New Delhi, Oct. 10: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today hit out at the intensified national focus on corruption issues but also pointedly flagged “big-ticket bribery” in the corporate sector as something that needed to be curbed.
The Prime Minister was speaking at the annual conference of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and state anti-corruption bureaux on a day a fair bit of national news space was grabbed by allegations of quid pro quo deals between businessman Robert Vadra and realty giant DLF.
“The mindless atmosphere of negativity and pessimism that is sought to be created over the issue of corruption can do us no good. It can only damage our nation’s image and hit at the morale of the executive,” Singh told the conference.
He took no names but his intended target was not far to seek: the daily cascade of allegations flowing from India Against Corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal against Vadra and DLF. Kejriwal has alleged Vadra’s businesses benefited from “soft” financial and land deals, a charge DLF has countered.
In the midst of a renewed bid to energise the economy with a slew of reforms, the Prime Minister’s perception is said to be that increased foregrounding of corruption issues could well derail his revival effort.
But if the Prime Minister spoke out against the detrimental impact of the political campaign his government is besieged by, he also directed a pointed finger at corporate corruption of the kind that Vadra and DLF are alleged to be involved in.
“Experience has shown that big-ticket corruption is mostly related to operations by commercial entities. It is, therefore, also proposed to include corporate failure to prevent bribery as a new offence on the supply side,” he said.
“Experience has shown that in a vast majority of cases, it is difficult to tackle consensual bribery and the supplier of the bribe goes scot-free by taking resort to the provisions of the (Prevention of Corruption) Act. This would be taken care of in the proposed amendments,” he added.
At one level, Singh’s statement could reflect his frustration at not being able to contain allegations of a corrupt nexus between politicians and the corporate sector, which have stained his government. The 2G scam and the coal scandal are illustrations.
At another level, the Prime Minister may have been seeking to deflect some of the blame from politicians and the bureaucracy and highlight private sector complicity in corruption. The Prime Minister said a proposal was being mooted in the amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act to tackle consensual bribery.
Singh also pointed out that “a clear and unambiguous definition for the term ‘corruption’, covering both supply and demand sides, is being sought to be provided” by filling certain gaps in the act and by bringing it in line with current international practices through amendments.
“We need to ensure that even while the corrupt are relentlessly pursued and brought to book, the innocent are not harassed. The importance of making a distinction between bona fide mistakes and colourable exercise of power in investigation of corruption cases cannot be overemphasised,” he said while explaining that the government was also examining how the act can be amended to protect honest public servants more effectively.
However, a senior CBI official cautioned that even an amended law might be difficult to enforce. “We have enough laws in place today but the conviction rate in corruption cases is pathetic. I hope the amendment will act as deterrent,” he said soon after the Prime Minister had spoken.
Singh linked the rise in corruption cases to the rapid economic development over the past two decades. He said the reforms initiated in the early 1990s had greatly reduced many of the old forms of corrupt practices associated with controls and the licence-permit raj.
“They (reforms) resulted in faster economic growth and new areas of economic activity. This, in turn, led to newer opportunities for corruption. As our economy grows and becomes more integrated with the global economy, the big challenge before the anti-corruption agencies is to keep pace with these developments,” the Prime Minister said.