Acts of commission and omission

All defence deals have inbuilt commissions which are paid to those who purchase armaments. The Congress Party, when in power soon after independence, used the money to contest elections. Babu Jagjivan Ram, the then Defence Minister, managed the funds, not letting the deals become a scandal.

The uproar today is over the kickbacks over and above the usual commission. Now, even the defence specifications are changed if the money paid is substantial. This happened in the case of the VVIP choppers' purchase. The flying altitude was lowered because AgustaWestland gave a large sum of money as bribe.

That Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has been named by an Italian court in Milan is not something conspirational. The judge found the eye of suspicion turning towards her. Accusations and counter-accusations will not serve the purpose. It is an open secret that Sonia Gandhi, a powerful person even at that time, was very much in the picture. 

The best course available now is for the Supreme Court to constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the matter de novo to know the truth, however late it is. At the same time, Parliament should appoint a committee to lay down procedures to buy defence equipment. The present committee does not have much of deterrence. 

This again depends on how earnest and serious the political parties are. At present, the defence deals are the major source for the ruling political party to oil its electoral machinery. What surprises one is that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) did not have any clue as to the kickbacks and where they were coming from and going to. It is possible that the agency came to know about the truth but did not reveal it, because the "parrot is caged", to use a description given by a political party.

This only strengthens the plea, underlined in these columns earlier, that the CBI should be made an independent agency, directly answerable to Parliament alone. The fact that no major political party thinks on those lines indicates that all of them are aware of the advantage of having the CBI as a government department. 

Retired CBI directors have gone on record saying that the pressure exerted by ruling parties is so relentless that the agency has no option except to wield to their demands. Even when the public outcry is against a corrupt chief minister, he can choose to appoint his wife in his place, ignoring the protests. 

Corruption in all the three neighbouring countries - India, Pakistan and Bangladesh - has become a way of life. A politician's standard of living is now so high that the emoluments which he gets are not adequate to meet his expenses. Ultimately, it is the money that makes the mare go.

Gone are the days when a Member of Parliament thought that his was a service to the country. A salary of Rs. 500 was the limit that Mahatma Gandhi had fixed. Even from this amount, a donation had to be given to the party. Once the generation of those who came through the fire of freedom struggle disappeared, questions were raised about the amount fixed as emolument for MPs. 

The current demand of MPs to double their emolument has been discussed in the Parliament Affairs Committee when the members asked for a raise. It would be understandable and fair if emoluments were linked to the rising costs of living. But the media, particularly television networks, make such a hue and cry regarding this issue that no political party dares to suggest an increase in the salary of legislators. Therefore, they look for other avenues. It is an open secret that many get a regular payback from corporate and business houses, and even public sector undertakings. 

When people are in power, they often try to add to their income from different sources. Legislators cannot overcome the temptation. Top retired government officials also take the same path. For example, former Air Chief S.P. Tyagi has apparently helped his family members in the chopper deal. The local bribe-takers have already been punished by the Italian court and they are serving the sentence. But in India, the guilty are yet to be brought to book.

It is interesting that as many as 20 journalists have also been named among the bribe takers. Their names are with the government. Why has this list not been made public is intriguing. Did politics or personal equations come in between? Whatever the reason, the public has the right to know the names of the journalists because they preach morality all the time but are found wanting when it comes to practicing the same.

It is the duty of the Editors Guild to see that the names of the accused journalists are made public without delay. But then I recall that in one meeting, when it was suggested that editors should make their assets public, there was little response from the members of the Guild. Even the Press Council has not been able to lay down any rule whereby editors, when appointed, are made to declare their assets. Sting operations may be a new way to find the truth, but they are more sensational in nature than in content. This has also become another avenue to extort money.

Statements made by Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar seemed to uncover certain scandals but the purpose seems to be more political in nature than anything worthwhile. The problem of commission in defence is still a blatant one. The solution can be found only when politics is pushed into the background and the genuine intent of public good comes to the fore. 

Even if all political parties adopt a code of ethics, they will not be able to adhere to it both in letter and spirit. The Central Vigilance Commission is of little use because it is influenced by the government in power. Now the only way out seems to be a permanent SIT-like outfit under the supervision of the Apex Court. Even RBI governor Raghuram Rajan, who raised expectations, has failed to fulfil them. 

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.