What an astonishing effect the c revelations have had on the Congress party. Not only did Sonia Gandhi consider it necessary to speak to TV reporters almost for the first time ever, but her closest aide, Ahmed Patel, gave the first interviews he has ever given. He gave them in Hindi and in English to many channels. This is someone who has been such a discreet backroom boy that most political reporters in Lutyens Delhi have no idea what his voice sounds like.
What intrigued me most was Sonia’s declaration that she ‘was not afraid’. Was this because she knows better than anyone that she has no reason to fear? The AgustaWestland official who said that our investigative agencies were ‘morons’ was both right and wrong. What he did not know is that they would not be ‘morons’ if they were allowed to seriously investigate the commercial activities of India’s political leaders. If they were allowed to subject them to the tax raids businessmen and Bollywood stars routinely face, we would learn more about corruption in high places than ever before. Having had the dubious privilege of peeking into the homes and lives of many political leaders, I can report that most have assets that are not commensurate with their humble salaries as public servants. Many have no hesitation flaunting their wealth either because they know that no tax inspector is going to go after them.
When it comes to big defence deals like the one the Government of India signed with AgustaWestland, it is common knowledge that there are always mega kickbacks involved. The trick is not to get caught. So when the bribe-givers in Italy were stupid enough to get caught, the last government cleverly cancelled the deal, but made only a cursory effort to investigate further. Now that the Italian courts have found evidence of bribes being given, the Modi government will be forced to investigate, but we must hope it will not stop at the limited goal of trying to pin something on Teflon Sonia. Remember that she survived Bofors unscathed despite the Quattrocchi connection.
If the Prime Minister is serious about fighting corruption, then this defence scandal gives him a real chance to go deeper into the causes of the rot. Of course we must find out who took bribes in the AgustaWestland deal and of course they must be punished, but much more needs to be done if we really want ‘parivartan’. A vital first step has to begin by cleaning up the departments that deal with bribery and corruption. In most cases these departments are so ridden with corruption that when an official gets exposed for having lockers full of cash and jewellery, it barely makes more than a few paragraphs on the inside pages of newspapers.
Since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, there have been no major scandals at the top, but bribery and corruption continue to thrive lower down the line, and go all the way down to what we like to call ‘the grassroots’. It is because of this that we build bridges that fall down and roads that get washed away in every rainy season. It is not going to be easy to change a system that is rotten to the core, but if even a hint of change begins to show, it will make a huge difference.
The other vital component in the fight against corruption is to find ways to make the criminal justice system work more efficiently. Sadly the main reason why political leaders demand ‘an inquiry’ when they are caught doing something wrong is because they know that inquiries can go on forever, and then if some court finds a case to answer, trials can go on even longer. So it is not just Sonia Gandhi who is ‘not afraid of anything’, it is a small army of public servants who know well that there is nothing to fear.
If a fresh inquiry is ordered into the AgustaWestland deal, can we hope that it will be completed within months and not years? If this happens, it will not just make political leaders and high officials less corrupt in the future, it will also give ordinary Indians renewed faith in the system. As things stand, the rot goes so deep that most Indians no longer believe that anything will ever change. At the risk of once more being labelled a ‘Sonia-baiter’, may I remind you that the problem began with Bofors. Prime ministers have come and gone since that most famous of Indian defence scandals and justice has remained elusive despite at least one of them having promised to catch the Bofors thieves in ninety days. Does anyone remember Vishwanath Pratap Singh and the promise that brought him to power? Does anyone remember how quickly he forgot?