N. Vittal has laced familiar themes with nostalgia, anecdotes, homilies and gossip
It is natural that in democracies like ours there is concern over corruption in public life. Efforts have been afoot for years, indeed since Independence, to eradicate the evil. Unfortunately, it seems that they have remained Sisyphean. Truly, corruption is a difficult condition to live with. It eats into our vitals, affects growth and efficiency, and denies justice to the under-privileged.
There have been continuing public discourses on various issues governing corruption. Literature on the subject has grown in volume and value. In India, there is a genuine interest born out of idealism and latterly driven by concerns over growth and social equity. Research institutions and civil society organisations have brought out weighty studies. N. Vittal who made a name for himself as the first Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) has contributed a great deal to these debates. His innovative functioning and the stridency shown as the CVC attracted global attention. After retirement he brought out a book, Corruption India, 2003 which was acclaimed by many.
With his erudition and experience as the former CVC and as a member of the civil service, one looks forward to a new book with great expectation. Sadly, the expectations are mostly belied. For those who are familiar with his earlier writings, there is not much that is new in this book. He has reworked the same issues, themes and suggestions and has not brought out any new perspective or analysis to the vexing issues. Rather, he has laced them with some nostalgia, anecdotes, homilies, bureaucratic gossip and Sanskrit slogans!
He adopts a broad schema to study the phenomenon. He proposes what he calls ‘diagnosis’ and adopts the medical approach to “multiple organ failure” and follows the medical analogy or etiology to propose “lines of treatment” to the damaged organs. These organs are: Politics, Bureaucracy, Judiciary, Media and the Corporate Sector. Finally, he proposes “prescription” and involves the citizens and NGOs into the “treatment.” Conceptually, the schema sounds neat and attractive. However, the execution lacks clinical incisions and analytical strength. Along the line, he brings in engineering concepts too and mixes them up. The chapters and themes are not well structured and there is evidence of repetition and the same issues and themes resurfacing in chapters. There are far too many glib and carping generalisations which, if tested holistically, are contradictory. Some of them are unfair or could have been avoided or clothed in more felicitous words.
According to Vittal, “Politics is at the root of the vicious cycle of corruption in our country. Political corruption leads to bureaucratic corruption, which in turn is nurtured by corruption in business.” He proceeds to link politicians with black money via party funding and moves over swiftly to criminal links leading to the emergence of criminals in legislatures as members. Unfortunately, while the syndrome is known, often the middle class intelligentsia, in its moral indignation, mixes up the cause with effect. Who breeds corruption? The people (society) or the politicians? Can we discredit and dispense with politicians and sustain democratic systems?
The simplest of solutions given is that the Election Commission should issue a notification debarring candidates with criminal record from standing for election to legislatures. This is repeated at five or six places in the book. He fails to note that it requires amendment to the Representation of the People Act and proposal for amending the Act has been pending for more than two decades!
He hopes that a system which pays the politicians well may bring about honest politicians. One need not be a cynic, but may well ask, “How much more one should pay?” Vittal is awe-struck by the methods adopted in Singapore and Hong Kong, but fails to reckon with the size of the governments and the nature of the regimes there. Talking about Singapore, the babus may be honest. There are reports about the financial shenanigans of those connected to the ruling family. It is also difficult to go along with the belief that if politicians are honest, down the line, the bureaucracy as a whole will be honest.
While dealing with the politician-business nexus, the analysis is superficial and does not go deeper into the linkages and the causation. He does refer to the liberalisation process and the proliferation of billionaires in the country. Many economists have analysed the growing cronyism nurtured by liberalisation. However, Vittal throws up his hands saying, “Corruption in the government and the corporate sector may turn out to be the national poison denying India its unique historic opportunity to escape the age-old trap of poverty, inequality and economic backwardness.”
Though the author has been critical of undue delays in the judicial system and how it emboldens the corrupt elements, his suggestions regarding reforms are guarded. He relies more on procedural reforms and computerisation to speed up the process. He seems to rely more on the quality and personality of the judges and their value systems than on restructuring.
In the final analysis, he falls back on four institutions to safeguard the interests of the country: the judiciary, the Election Commission of India, the Comptroller & Auditor General of India and the Central Vigilance Commission. His faith in these institutions is more than fortified by the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of P.J. Thomas. He goes on to plead for steps to correct the twin deficits of governance — ‘trust deficit’ and ‘ethical deficit.’
He details what he describes as “Prescription to Cure” and turns it into a matter of faith. His idealism is very much to the brim. Elsewhere he says the political class will not commit hara-kiri. How does he expect the same political class to have change of heart when dealing with the appointment of his Pretorian Guards? Vittal puts his faith in the Election Commission to bring it about! How? By debarring them from elections!
Corruption is a complex phenomenon and has its roots deep and wide. It has a long record in our history and culture. It finds new forms and variants. It is imperative that it should be eradicated. The intractability of the problem should not dishearten us and efforts should continue. In that process, this book has some valuable view points and random thoughts. The idealism shown by the author should inform further work on anti-corruption measures.
ENDING CORRUPTION? — How to Clean up India: N. Vittal; Penguin Books India, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.