It may be hoping against hope, or just plain relief that the inaction has ended. Whatever the reason, there is a sense of a new beginning with regard to economic management. Could the so far inconceivable now happen, and the government start retrieving some lost ground on the issue of corruption as well? L’affaire Ajit Pawar in Maharashtra offers an opportunity to do just that.
Prima facie, Mr Pawar’s clearing of irrigation projects worth tens of thousands of crores, many of them in a sudden rush before Assembly elections, with no increase in Maharashtra’s irrigation capacity to show for the cash burn, makes him responsible for his actions as minister, and culpable if some of the bloated contracts are shown to have involved malfeasance. That Mr Pawar has provoked a government crisis over the issue would suggest that he feels cornered. That all his party-ministerial colleagues in the state government have chosen to resign along with him is a comment on the nature of the Nationalist Congress Party.
The Congress is now on test. If it does not back its chief minister, who is trying to clean up a very corrupt administration, it will be clinching evidence that it sees corruption as an alienable part of governance, and something to be winked at in the interest of retaining power. It will not be enough to back the chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, who if whispers are to be believed has quietly blocked another scam – whereby power stations belonging to the state electricity board were to back down on one pretext or the other, so that the state could buy power from a private power generation company – at Rs 2 more per unit. Other steps will be required too, like using the promised ministerial reshuffle at the Centre to drop all ministers involved in the coal scam, including those who were busy lobbying for related parties. The way for the Congress to regain even a modicum of credibility on the corruption issue is to demonstrate that while it may have failed to prevent wholesale corruption, it has forced the guilty to pay the price — and not made sacrificial goats of those who are cleaning up.
This stance should flow from the realisation that in-your-face corruption is systemically unaffordable as it extracts a severe price — it paralyses decision-making in the government because indecision becomes the safer option; it prevents all new legislation because Parliament becomes non-functional; it raises the perceived risk of investing in India and therefore the cost and viability of infrastructure projects; and it erodes political credibility to the point where anything that the government says or does becomes suspect.
Politicians also need to wake up. Many of them have functioned as though they were above the law — and indeed they were. But things have changed — substantially, not wholly. The Comptroller and Auditor General has taken on a more assertive role, the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) is coming into his own (his prodding resulted in the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, moving on the coal scam), and the Right to Information law has made government decision-making open to scrutiny by citizens who are then free to start public interest litigation, which is encouraged by activist courts that are willing to take tough decisions (like cancelling 122 telecom licences). The circle would be complete if the CBI were to be given the same operational autonomy that the courts and CVC have, with immunity from political interference and with the leader of the Opposition involved in selecting the CBI chief. If the Congress and the central government want to really regain credibility on the corruption issue, this last will be the litmus test. If it fails, then we will know that nothing has been learnt and nothing has changed.