| Abramoff arrives at the Miami Courthouse, January 4, 2006
In the six years since Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared, in the presence of Bill Clinton, that India and the United States of America were 'natural allies', America is increasingly looking like India. In 2000, when Clinton made his high-profile visit to New Delhi, transforming Indo-US relations from minimal ties between two estranged democracies to a love-fest of potential strategic partners, terrorism was not something that Americans worried much about. But India had already been bleeding from terrorism at that time for at least 15 years. Within a year, the US was obsessed by the threat of terrorism. Similarly, India had been putting up with Enron for several years before the country decided that it was going to be a natural ally of the US. Within two years, Enron had acquired household notoriety in the US too, a symbol of corporate greed and boardroom shenanigans.
And now there is the nauseating stench of corruption in Washington. These days, America's capital has the appearance and atmosphere of Patna in 1997 after the Rs 950 crore fodder scam was unearthed, unseating Lalu Prasad as Bihar's chief minister; or of Gandhinagar under Chimanbhai Patel, who became so notorious that Jayaprakash Narayan began his navnirman movement in Gujarat.
There is no forgiveness for political corruption, but the toll it takes on people is sometimes sad to watch. Take, for instance, Randy 'Duke' Cunningham, a California Republican, who resigned from the House of Representatives recently after serving for 14 years. Cunningham was an ace navy pilot, whose dogfight in Vietnam, when he flew an F-4 Phantom that downed the Vietnamese legendary ace pilot, Nguyen Toon, and his MiG 17, and other similar exploits, are featured in the famous Eighties movie, Top Gun. Back from Vietnam, Cunningham became an instructor of fighter pilots at the US navy's top training school. But through all this, he attended night classes (getting an MBA), made a name as a TV commentator on defence matters, eventually becoming the second Republican ever to win in the solidly Democratic stronghold of San Diego.
By the time Cunningham tearfully announced his resignation a few weeks ago, he was dripping in sleaze. His house was bought by a defence contractor for $1.67 million and immediately notified by the contractor for resale at a price that was lower by $700,000, which meant that the contractor inflated the price he paid the Congressman, giving him a bribe of nearly three-quarters of a million and laundering that money too. In Washington, Cunningham lived a charmed life on a yacht owned by the defence contractor, entertaining women with champagne as the sun set over the Potomac River, according to accounts of the scandal which are now public. He used his influence to get the Pentagon to buy a document-digitization system manufactured by his friend's company at a cost of $20 million. When the Pentagon dared to say that it did not want the system, Cunningham tried to get rid of the assistant undersecretary for defence, who was standing in his way.
When greed gets hold of politicians and they place themselves above the law, there are no limits. Cunningham began selling 'official' items, such as a buck knife with a Congressional seal, on his personal website. On November 28, 2005, two months after a public watchdog organization named Cunningham as one of more than a dozen of the most corrupt legislators on Capitol Hill, he pleaded guilty to taking bribes, such as a Rolls Royce, antique furniture, Persian rugs and jewellery. He now faces 10 years in prison in addition to giving up $1.8 million in cash, many of his ill-gotten possessions and a house bought with the money gained from the real-estate transaction with the defence contractor.
Three-and-a-half years ago, a colourful Congressman, James Traficant, was expelled from the House of Representatives for corruption, the only member to be so thrown out of the House in 25 years. But unlike Cunningham, Traficant and allegations of corruption have always gone hand in hand. In 1983, when Traficant was a sheriff in Mahoning County, Ohio, he refused to take possession of houses owned by the unemployed who had outstanding loans. The refusal made him a popular hero, but he was charged with racketeering and taking bribes. Traficant represented himself in the trial and successfully argued that he took the bribes as an undercover investigator into corruption. He was acquitted and went on to become a Congressman in an upset election in 1984.
But unlike many of Washington's political elite, Traficant was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which made him vulnerable on Capitol Hill. It did not help that his party, the Democrats, despised him because more often than not, he voted with the other side of the aisle. In 2001, stripped of his seniority in the House by his party caucus, Traficant remained the only Congressman without membership of any House committee in a century. In 2002, he was indicted for corruption in taking campaign funds for personal use and was subsequently convicted on ten counts of felony including bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. In a subsequent election held for his Congressional seat, Traficant contested as an independent from jail, and to his credit, won 15 per cent of votes cast.
Corruption in the US is almost as old as its declaration of independence. Perhaps the earliest corruption scandal in America was in the 1790s and is known as the Paine Barrens Speculation, when three successive governors of Georgia fraudulently gave out land amounting to three time the total area of the state. The governors also sold land at artificially low prices in what has become known in history as the Yazoo land scam.
America has often closed its eyes to what is obviously corruption, as long it could be papered over: after demitting office as president, Ronald Reagan pocketed $ 2 million from Japan's Fujisankei Communications Group for two speeches. As early as 1952, Richard Nixon, who was Dwight Eisenhower's vice-presidential running mate, was accused of corruption involving $18,000, then a very big sum, in illegal campaign contributions. But Nixon turned the tables on his opponents, delivering one of the first television addresses in any poll campaign in America, insisting that the only gift he ever took was a cocker spaniel given to his daughter. 'The kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it,' Nixon told the nation. The speech won him sympathy and made him a hero.
What makes today's Washington different, though, is that the roots of corruption run so deep that the entire political system is starting to rot. The Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress are probably the most corrupt in America's history. Its corruption does not have any holy cows and has invaded areas, such as national defence, which were considered sacrosanct when America was once a great nation. As of now, the FBI's 13 field offices and 50 top agents are pursuing leads nationwide in what is emerging as the biggest corruption scandal in the US in at least a generation. After the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is at the centre of this scandal, pleaded guilty last week, some two dozen American legislators and their aides are said to be targets of investigation in their dealings with Abramoff ' now known as the Don of K Street, where the big lobbying firms are located in Washington. The Abramoff scandal has international ramifications. The Russians are said to have illegally donated one million dollars through a front network to the benefit of the former Republican Congressional leader, Tom DeLay, so that legislation benefiting Russian energy interests could be passed on Capitol Hill.
This scandal also goes to the heart of the White House. When Karl Rove ' whom George W. Bush describes as the 'architect' of his second term victory ' needed an executive secretary, Abramoff was there offering the services of his executive assistant, Susan Ralston. The White House now says Bush did not know Abramoff personally, but skeletons slowly tumbling out of political cupboards suggest that their connections go back as far as 1997, when Bush was governor of Texas. Bush has three years left in office, and the way things are going in Washington, the Abramoff corruption case may make Iraq look like a minor distraction in what remains of his time in the White House.