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REMEMBER DABHOL'
- The benign Indian view of corruption

A gentleman, whose identity better remain undisclosed, had spent a term in one of the houses of parliament. He considered that experience enough, and passed up the opportunity for a second term. He nonetheless committed some sort of a gaffe, writing his memoirs, a part of which dealt with his days in parliament. Not one particularly addicted to discretion, he recorded in a passage the impressions he had formed of his parliamentary colleagues: those sitting on the benches to his right had perhaps made hundreds of crore of rupees through unfair means, those sitting on his left must have committed at least a hundred murders.

Till now, he has not been hauled for contempt of the house. Possibly nobody has bothered to read the memoirs. Or, in case it has been gone through, the powers-that-be might have fallen back on the adage that discretion was the better part of valour.

These thoughts inevitably occur in the context of the recent furore over the expulsion of eleven MPs on the ground of their having accepted money from private individuals to field questions in parliament. The offence they have committed is indeed heinous and fully deserves the punishment meted out. There is, however, little point in wearing blinkers; this particular outrage has been, just about everybody knows, a part of our parliamentary affairs right since the Fifties. A number of MPs have been, according to the grapevine, in the habit of using their membership of parliament as a base for money-making operations. They used to table specific questions at a consideration, they lobbied with ministers and senior officials on behalf of this or that interest group after being bribed to do so, they freely indulged in commerce with plane and rail tickets made available to them as MPs. To many of them, it is all fair game. Have they not spent pots and pots of money in their campaign to get elected' That was investment. They must now recoup that investment by converting their membership of parliament into a proper office of profit. Whether such profit-making is both immoral and against the law is a question that does not bother them the least.

It does not bother them the least because society has been attuned, in the course of the past half-a-century, to take a benign view of corrupt practices at all levels. After all, one of the major leaders of the country since independence, who was prime minister, all told, for fifteen years, had gone on record that corruption ' bribe-taking and bribe-giving ' was a global phenomenon, and we Indians better learn to wink at it. Add to this the magnitude of hypocrisy the average Indian flaunts as a badge of honour: he combines, with felicity, the utterance of slokas soaked in high moral values with acts of crass immorality.

Why beat about the bush, a dozen MPs have been caught in the net, but what about ministers and top civil servants though' It is pointless to raise hackles when international bodies list us among the top five most corrupt nations. The catchment area for corruption is so vast in the country that ordinary citizens do not think it any more worthwhile to discuss the phenomenon of ill-doing at high places at any great length; they take it as an integral part of the chalta hai framework of the established moral system. The MPs who have been thrown out are relatively small fry. What about the ministers and former ministers exposed by the tehelka videotapes' Apart from the Dalit former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, none of the other major politicians with prima-facie evidence against them has, till now, suffered any inconvenience; commissions of inquiry, which are offering them interim immunity, could continue forever.

It is not considered chivalrous these days ' at least not till this week ' to refer to the Bofors scandal. But the only thing that has come out of it is the disability of a certain Italian businessman to visit India any more. No Indian high-ups are having sleepless nights on account of that Swedish deal of yore; even the most recent episode, involving the Union law minister, is likely to lead to a different d'nouement.

Even more glaring episodes have, in fact, taken place not in the so distant past. The Enron Corporation has now gone into liquidation in the United States of America; its long history of chicanery finally caught up with it. The tentacles of its corrupt ways spread to India in the mid-Nineties. It loomed large in our economic horizon because some politicians took the initiative to spin the fable that once the US company was allowed to take charge, the country's power problems would be licked for ever. The prize target was the Dabhol power plant in Maharashtra. The terms dictated by Enron for setting up the plant were outrageous. The investment and operational costs it presented, with many spurious items thrown in, were way above those quoted by public sector power plants. The estimates of operational cost it submitted were equally wildly inflated.

All of these, however, were accepted by the negotiators on the Indian side without demur. The power purchase agreement that the government of Maharashtra signed with it was a scandalous sell-out: the purchase of power agreed upon was the highest in the country. Protests, including inside parliament, were of no avail. The Congress-led Maharashtra government vociferously defended its surrender to Enron. It was defended, equally loquaciously, by the Congress regime at the Centre and its minister for power who happened to hail from Maharashtra as well.

Politicians bent on selling the interests of the country down the drain apparently flock together. If only we would care to remember, the final act of the thirteen-day BJP government in New Delhi in mid-1996 was the approval of a counter-guarantee of the financial arrangements that the Maharashtra government had reached with the Enron Corporation.

The Dabhol deal with Enron was a scandal and worse. Yet, it went through. It went through because Enron knew the art of softening up the politicians who mattered. In the cost-sheets it deigned to reveal, there was actually a specific entry setting aside a substantial amount for 'educating' clients and public opinion in the countries they intended to plunder. This educational process was obviously a generous, liberal enterprise and must have covered personalities belonging to both major political parties in the country.

Enron, that conglomerate of crooks, collapsed within a few years and those who managed its shady affairs are either already in prison or facing criminal prosecution. But Indian politicians involved in the Dabhol deal have gone scot-free. Meanwhile, because of the counter-guarantee that was agreed upon, the Union government is shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to Dabhol's foreign creditors.

The eleven MPs who have been expelled will be within their rights to demand an ex post inquiry into what transpired at that time when the Dabhol agreement was negotiated, including the circumstances which dictated the signing of the counter-guarantee. Their demand, it is possible to lay a wager, will be met with a deathly silence.

The above narration does not mean that only politicians are venal, and top civil servants are Simon Pure. One recollects the instance of an ICS officer who was industrial development secretary at the Centre in the Sixties. His wife happened to be a sculptress who had more aspiration than talent. Every now and then, she would arrange an exhibition of her works at some New Delhi gallery or other. The husband, the precious specimen of the Indian civil service, would stand at the entrance of the gallery where the exhibition was being held. Those were the days of the licence regime; tycoons would troop into the gallery, and dutifully buy a sculpture or two after paying a hefty price. The sum of such incidents is the Republic of India. Well, almost.

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