Will India find next year better or worse? What needs watching is not the economy. Thanks to Indian ingenuity, perhaps even crookedness, the economy has survived, even thrived, despite perverse successive governments. What has collapsed is the governance. That has rendered Indian democracy little short of farce. The pretence of having democracy wears thin when the rule of law has all but vanished, when judges themselves complain that corruption has polluted courts of law. All this when fortuitous circumstance, global and domestic, offers real hope of great economic progress. So, will the state of governance and democracy in 2006 propel or impede Indian progress?
A succession of recent events reinforced the public's worst fears about India's politicians. Three such events damned the reputation of Parliament itself. First, there was the sting operation that captured on camera MPs accepting bribes to put questions in the House. Never mind how severe the punishment meted out to the erring legislators, the damage in terms of public perception has left an indelible mark. People no longer need rumor to convince them about corruption in politics. They have seen it with their own eyes on TV. They now know that most, if not all, politicians are corrupt. An unfair conclusion? Perhaps. The important thing is that this is what people believe.
Quick on the heels of the cash-for-questions scam was another sting operation that targeted MPs. It captured some of them on camera accepting cuts from the money they sanctioned for projects under the Local Area Development Scheme. Several politicians questioned why the scheme should be criticized due to its misuse by a few. It will take more time and harder knocks before our honorable MPs get around to focusing on the more fundamental question: Why should those elected to make and protect laws be empowered to spend official funds for development work? That should be strictly under purview of the executive, whether at the national, state or local levels. The mere fact that legislators have encroached in executive functioning exposes the gross distortions that have crept into our system.
The final blow to Parliament came when two MPS, with other criminal cases pending against them, provided false information to a foreign embassy for obtaining visas. This created international embarrassment.
An earlier sting operation was telecast to show innumerable local officials accepting bribes. The government itself was impelled to move in court against 90 of them. Another ongoing crisis regarding buildings illegally erected escalated after the court ordered their demolition. This has exposed the rotten state of governance inflicted on citizens for five decades. The nation is caught in a dilemma. To demolish some and spare others equally guilty violates a fundamental principle of justice of providing equality under law. But if all the guilty are to be punished almost whole cities would have to be demolished. Over five decades of permissive sanction of law violation have wrecked the system. The beneficiaries of the original corruption that connived at illegal construction are in many cases dead and gone. With vengeance the piled up crimes against the system are now confronting the nation.
Critics have questioned the morality of sting operations carried out by journalists. At the micro level there is much to question this brand of journalism. The motives of the journalists may be questionable. The degree of entrapment practiced on the victims to fulfill a preconceived script raises serious questions about the extent of real guilt of those caught on camera. For instance, in the earlier Tehelka sting operation there were serious lapses that made the exercise spurious. Out of 100 hours of tape only select portions suiting the political agenda of the journalists or their unseen mentors were shown.
One Tehelka reporter involved in the sting, Mr Mathew Samuel, said there were tapes implicating Mr L.K. Advani, then home minister, for having received kickbacks in the Rs 1,300 crore Indo-Israeli deal to provide border fencing and communication systems. Immediately the Tehelka chief contradicted him and cabled the home minister giving assurance there would be no release of any such tape. So, which Tehelka activist spoke the truth? Why couldn't all the 100 hours of tape be made available to the public? The less said about the commission of inquiry that went into the matter the better.
There was deliberate effort to persuade people on camera to take names, and if names were taken, to treat such hearsay as evidence. Thus two of those interviewed on tape, Mr RK Gupta and Mr RK Jain, volunteered imprecatory information to their questioners. Mr Aniruddha Bahal, a senior operative in the sting operations later told the press: "Jain and Gupta talked to Mathew first. Then they replicated these things which are on tape to me. Jain cooked up something while talking to Samuel, then he was trying to recook the story for me." What was he need to replicate a story? Or was it simply rehearsal before going on camera? When Mr RK Jain was threatened for defamation by Mr Yashwant Sinha for remarks made on camera, he quickly apologized and admitted he had lied! Was it mere coincidence that the two major victims of the Tehelka episode were at that time the main rivals of Mr LK Advani, then home minister? Mr Fernandes was the high-powered NDA coalition chief and Mr Bangaru Laxman was the first Dalit president of the BJP.
The recent sting operation implicating the cash-for questions MPs was also masterminded by Mr Aniruddha Bahal. Learning from experience perhaps, this time there was a lesser degree of entrapment. Although one of the MPs did at first say that there was no need to make payment. Should his level of guilt be equated with the others who considered cash-for-questions to be their right? It is for parliament to consider this.
Spurred on by the power of camera and the impact of TV, the police exposed their grotesque perception of what makes good democracy. A lady officer in Meerut actually invited TV channels to capture on camera her colleagues and herself visiting a park that was a rendezvous for young couples. The police slapped and beat up unsuspecting and innocent young couples. The cops actually thought they were doing a great job that deserved exposure on national TV! They administered their version of quick justice. If this is how the police perceive their role as guardians of law, what kind of democracy do we have? TV also reported several other cases of police bestiality as they tortured and thrashed victims who they thought were guilty. In one case the police thrashed one of their own colleagues and harassed his school going children!
Irate politicians say there should be sting operations against media too. All strength to them! There must be plenty of corruption in the media. Much of what the media does merits serious questioning. But all this is at the micro level. We may deify or damn what individual politicians, officials or media persons may do. It is the macro effect that deserves consideration. If all the thieves in society fall out and start demolishing each other for motives entirely unworthy, it is nonetheless good. An unintended cleansing process would have begun. Public cynicism generated by such exposures could damage the system. That would be even more welcome.
The system needs some destruction before it will be repaired. As the year ends, the destruction seems to have begun. If the human instinct for survival asserts itself, those who sit at the commanding heights of society will wake up and undertake serious systemic reform. To accelerate the process just one catalytic event is required. The final Supreme Court judgment on the unconstitutional dissolution of the Bihar assembly should be delivered early next year. It could be the necessary catalyst. Or it could be new revelations in the Volcker probe. 2006 may well be the year in which India starts to reform itself.