April 16, 2001


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Kuldip Nayar

The rot within

The former Supreme Court judge probing the Tehelka disclosures may, at best, come to name the guilty. But that will not serve the real purpose. What has been exposed is the alarming extent to which corruption has corroded the system. It is not one set of people, one set of politicians or one set of activists that are to blame. It is the society, which has stopped differentiating right from wrong and moral from immoral.

Corruption does not raise the hackles any more. The dishonest or the black marketer is not shunned, as was the case for many years after Independence. Their parties are now the toast of the town, with top bureaucrats attending them and newspapers publishing photographs of the invitees in their exercise to promote circulation.

The rot is so deep that the limited investigation is not even sufficient to scratch the surface. People have to be shaken out of sloth and the readiness to compromise. If the nation is to preserve the fundamental values of a clean society, every person -- be it a public functionary or a private citizen -- must display a degree of vigilance and willingness to sacrifice. Some dramatic moves are necessary.

In the late 'fifties and in the early 'sixties, when the country was tormented by regional chauvinism, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru convened a national integration conference to discuss how to bring about emotional unity. The conference was divided into many committees, which submitted their reports on the line of action to be taken.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee should have torn a leaf out of Nehru's book and initiated steps to hold a similar conference to discuss the various facets of corruption, which have become the part and parcel of our present day administration and politics. Key leaders, top academicians, retired bureaucrats and others should be invited as was done at the time of the national integration conference by Nehru.

The nation's eyes were then fixed on disunity, some 40 years ago. The point of focus at this time should be corruption and on steps to cleanse the society.

What has happened, in fact, is the politicisation of Tehelka allegations. The ruling National Democratic Alliance, NDA is seeing the move as part of the efforts to dislodge it from power. The Opposition, particularly the Congress, feels it is a god-sent opportunity to pull down the NDA, without having the necessary number in the Lok Sabha. Both sides have failed to fathom the depth of disillusionment and sullenness that has overtaken the people. Both are missing the real point.

Political parties can still meet to discuss joint measures to weed out corruption in public life. The manner in which they have faced the problem indicates that they are not serious about corrective steps.

Not long ago, the Vohra committee report pointed out the nexus between politicians and the underworld. Some names of politicians were mentioned in the report. The then government not only held back the names but also part of the contents of the report. Of course, the committee's conclusions were never pursued. The entire effort by the Intelligence Bureau, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Research and Analysis Wing, spread over several months, was forgotten as a bad dream.

The Tehelka expose may go the same way except that Parliament may have a discussion on it after April 16 when the two Houses meet after the recess.

One, however, wonders to what extent Parliament is willing to go to combat corruption. What has emerged from the Parliament select committee on the central vigilance commission bill does not instill optimism. Instead of giving more powers to the CVC, the committee has made it toothless. The CVC cannot even oversee the investigation or disposal of the cases, which it has itself entrusted to the CBI.

An independent review committee of secretaries to the Government of India had recommended that the superintendence of the CBI should vest with the CVC.

It was a fair suggestion knowing fully well how the CBI has come to be politicised over the years. This is still a wing of the department of personnel in the home ministry. The parliamentary committee did not even discuss how to make the CBI independent of political pressures, much less create an independent agency, which could work for the CVC and the machinery set up after the Lok Pal bill.

It is bad enough for the committee to restore the single director, which the Supreme Court had struck down in the hawala case. What it means is that the government's prior permission will be required before moving against the joint secretary or above.

That the Vajpayee Cabinet has gone back to the old system even after the Tehelka capsule is really unfortunate. The Supreme Court decision has been thrown out. The government may once again shield delinquent, pliable and like-minded officials as it has been doing in the past.

Such public servants who carry out the errands of political masters go scot-free since the central government does not give permission to prosecute them. There is some sort of quid pro quo between dishonest politicians and corrupt government employees. They reportedly make money on various transactions and share it with their political bosses who keep their eyes shut.

Already, the ethical consideration inherent in public behaviour has become dim and, in many cases, beyond the mental grasp of public functionaries. The government's prior permission to move against senior officials will only aggravate the situation.

MPs are supposed to submit annually the details of assets owned by them and their spouses. Only a handful of them do so. Political parties should consider publishing details of the assets of their members in their official journals.

While talking about corruption, it goes without saying that the electoral system, if immunised from illegal money, can create conditions for clean elections. Many committees have met in the past to suggest ways and means to do so. One such committee, which Jayaprakash Narayan headed, had useful steps to propose.

Finally, let me say a word on journalistic ethics. Tehelka did a wonderful job. But a few lapses like an apology by one of its correspondents raised some doubts on other aspects. A journalist should do a thorough job that none should be able to pick holes. Otherwise, the entire story is apt to lost its credibility. We have the press council to bring to light the mistakes, which the print media makes. Readers have come to look upon the body as the custodian of their right to have a free, fearless and purposeful newspaper.

With the advent of TV, dotcoms and the Internet, the press council needs to be restructured. The print media does not have the kind of impact -- as was seen from the Tehelka tapes -- the TV network has. The press council should be converted into media council so that it embraces different aspects of information. The media council, too, should draw members from the fields of different media engaged in collecting and purveying information. Their own peers will judge them -- their acts of omission and commission.

Kuldip Nayar

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