Anything that moves

Why Indian politicians keep railing about corrupt rivals – but never act against them

Over 30 months since he took oath as prime minister, Modi is still giving the same speech berating Congress corruption.

J Jayalalithaa evaded a long jail term thanks to an interminable lower court trial and an innumerate high court judge. She died before what would have been her final comeuppance, a Supreme Court verdict delivered on Valentine’s Day, which cut short the political ambitions of her aide Sasikala. As a consequence of Jayalalithaa’s demise, India still awaits its first irrevocable conviction of a major political figure on charges of serious criminal wrongdoing (the likes of Sukh Ram don’t count). This isn’t down to the extraordinary probity of our leaders.

No, the major cause of the lack of convictions is a tacit understanding between parties to go easy on each other. Our neighbours are far less accommodative. Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina was arrested during the reign of her arch-rival Khaleda Zia, and returned the favour when she regained power. Zia’s elder son was last year handed a seven-year sentence for money laundering. Battles are even fiercer on our western flank, where the Pakistani army functions as an additional vendetta machine. Following the dismissal of her government in 1996, Benazir Bhutto spent years in exile, while her husband Asif Ali Zardari narrowly failed to get away. He was found guilty of corrupt practices and also indicted for involvement in the killing of Murtaza Bhutto, Benazir’s estranged brother. Benazir’s nemesis Nawaz Sharif was almost handed a death sentence by a military court after Pervez Musharraf’s coup. Only the personal intervention of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia saved him from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s fate. And so, while Benazir Bhutto hung out in Dubai and London, and her husband occupied a prison cell, Sharif built steel mills in Islam’s holy land.

It’s a very different scene in India. Here, only the Lalit Modis and Vijay Mallyas need to skip town. The truly powerful stay camped in the Lutyens zone, secure whether in power or out. Sure, there’s the election campaign charade of bringing law breakers to justice. We heard a lot of that in Modi’s stump speeches in 2014. But that was the political equivalent of the famous foot-stomping ritual conducted by Indian and Pakistani soldiers at the Wagah border. Over 30 months since he took oath as prime minister, Modi is still giving the same speech berating Congress corruption. It’s the only thing that gets him fired up. When he focuses on his own government’s programmes, and eschews that mocking tone which has grown so grating, his speeches are as soporific as Arun Jaitley’s snoozefest of a budget speech.

The raincoat crack

And so it was that he targeted Manmohan Singh in parliament with a confused metaphor about showering in a raincoat. If he really believes Singh was personally corrupt during his tenure, why not do something about it? Why not act against those widely perceived to have made illicit gains during Congress rule, Robert Vadra for instance? In striking contrast to celebrities, who undergo trials by FIR as soon as soon they push the envelope, politicians of established parties (the Aam Aadmi Party is exception) get away with murder.

I mean that literally. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was extraordinarily disinclined to bring to book the perpetrators of Gujarat’s 2002 massacres. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have restricted themselves to counterproductive slogans about maut ke saudagar and khoon ke dalal, while leaving riot trials to activist citizens and judges. In the years before 2002 in Maharashtra, the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party promised to implement Justice Srikrishna’s report on the Bombay riots of 1993 which clearly indicted the Shiv Sena, but did nothing about it once the poll results were in.

Confederacy of thieves

No surprise, then, that Narendra Modi found time to attend a conference organised by Sharad Pawar on the value chain in sugarcane, and offered a glittering tribute to his political opponent. No wonder that Sharad Pawar was awarded a Padma Vibhushan soon after. And no wonder that Pawar’s nephew Ajit (who shares his uncle’s alleged weaknesses and none of his commitment to development and progressive causes) evaded being accused by the Anti-Corruption Bureau in its chargesheet related to the Balganga dam construction undertaken while he was Maharashtra’s Water Resources minister. Another Nationalist Congress Party heavyweight, Chhagan Bhujbal, is currently in jail, but in his case, as with the Gujarat riots, activists, whistleblowers and engaged judges have done more than the administration to keep the issue alive.

What we have, essentially, is a confederacy of thieves and killers. Unlike political leaders in Bangladesh and Pakistan, our netas have learned that being lenient to opponents when in power increases one’s chances of staying out of prison when in Opposition. They have perfected the art of divorcing talk from action, maintaining rhetoric at fever pitch and praxis in a deep slumber. These political tendencies find their match within a public that is at once outraged by political corruption and unmoved by court proceedings related to cases of graft. It made little difference to Jayalalithaa’s standing in Tamil Nadu when she was convicted by a trial court in 2014. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam members bowing before Sasikala today didn’t seem to care that she had been judged guilty of stealing public money by the highest court in the land.

Indians have obviously taken to making up their minds about the honesty or otherwise of political figures quite independently of legal proceedings. This trend, like the mutual indulgence demonstrated by politicians, is a consequence of India evolving a vigorous electoral democracy without also developing an efficient and autonomous criminal justice system.

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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.