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V. Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.

Indian problem: When caste trumps corruption

Ebullient Congress managers were brushing off all scams, flushed with the victory in Karnataka.

Karnataka Chief Minister-designate Siddaramaiah after he was elected as the legislative party leader on Friday. PTI

egendary Malayalam novelist, the late S.K. Pottekkat, who was also a travel writer and winner of the 1980 Bharatiya Jnanpith award, had mentioned an interesting incident during his East Africa visit in 1946. At an Indian shop he was harangued by the owner over the decline in Indian moral and spiritual values. All through the conversation Pottekkat found him frenetically rubbing something off a small carton. The owner was erasing the expiry date of a Kodak film roll. That neatly sums up our attitude toward corruption and scams that have seeped into all our institutions.

On 1 March 2011, the Council on Foreign Relations, New York warned that corruption threatened India's growth. India's poor record of "prosecuting corruption and an even grimmer record of actual convictions" was highlighted. It also said that "corruption is already a factor in declining foreign investment". The multitude of scams occurring in our defence sector, the "sacred" bulwark safeguarding our national security is alarming. Warnings had come from different quarters much earlier. But we brushed it off as a wicked propaganda against the inheritor nation of Buddha, Adi Sankaracharya and Gandhiji. In 1975, it was revealed that our crooked defence agents had managed to sell an unknown number of old Indian Centurion tanks to the Apartheid South Africa with whom we had no diplomatic relations.

In 1992, Brigadier Mohammad Yousef and Major Mark Atkin wrote, in the Bear Trap, on weapons supply to the Afghan covert war: "In the middle of 1984 an enormous shipment of 100,000 .303 rifles arrived at Karachi... We were told in confidence that they had been bought at a rock-bottom price from India. When I queried how and why the Indians sold weapons that they knew would be used against their friends the Soviets, the CIA officer replied 'The Indians are mean bastards, not trustworthy at all. For money they would even sell their mothers'."

In 2007, "Land Mine Monitor" complained that Indian made mines were seen in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Tanzania and Sudan, although India had officially banned the export of landmines. Did our Ministry of Defence conduct any enquiries about these diversions/thefts that enriched our defence agents/military officials? On 26 April 2013, the CBI could unearth a scam involving senior ordnance factory officials and private parties in defrauding the government by inflating the prices of critical parts of T-72 and T-90 battle tanks.

Knowing the level of corruption in Maharashtra, we were not surprised that a junior engineer in cahoots with a colleague who had set up a bogus company in his wife's name, euphemistically called "Oneness", had defrauded his department, already notorious for corruption. The person was caught with Rs 15 cr assets and might have been involved as a "go-between" for bribe collection even outside his jurisdiction, implying that the destination of tainted money was at a much higher level. At the same time, the state Anti-Corruption Bureau's (ACB) ability to prosecute successfully corrupt government servants was questioned by a media report that it could secure conviction only in one case out of 32 till April 2013.

The tragedy is that politicians of all hues do not consider this situation worthy of taking notice except by way of parliamentary or electoral polemics. The "coal scam", in which the Supreme Court frowned upon our Union Law Minister's interference with the Central Bureau of Investigation's (CBI's) probe and the "railway scam" in which the Railway Minister's nephew was arrested for accepting cash from a very senior Railway official for preferred posting, are recent examples.

On 8 May, our Prime Minister's Office "faced its sharpest indictment in the Supreme Court" for interfering into the "Coalgate" investigation by the CBI, which was being done under its direct supervision. On the other hand, ebullient Congress political managers were easily brushing off these scams, flushed with the victory in the Karnataka elections (8 May). The fact that the BJP lost Karnataka by changing their Chief Minister whose government was notorious for corruption but in that process earned his powerful community's wrath, would compel them to rethink whether anti-corruption drive, divorced from caste politics, is a good electoral strategy at all. This is the essential problem in India.

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