Andimuthu Raja's rise and fall underline the triumph and tragedy of Indian democracy. The ascent of this 47-year-old from an ordinary Dalit family in rural Tamil Nadu to be a cabinet minister at the centre points to the opportunities which the electoral system provides to people at all levels. At the same time, his incarceration on charges of malfeasance is a reminder of the temptations which disfigure the political and administrative world.
Raja's Dalit background is an important segment of the story because it emphasises the unwholesome impact of the social scene on politics. Raja's rise is not really the result of his skills as an occasional poet in Tamil, which supposedly impressed the DMK boss, M. Karunanidhi, sufficiently to make him a party member. A far more relevant factor was his origin.
The DMK's need to emphasise its concern for the socially disadvantaged made it imperative for the party to project this young lawyer from the backwaters of Perambalur as one of its future stars. It is the opportunistic pretension
involved in this kind of caste politics which propelled Raja to the national scene and is still making the DMK stand by him by claiming that his arrest does not prove his guilt.
If factors like these which have nothing to do with merit or efficiency did not play any part in the making and unmaking of Raja's career, he might not have made it to the Union cabinet as telecom minister at all. But having
done so, he was apparently overwhelmed by the extent of the power he was able to wield.
While the social angle explaining Raja's upward mobility gives an insight into one aspect of the political scene, his continuation in office despite mounting allegations of dubious practices against him stresses another. If the Manmohan Singh government was not dependent on the DMK (along with other allies) for its survival in office, it might have been able to call Raja to account much earlier than it ultimately did.
But since the DMK's need to save its Dalit mascot made it hold the Damocles sword of withdrawal of support over the government's head, the prime minister had no alternative but to delay taking punitive action against Raja. Like the compulsions of his social origin, the requirement of keeping a coalition in power made the government, and the Congress, turn a blind eye to the supposed misdeeds of his ministry.
Although the government and the party have finally given the green signal to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to arrest Raja, they have predictably exposed themselves to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) charge of doing too little too late.
It is obvious that if Manmohan Singh had acted with similar sternness in November 2007, when he first called upon Raja to follow transparent procedures in the allocation of second generation spectrum technology to service providers, the government and the Congress might have been able to avoid the opprobrium they have earned in recent times.
It was only after the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) found lapses in the spectrum allocations in 2008 and then both the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and the Supreme Court drew attention to the suspected violations of telecom policy that Raja resigned in November last year.
But by then the government had lost much of its credibility although, strangely, Manmohan Singh himself escaped relatively unhurt, as the certificates of good conduct given to him by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar showed.
Sen blamed the "system" for the scam, saying blaming Manmohan Singh alone would not help since another person would simply take his place even as the existing arrangements remained unchanged and prone to misuse. Even Janata
Party president Subramanian Swamy, whose petition to the Supreme Court led to the judicial intervention in the spectrum scam, absolved Manmohan Singh personally of any blame.
There is little doubt, however, that even as the prime minister's Teflon personality has deflected criticism, he cannot expect such kid-glove treatment indefinitely unless the government is seen to act quickly and determinedly against the accused - and not only against 'spectrum' Raja alone. It will be widely hoped, therefore, that Raja's arrest is the first
step towards cleansing the system, which has lately been seen to be groaning under the weight of sleaze.
Apart from the Raja episode, there have been scandals involving Suresh Kalmadi, the former organising secretary of the Commonwealth Games, as well as former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, who has been implicated
in a housing society scam in Mumbai. Both have had to resign from their posts, as did former minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor in connection with the Indian Premier League (IPL). But resignations alone will not stop the clamour for more purposeful action at a time when the familiar image of politicians being corrupt gains ground.
The government has also shot itself in the foot by the curious decision to appoint P.J. Thomas central vigilance commissioner despite charges pending against him in yet another scam and despite the objections of the leader of
opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj.
Similarly, the refusal on technical grounds to reveal the identity of those with black money whose names have been given by a German bank to the government has also exposed the latter to the charge of hiding the beneficiaries. In both the cases, the Supreme Court's intervention has pushed the government on to the backfoot.