Don’t Shoot the Messenger

First published in The Pioneer, May 12, 2012

“Ramdev targets MPs again,” say the screaming headlines. The reports don’t tell us whether indeed the yoga guru is right or wrong in what he asserted, and they slickly imply that he is accusing all MPs. Worried editors may be taking the easy road to increased sales by pandering to readers. But by taking that route, they are not only doing a disservice to the social activist but to the craft of journalism as well by not including information about the MPs who have criminal records and complaints against them. Only by constant and consistent reporting on the quality and calibre of the worthies in Parliament will “change” happen.

Let us begin with some numbers. In the 2004 election, 128 of the 543 elected MPs faced criminal charges, including 84 cases of murder, 17 cases of robbery, and 28 cases of theft and extortion. Many faced multiple criminal charges, including one MP who faced 17 separate murder charges: Kameshwar Baitha of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha who was elected from Palamu in Jharkhand with 67 criminal cases pending against him, which included 17 murders, 22 attempted murders, and two kidnappings. He was re-elected in 2009, and, as with all MPs, he has his own government-designed web page where all kinds of interesting information, except of course his criminal record, are available. He is a matriculate, we are told, and his “social and cultural activities” include working “…for the upliftment and rights of the poor,” making “…efforts to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor,” and boosting “…the morale of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes”! Most probably the MP in question cannot read English and does not know what is written about him by some bureaucrat assigned to this unenviable task of whitewashing the dark deeds of our Hon’bles. But there it is, in all its whitewashed glory, paid for by the hapless Indian taxpayer.

Since Indian law only bars convicted criminals, not alleged criminals, from running for office, the crooks and the scoundrels who have amassed not just money but also support from specific interest or caste groups saunter into Parliament House twirling their mustaches: one only need to recall the gall and nonchalance of MPs like the dreaded Mohammad Shahabuddin of the Rashtriya Janata Dal to understand how deep a hole Indian institutions have fallen into. As legal loopholes allow convicts to continue in politics as long as the case is under appeal, even a murderer or a rapist can make his way to Parliament and wait it out for the courts to decide the case a few decades later. This is what Baba Ramdev is alluding to and about which we should all be aghast.

Of the 543 MPs elected in 2009 to the 15th Lok Sabha, 150 (about 28 %) had criminal cases pending against them. Of those, 73 had serious criminal charges, and the total number of cases against these 150 MPs was 412. The number of MPs with criminal records went up from 128 to 150 between the fourteenth and fifteenth parliaments. A cynic might point out that all countries face the problem of corruption in public life, and India — a large and messy democracy — cannot escape a larger dose of it. Or some others may point out that Indian politicians are merely a reflection of the society which produces them. As Gurcharan Das reports in his fascinating book, The Difficulty of Being Good (New Delhi, 2012), which is a survey by Michael Kremer and his colleagues at Harvard, showed that one out of every four teachers in government primary schools in India was absent, and one out of four was not teaching. A World Bank study showed that two out of five doctors don’t show up at state primary healthcare centres and that 69 per cent of the medicines in those centres are stolen. Transparency International says that India continues its slide further down into the corruption mire. On a scale of 1-10 India’s Integrity Score went down to 3.1 in 2011 from 3.5 in 2007, 3.4 in 2008 and 2009, and 3.3 in 2010.

Of course, corruption, which is a reflection of human greed is a problem across nations and societies, and philosophers and sages have despaired of this human condition throughout history. But like in any other context it is not the absence or presence of some quality that is the measure of man or society but the degree to which a quality is present in individuals and communities. It is only the glib demagogue who brushes away the problem of corruption, greed, violence, or any other ill as nothing more or less than the ordinary. Moral turpitude has to be carefully measured so that we can assess the degree of decay and take action to stem the rot. And if the rot, as someone rightly noted about fish, starts from the top, what should ordinary citizens and concerned activists do? Gurcharan Das alludes in his book to the allegations of criminal behavior against Pratibha Patil and her husband who, it was reported by government oversight agencies, looted the Pratibha Mahila Sahakari Bank. But after she was sworn is as the President of India everybody just accepted her ascendancy to the highest office in the land because once elected to such high office one cannot take that person to court till he or she is out of office. This person, who instead of feeling chagrined and chastised about all the accusations before she was ensconced in the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, instead went on junkets around the world, accompanied by family and friends, costing the Indian taxpayer more than Rs 200 crore. To top it all, she sought to build a palatial mansion on government land in Pune as her retirement paradise.

Yes, the public image of the political class around the world has sunk over the past few decades, what with Russian plutocrats raiding their country’s natural wealth and buying New York City penthouses, Chinese politicians and bureaucrats lining their pockets with ill-gotten money and sending their children to Harvard and Yale, and American politicians winking, nodding, and colluding with special interest groups to build their own little empires of wealth and influence. And we know now how Rupert Murdoch manipulated British politics and politicians as prime ministers on down partied and cozied up to the News Corp managers. But the Indian case is dire.

Wasting time on finding alibis and excuses for the corruption in Indian public life has become the pastime of the Mani Shankar Aiyars, the Digvijay Singhs, and the Kapil Sibals and their henchmen in the media. But one hopes that the Indian public will not give up hope, and will continue to lend its support to activists and leaders like Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare in their attempts at reducing the scourge of corruption in the country. They can do this by electing men and women of honor and integrity of whom there is also no dearth in the land of Yudhishthira, the upholder of dharma. The basic principle of dharma “is the realisation of the dignity of the human spirit,” wrote India’s greatest president, Dr Radhakrishnan. Corruption eats into the core of that spirit.


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