Last week the Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA) suspended its treasurer, Editor of Zee News Sudhir Chaudhary, after Congress MP Naveen Jindal alleged that Chaudhary had tried to extract Rs 100 crore as advertising in exchange for dropping reports on alleged irregularities in the allocation of coal blocks to Jindal’s companies. Apparently, the Congress MP carried out a sting operation on the Zee staffers, and the executive committee of the BEA took the decision after viewing the footage.
Little attention has been paid to the BEA’s move. But it is worth noting that a segment of the media often marked out for its inability to introspect has been forced to act because of evidence gathered by others. In the end, information put out in the public domain exerts a pressure of its own. Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘outing’ of public personalities on the issue of corruption, with evidence that clearly suggests these charges have not been made at random, shows the potency of precisely this process.
When the Anna movement was at its peak, we at Open had written about the internal contradictions in the vision of those heading the movement and their inadequate understanding of Indian democracy. This has been borne out today by the split in the movement. Kejriwal has since adopted a different tack, but isolated by Anna and faced with Congress and BJP ire, he has chosen a strategy that any small band of people must when confronted by an overwhelming power. He has decided the terms of engagement, chosen the battlefield and picked the issues on which the battle is to be fought. It is a classic guerilla campaign. The targets have tactical significance. They are vulnerable, and the attacks on them generate a huge amount of publicity as well as elicit the support of the large mass of people who sit on the sidelines of most such battles.
So far it is working, but it is not sustainable. Choosing vulnerable high-value targets is a strategy with diminishing returns. Kejriwal does not seem to have the ability to sustain a political movement over the long-term. As an individual, or for that matter as a political formation, you cannot prevaricate on important issues such as reservation or mount a national political challenge without reaching out to regional political formations.
The branding of India’s entire political framework as corrupt, while not without reason, is not pragmatic. Realising this, Jayaprakash Narayan and VP Singh had kept their attack specifically aimed at the party in power, but their failure to make the parts cohere in the whole they had conjured doomed their attempts. As far as the battle against corruption is concerned, it is as if the JP and VP movements made no impact at all, even if their legacy in the Indian political scenario remains considerable.
But in this likely failure lies Kejriwal’s opportunity. If, as he claims, his actual battle is against the misuse of power, then he should see his entry into politics as a means to achieve this end. The problem is that he does not seem to understand what the end is, caught up as he is in the pursuit of the Lokpal Bill. Perhaps, if he can understand the success he is now enjoying, at least in terms of public perception, he will begin to see a way ahead that is not so limited in intent and so impractical in execution.
It is a simple enough fact that even before we get to prosecution and conviction of the powerful, what we need is knowledge of the misuse of power in the first place. This knowledge has a resonance of its own. Instances of such perceived misuse are easy to recollect even today. We remember Sanjay Gandhi and Maruti, Rajiv Gandhi and Bofors, the Tehelka tapes and NDA, 2G and A Raja, as well as the associated power brokering that centred around Niira Radia, Suresh Kalmadi and the Commonwealth Games, Shashi Tharoor and the IPL, the coal scandal, and, thanks to Kejriwal, Robert Vadra, Salman Khurshid and Nitin Gadkari.
In the vast majority of these cases, including the ones championed by Kejriwal, the media has been the primary source of information, even if it has failed to take up many of them with the vigour that is necessary. But this has not been an easy task; the availability of information on the most powerful in this country is severely limited. It is this easing of access to information that is most essential. The acts of the powerful must be open to public scrutiny, and this transparency lies at the heart of the struggle against corruption.
If there has been one significant legislative achievement in this battle, it is the Right to Information Act. It is nowhere near enough, and already those in power are running scared, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proclaiming, “The citizens’ right to know should definitely be circumscribed if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone’s personal privacy.” What does this ‘personal privacy’ mean? And can the monetary dealings of the powerful ever be seen as such?
In this battle, Kejriwal’s contribution so far has been twofold, even if he may yet not see it in these terms. He has magnified the information that a few media outfits had provided, ensuring that it reaches as many as possible. More importantly, Kejriwal has increased the possibility of transparency at the very top simply by making it evident that the media needs to shed the limits of restraints it has exercised. The media has used terms such as ‘decorum’ and ‘propriety’ to conceal a very basic fact, that the very powerful evoke fear among proprietors and editors. In Robert Vadra’s case, the media failed for this very reason. The case against him was strong, it needed to be pursued doggedly, and institutionally, the media did not do so.
