Who Steals Less?

By Mohan Guruswamy


New Delhi, 15 August 2002

At the recently concluded BJP National Council meeting in New Delhi , the BJP boss LK Advani made his now usual and stirring call to arms. The BJP should not only be a party with a difference he chortled, but also should provide a government with a difference. He also announced the end of the Vajpayee era, the subsequent feeble clarification being probably even more fainter than Yudhishtra’s: “Aswathama, the elephant!” The fable, history to some, tells us that Dronacharya swooned and lost his head in quick succession. Vajpayee has been in a stupor for many months now and it is a matter of time before he too loses his head.

Mark the use of the future tense by the Sardar. He wants a government with a difference henceforth; very clearly suggesting it has not been so, so far. Of course he will now deny that he did not mean that this government is not a government with a difference. Of course it is. It is worse than even the cash and carry government of PV Narasimha Rao. But it looks like Pandit Vajpayee is not taking the Sardar allusions lying down. He has struck back by canceling all allotments made since January 2000, knowing very well that the system of allocation using retired judges as fig leaves was concocted at the behest of the Sardar and will leave a wide swathe of litigation in its wake.

The numbers involved are mind-boggling. In all 1134 petrol pumps and 1788 LPG dealerships were allocated, in addition to the 236 kerosene dealerships. The going rate for each petrol pump was in the range of Rs. 25 lakhs each and for each LPG and kerosene dealership anywhere between Rs. 10-15 lakhs. Not less than Rs.500 crores went into the pockets of the supply chain, mostly made up of top BJP functionaries. The list of allottees is a veritable who’s who of the shady BJP and shadowy RSS. Two Prime Ministerial nieces figure prominently in it. One is clearly so unhappy about now being denied by her uncle that she is threatening to go to court over the belated cancellation. In each state the BJP hierarchy actively participated in raking in the loot while distributing largesse.

A leading national newspaper reports that in AP, a cabal of BJP ministers such note worthies as Bangaru Laxman, Bandaru Dattatreya, CH Vidyasagara Rao and UV Krishnam Raju together made more than 200 allocations. One senior BJP leader, very clearly unhappy, told me that as a special case he managed to get a petrol pump sanctioned for a reduced rate of Rs.10 lakhs! His complaint was that even party colleagues were not spared in the collection drive supposedly for the party fund. Party fund is a euphemism for personal fund, as the gold-fingered Bangaru Laxman very clearly illustrated in the Tehelka tapes. With the exception of Krishnam Raju, all of them are self-made men and how well they have done for themselves is common knowledge. It seems rather than Jai Shri Ram a more apt slogan for the BJP should be Jai Shri Ram Naik!

Ram Naik along with Arun Shourie is considered one of the more honest of the BJP ministers. He is right when he says that he did not make a single allocation. But he is being downright dishonest when he says he was not aware of what was going on. For that matter neither was Arun Shourie. The system, as Vajpayee’s men have now leaked out, was installed at the behest of LK Advani, that paragon of probity and votary of good governance, to benefit BJP and RSS supporters and workers. But his party being what it is, a party of bania’s literally went back to its roots to turn a profit for itself. Ram Naik therefore sees no need to quit and is thereby very clearly suggesting, in so many unsaid words that if anybody must go it must be Advani. And this he must, owning up responsibility for creating the corrupt patronage system that stands exposed, despite so many willing judicial fig leaves.

But what is shocking is how judges, even if they were retired, allowed themselves to become a part of this scam. It speaks volumes about the mores now prevalent in our judiciary. The doings of a lower court judge in Bombay in cahoots with the Dubai and Karachi based mafia are well known. Every state has its quota of crooked judges. For every one discovered to be a crook many more go undetected. Even when they are, little happens. A High Court chief justice gets huge sums ostensibly from an unheard of overseas publisher for books few read or even buy and gets away with it. A former judge of the Supreme Court is accused of stealing furniture and a partisan parliamentary majority exonerates him. Clearly the higher courts set the standards for the judges of the Dealership Selection Boards? A former chief justice of the Supreme Court hurriedly disposed off cases writing patently biased judgments during his short tenure, while another who shouldn’t have been a chief justice at all for favoring himself when he was in the High Court gets away with it scot-free. The courts have become increasingly politicized, in other words criminalized, if corruption can be considered a crime anymore. Its small wonder then we have judges who either write opinions for a consideration or honestly believe that: “Proof beyond reasonable doubt is a judicial guideline not a fetish!”

We have never had a government so utterly without shame, so openly venal, so untrue to its commitments and so vengeful towards its critics. Even the Narasimha Rao government looks quite good by comparison. If there was a petrol pump and gas agency scam in the Narasimha Rao era it was entirely the doing of the minister. But here despite a Supreme Court judgment and the meting out of punishment to Capt. Satish Sharma, the BJP led government does just the same thing, but only on a much larger scale. Then a relative of a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court benefited, but now two relatives of the incumbent Prime Minister were undeserving beneficiaries. The former Chief Justice’s relative met certain norms, but the PM’s relatives did not have any. Then we had a crook like Harshad Mehta claiming to have given the Prime Minister One Crore rupees packed in a suitcase, with little evidence backing his claim beyond a display by his lawyer, the theatrical Ram Jethmalani, that One Crore rupees can indeed be packed into a suitcase. Now we have a Prime Minister who inaugurates a venture promoted by Century Cyberspace, a bogus software services company with few assets beyond a wholehearted endorsement by The Business Standard, and because of which and a few telephone calls tens of crores were invested in it by the UTI. Of course the money went down the drain. How is this qualitatively different than buying non-existent urea over which Vajpayee went to town then?

If Narasimha Rao was vengeful he at least picked people of his size. He picked on LK Advani, Yashwant Sinha, Madanlal Khurana, VC Shukla, Arif Mohammed Khan, Madhavrao Scindhia and some others – all men of some stature and ability to fight back. The Vajpayee government picks on someone like Tarun Tejpal, a mere journalist who had the gumption to set up an effervescent news portal to do what media should be doing – investigating and exposing wrongdoing also rather than just retailing news handouts. Tehelka not only exposed several Indian cricketers not quite playing cricket by playing for the bookies, it also exposed the Indian defence ministry and the military establishment as being steeped in corruption. Not only was money was taken by the Defence Ministers lady friend and party colleague in the minister’s official residence, but she did so in the presence and apparent with the connivance of serving officers. We know what is being done to Tejpal, Tehelka and its investors.

Politicians will be politicians, which usually means thieving and scavenging rascals. The BJP is after all a political party, no different from any of the others. Its only defence against any charge by the Congress is to say, “You did it too!” When the Ketan Parekh scam surfaced, Yashwant Sinha’s only defence was to jeer at Manmohan Singh and remind him of Harshad Mehta! Dr. Manmohan Singh is too decent a man to jibe back that he did not have a Mauritius connection. When the Tehelka scam surfaced, all George Fernandes could muster was to remind the Congress of Bofors! When details of Ranjan Bhattacharya’s telephone calls to PS Subramaniam of the UTI surfaced, all Pramod Mahajan could say in defence of his master was to remind us about PV Prabhakar Rao and the urea scam! And so it goes. All the Congress can now say is that: “You steal more!” And so it goes for Mulayam Singh, Jayalalithaa, Bal Thackeray, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Prakash Singh Badal, M Karunanidhi, N Chandrababu Naidu, Omprakash Chautala and Deve Gowda. Our political choices are now reduced to just that: Who steals less?

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