DELHI ~ Amar Singh personifies all that most of us dislike about Indian politics. He is the ultimate influence peddler, the middleman to beat all middlemen, and at his best, he can make Niira Radia look like an amateur. But it would be wrong to see his arrest (his guilt is yet to be established) in the cash-for-votes scam of 22 July 2008 as a sign that we are moving towards a law enforcement system where everyone is accountable. In the current climate, it is an indication of quite the opposite.
Amar Singh joins A Raja, Kanimozhi and Suresh Kalmadi in Tihar jail. It is an unlikely list, and no one could have predicted two years ago that such people could be arrested in any case. Yet, it is a list that arouses scepticism. The arrests are no doubt the result of the Supreme Court’s active monitoring of cases conducted by the CBI, yet they also demonstrate why such an approach does not suffice. One presumes that Amar Singh’s arrest is a sign that he stands accused of trying to bribe BJP MPs. If so, it is only reasonable to ask what his motive was. He could hardly have been acting on his own while seeking Lok Sabha votes in favour of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal.
In all the attempts to obfuscate what transpired on that day, much has been made of the three concerned BJP MPs’ attempts to lure or entrap some political parties into paying for their votes. It is a questionable practice and does need to be debated, but it is not central to the issue at hand. No one put a gun to the heads of those who did shell out the money, and that is the real crime—they were looking to purchase votes to pass a law that they were not sure would actually get past Parliament.
In Raja’s case, while his guilt has been made out, the CBI has done little in its chargesheet to establish how he could get away with what he did. It is getting increasingly difficult to believe—given the evidence already reported on these pages—that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Finance Minister P Chidambaram were not in the know of what Raja did, even if they preferred to be kept at an arm’s length (a term the PMO used and is now interpreting in a rather creative fashion). A similar problem arises in the Commonwealth Games scam; much of the spending seems to have taken place through the Delhi government, but the only person arrested is Suresh Kalmadi, who, though a Congressman, was heading the organising committee because of his role as president of the Indian Olympic Association. All this adds up to three big scams over the past five years, but for some reason, no Congress politician serving in this government—in power since May 2004—has been arrested.
The Congress tries to spin this fact in different ways. It uses the arrest to show that it has the firm intention of acting against corruption, it uses the absence of Congressmen in this list to point out how it is not tainted. Again, it falls prey to the excess of lawyers in its ranks. Its arguments may make for good debating points on TV channels, but convince no one. Rather, they strengthen the public perception that we will not see the corrupt in power actually being booked until the CBI is granted autonomy. It may be a naïve view, given that even an autonomous CBI will be staffed by the same IPS officers who after a fixed tenure will revert to the Centre (or state), always aware that the politicians who they go after (under, say, the Lokpal) will determine their careers in the future, but at least it gives the public hope that the present state of things is not permanent.
The problem does not end here. As an organisation, the Congress has bought so heavily into this rhetoric that the public anger manifested through the Anna movement seems to have had no effect on the party. Within days of a compromise that was forced on the Congress, old habits were on view again. Details about the money that Arvind Kejriwal owes the government were published, in much the same manner as information about the CD relating to an alleged conversation between Amar Singh and Shanti Bhushan had appeared on the front pages of a newspaper. The Delhi Police continues to insist the CD is genuine; no one else seems to, given that parts of the CD are an exact copy of another tape in the ‘Amar Singh collection’ circulated earlier. It doesn’t take forensic knowledge to figure out that word-for-word repetition of an entire conversation in quite another context is an impossibility. The charges against Kejriwal, as may be the case with some other matters related to the Bhushans, may have some merit, but the timing is not just suspect, it indicates a complete misunderstanding of the public mood. What else can explain Digvijaya Singh going after Anna Hazare while claiming Kalmadi will emerge innocent?
This is not to claim that Hazare is a paragon. He actually had a nation believing that his battle against corruption justifies negotiations with the Congress through men such as Vilasrao Desmukh, and, away from the constant monitoring of a Kejriwal or Kiran Bedi, he has gone back to his passion for bloodletting, calling for corrupt MPs to be hanged. In this context, it is disturbing that his supporters tend to see such regular appeals as the idiosyncrasies of an old man. So far no journalist has managed an extended one-on-one conversation with Hazare. We need to learn firsthand what he feels and thinks about a range of issues because the ambitions of the movement for which he is a figurehead by now extend far beyond the Lokpal Bill. The easy call for the death penalty, the love of flogging, and a general tendency not to engage with the complexity of an issue are cause for concern.
But despite such reservations, people in general are interested not in a scrutiny of the movement against corruption, but of the Government that is currently in power. Crude tactics such as going after Kejriwal, privately asserting to journalists that the resolution passed in Parliament was actually a victory for the party, and letting Manish Tewari stay on in the Standing Committee that will examine the Lokpal Bill once again raise doubts about the sincerity of the party.
This doubt is what led to public anger in the first place. This anger is what led to the Ramlila crowds. If the Government believes that the tactics it used to its disadvantage from April to August against the Anna movement can be continued in the same fashion, then it had better be ready for another upheaval ahead. Even those who find nothing much to cheer about Anna and his cohorts reluctantly seem to be coming round to the view that this motley crowd may be the only antidote to the arrogance of power that the ruling party has come to represent.