But even if we leave the question of fear aside, and Kejriwal may have forced us to do so in some way, we remain a society where we still have great difficulty ascertaining information that goes well beyond the question of the privacy of powerful individuals.
Consider some questions at random that we still cannot answer:
1) Sonia Gandhi has refused to divulge her income tax returns citing privacy. But given that she was an MP and president of the Congress party, who was also at one time head of the National Advisory Council, we are within our rights to ask what her sources of income are, what has sustained her family through the years.
2) As the ‘foster’ son-in-law of Atal Behari Vajpayee, Ranjan Bhattacharya enjoyed immense clout in Delhi, a clout, as the Radia Tapes reveal, that did not end even after Vajpayee was ousted from power. What was the change in Bhattacharya’s financial status over these five years?
This is true not just of politicians and political parties. We could ask questions about corporate chiefs, who, whether they like it or not, are ‘public figures’, or for that matter about the assets of newspaper editors or sources of funding of various media organisations, and we would similarly be left without answers. Transparency in the financial dealings of individuals in the public eye, a loose term but one that can be suitably defined, is necessary for the reasonable functioning of Indian democracy.
This transparency is also necessary because it is the single greatest deterrent in a culture where such ‘misuse’ of power is endemic. This is not an affliction born of the modern Indian state, is far more deep-rooted. While most of us can recall Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech, we have not paid quite enough attention to another speech made around the same time, perhaps more prosaic, but in our current circumstances more noteworthy:
“One of the biggest curses from which India is suffering—I do not say that other countries are free from it, but, I think our condition is much worse—is bribery and corruption. That really is a poison. We must put that down with an iron hand and I hope that you will take adequate measures as soon as it is possible for this Assembly to do so….
The next thing that strikes me is this: Here again it is a legacy which has been passed on to us. Along with many other things, good and bad, has arrived this great evil, the evil of nepotism and jobbery. I want to make it quite clear that I shall never tolerate any kind of jobbery, nepotism or any influence directly or indirectly brought to bear upon me. Whenever I will find that such a practice is in vogue or is continuing anywhere, low or high, I shall certainly not countenance it.”
If we understand ‘jobbery’ for what it is, using public office for private profit, then MA Jinnah’s speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly in 1947 could well be made today, though it is difficult to imagine a politician who can seriously claim that s/he would not tolerate it.
This history makes it evident that our cultural inheritance is part of our problem. We see the need to reward relatives once in power and the pursuit of wealth for its own sake, not mediated by any ethical or moral constraints, as admirable traits. If there is one thing that mitigates this, it is the notion of shame. The public exposure of wrongdoing, even when the individual concerned does not consider it wrong within a private framework (hence the impotency of ideas such as guilt in our context), is a significant deterrent. And as a public we like to heap the opprobrium that shame brings in its wake.
It is this shame that has ensured media personalities such as Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi saw a curtailment in the power they once wielded after the Radia Tapes became public. No enforcement will ever ensure a check on such activities, but transparency certainly can, which is why Kejriwal’s public outings have been such a success.
If we look at the list of the names of Congressmen thrown up in a host of recent cases, it includes Natwar Singh, Shashi Tharoor, Suresh Kalmadi, Salman Khurshid, and if we go by Tarun Das’ claim on the Radia Tapes, Kamal Nath. What we see is the prevalence of a well-educated elite that is far removed from the venal image of the ordinary Indian politician. These are people who have come from the right colleges, have the right pedigree, and as a result seem to consider themselves immune from the routine scrutiny that should exist in a democracy. They are only now finding out that they are not immune, public outrage inflicts it own cost.
But whatever the successes of the method, individual outing as practised by Kejriwal cannot be an end in itself. If he can begin to understand the political logic of his success, he must be part of an initiative to formalise transparency in public life. This increased transparency is not just a rhetorical device, it needs to be implemented as much through a legislative framework as it does through dramatic public acts.
Kejriwal had managed the latter, but the question is of ensuring the necessary legislative framework, which is the more difficult part. It requires a broadening and extension of the RTI, it involves the need for transparency in electoral funding and land transactions. Each of these requires complex legislative intervention, and each on its own is far more important than a Lokpal, who at least in the India Against Corruption version, polices every aspect of ordinary lives.
While it is unlikely that such legislative changes can be implemented in the kind of hurry Kejriwal’s politics demands, the public space he has captured means that it is within his grasp to place these on the public agenda. Even if that is all he manages to do, it will still be more than what Jinnah and JP managed in their battle against corruption.