the investment, and on the reputation of the people." Was he more worried about protecting the reputation of corporates and individuals indulging in black money transactions rather than giving a fair and transparent account to the nation?
The Hindu Business Line noted in a report on 12 November (Kejriwal lifts the lid of black money) that the government in its reply to Parliament has stated that it has no proposal to declare black money as a national asset and that there is no provision under the direct tax laws to bring back the money deposited illegally in foreign accounts by Indian nationals. "At the most", said the report, "what can be done is obtain information from foreign countries and get it investigated so that the untaxed amount can be taxed."
This lackadaisical approach of the Indian government is in sharp contrast to the seriousness with which the governments in the US and the UK are pursuing black money frauds committed by their nationals.
There’s Kejriwal and accomplished Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan at one end and there’s the other politician-lawyer-academician Subramanian Swamy at the other end. A veteran of extraordinary legal battles -- be it Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalithaa’s disproportionate assets case or the 2G spectrum scam, Swamy’s latest expose raises serious questions about Rahul Gandhi's takeover of the now defunct National Herald newspaper's assets.
The politicians of the day may want to silence Kejriwal and Swamy, but what about the many others who are speaking out in a similar voice -- such as CAG Vinod Rai, Maharashtra irrigation officer and whistle-blower Vijay Pandhare or activist Anjali Damania?
There's a scam waiting to be exposed below every stone in India and it is now not possible to silence the voice of the anti-corruption crusaders in the country. There was a time when scams were first brought to light by newspapers, but today, news organisations have been largely reduced to doing follow-ups of scams exposed by the Kejriwals and Swamys of the day. Activists and competing politicians from the Opposition have taken it upon themselves to expose scams- no longer trusting news organisations the way they once did. In an environment of paid news, private treaties and journalistic blackmail, some news organisations have become embroiled in scams themselves as happened in the recent ZEE TV – Jindal 'reverse sting' case.
The common man is shocked and frustrated with the state of affairs in India, but how have the politicians and governments reacted? External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid likens Arvind Kejriwal to a pest like the mosquito. The Kejriwals can scream their guts out, but we really don’t care is the attitude of not just the Congress, but also the BJP and the NCP, all of whose leaders are embroiled in a variety of fresh scams.
The political class has been uniformly assertive, although the BJP has been facing the greatest embarrassment over the continuation of Nitin Gadkari as president. Less than a month ago, Union Agriculture Minister and NCP president Sharad Pawar went out on a limb to defend Gadkari and said he was worried about the attack on Gadkari because those "who work to transform people's lives for the better should be encouraged and not condemned".
In the Congress, Khurshid and party spokesperson Manish Tewari were rewarded in the recent cabinet reshuffle. Rather symbolic was the reinstatement of Abhishek Manu Singhvi as the party spokesperson- again, a clear sign of assertiveness by the Congress even though Singhvi’s personal reputation stood compromised not too long ago.
India’s salvation lies in moving towards a strong rule of law like the one seen in countries like the United States where the CIA director is investigated by the FBI and resigns, where corporate bigwigs like Enron's CEO Jeffrey Skilling are sentenced to 24 years in prison for financial fraud and where even a legend like Lance Armstrong is not spared once he is held guilty of a serious doping scam.
CAG Rai and others like him are pointing in the right direction when they say that the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Central Vigilance Commission and the proposed Lokpal should be granted constitutional safeguards to protect them from government interference.
Till that happens, the corrupt nexus that has India in its grips will continue to revel in its nanga naach - a naked and unabashed abuse of power and pelf.