WAY back in February 2002, I wrote an article in The Hindu titled “Is India drifting to ‘kleptocracy’?” It was in the context of the heartless bureaucratic process of ‘rehabilitation’ of a village ravaged by the disastrous Gujarat earthquake of 2001. This is what I prophesied then: “…the country is slowly moving away from democracy towards a system of ‘kleptocracy’ with politicians, for whom democracy is nothing more than a tool to capture power and the license to loot, at the centre of the orbit. Around them in the orbit are the civil servants, the police and even judges, each feathering their own nest.”
Happenings in the recent past, both outside and inside Parliament, indicate that the prophecy has come true. For weeks the media has been sledgehammering through news and debates the BJP’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj for favouring and patronizing a notorious black money launderer, Lalit Modi; Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje for having business dealings and a partnership with this fugitive; and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan for a killer scam called Vyapam wherein over 40 persons are suspected to have been murdered. Congress spokespersons were on the offensive both within and outside the media. The response of BJP politicians and spokespersons was a sickening “So what?” On the side were allegations of corruption against the BJP Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh and a minister in Maharashtra. In all these, Prime Minister Modi, who speaks on all subjects at the drop of a hat, did not open his mouth.
The BJP as the ruling party, reserved its counter-offensive against the Congress for Parliament which was being stalled by the opposition party, demanding the resignations of Swaraj, Chouhan and Raje. Unrelenting in the counterattack, BJP MPs brought up scandals involving Congress state governments in Kerala, Assam, Goa, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The message of BJP MPs was, if you raise state matters in Parliament, so will we, as they spoke about the alleged solar scam and hotel owners’ allegations of bribery in Kerala, bribery in water projects involving US firm Louis Berger in Goa and Assam and flood relief irregularities in Uttarakhand.
Giving a clear indication that it is in a confrontationist mode inside Parliament, Union Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad gave a detailed account of the money-laundering charges against Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, calling it an ‘Applegate’. Swaraj, from whom the whole thing started, herself struck an aggressive stance at a meeting of the BJP parliamentary party while saying that if allowed to speak in Parliament, she would expose Congress leaders who had pitched for facilitating with a diplomatic passport the travel of a coal scamaccused former Congress minister, Santosh Bagrodia. What message are the present-day ruling party BJP and opposition Congress party (that ruled till recently) conveying? In pure and simple terms they are saying that India is not a democracy anymore and has become a kleptocracy defined as ‘rule by a thief or thieves’.
Even as it started its second year in office, the Modi government is getting stuck in problems similar to what the UPA faced for most of its second fiveyear term. Marred by corruption allegations, the Manmohan Singh government was brought to its knees by protest within and outside Parliament. The logjam in Parliament continued for most of the sessions. Emboldened by public anger, the then BJP-led opposition stalled House proceedings repeatedly. Leaders from both parties engaged in verbal duels in TV studios and debate in Parliament was a foregone conclusion. The BJP then had an upper hand but wants to deny the same to the Congress now!
THE BJP and Modi have been brazening it out on the issue of money-laundering and black money stashed abroad with party chief Amit Shah terming this electoral agenda as a political jumla (a vapid, empty promise). Now they are doing the same on the serious charges of corruption combined with killing and sleeping with known money-launderers and black money hoarders. Considering that eliminating corruption, preventing money-laundering and retrieving black money stashed abroad were the main platforms on which the BJP and Modi rode to power with a convincing democratic mandate, throwing the Congress and Manmohan Singh into the dustbin, the ruling party’s present attitude raises serious doubts about the democratic credentials of India.
It is in this context that one should look at what the Supreme Court did in the famous black money judgment (Ram Jethmalani & Ors. Petitioner(s) Vs Union of India & Ors. Respondent(s) WP (Civil) No(s). 176 Of 2009, dated 04/07/2011). It approvingly quoted the following passage from Robert Rotberg’s When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, acknowledging thereby that India’s governments indeed have these characteristics.
“Failed states offer unparalleled economic opportunity-but only for a privileged few. Those around the ruler or ruling oligarchy grow richer while their less fortunate brethren starve. Immense profits are available from an awareness of regulatory advantages and currency speculation and arbitrage. But the privilege of making real money when everything else is deteriorating is confined to clients of the ruling elite….The nation-state’s responsibility to maximize the well-being and prosperity of all its citizens is conspicuously absent, if it ever existed…. Corruption flourishes in many states, but in failed states it often does so on an unusually destructive scale. There is widespread petty or lubricating corruption as a matter of course, but escalating levels of venal corruption mark failed states.”
These characteristics are that of plutarchy wherein government is controlled by the wealthy for the wealthy. It is what most so-called Western ‘democratic’ governments these days really are since they are influenced by politicians who are mostly rich celebrities, lawyers and business people (CEOs), who are supported, influenced and financed through campaign contributions and/ or bribes by other rich, famous and influential individuals, families, corporations, companies, organizations and institutions. India is fast morphing towards this mode of government. Since it already has the characteristics of kleptocracy-‘rule by a thief or thieves’-it is only appropriate that the emerging model should be termed as ‘kleptarchy’-a blend of kleptocracy and plutarchy.
MORE than anything else, the ‘Vyapam-Dental and Medical Test (DMAT)’ scam of Madhya Pradesh testifies that the state is indeed kleptocratic. By listing the VVIPs of the political parties (ruling and opposition), higher judiciary, civil servants and police whose wards have allegedly benefitted from the scam, Rakesh Dixit in his article in thewire.in, has clearly brought out the kleptocratic network. Tragically, it also includes the Governor of the state, its Chief Minister and senior ministers. The vice-like circle is indeed complete!
In kleptarchy the rulers are also heartless. This is borne by the fact that even 48 deaths, weeks of national outrage and the Supreme Court ordering a CBI probe into the Vyapam scam have failed to temper the Madhya Pradesh ruling party’s haughtiness. Speaking to reporters the other day, state BJP chief Nandkumar Singh Chauhan shamelessly said: “Hamey Vyapam ko lekar koi afsos nahi hai (we’ve no regret over the Vyapam scam).” Indeed, shame is one quality kleptarchs readily give up in their hunger for power and wealth!
Public perception is that the BJP, in general, and Modi, in particular, stormed to power because of the electorate’s revulsion against the Congress-led UPA’s unending scams and scandals with the hope that the BJP and Modi would put an end to all the rot. Everyone thought that the BJP as a party and Modi as prime ministerial candidate had promised and indeed pledged so. I revisited the election manifesto of the party and found that on both counts people are wrong. There was no promise to end corruption, let alone any pledge. What came out in campaigns was only electoral rhetoric which the party president has contemptuously dismissed as chunavi jumla.
The rulers need to neither bother nor spend sleepless nights on corruption issues because they can draw solace from the bizarre Karnataka High Court judgment on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s disproportionate wealth case, which the BJP brass has welcomed.
A brief recap. In actual practice, disproportionate wealth is calculated by adding up all the assets and income of the accused and finding out which of the assets and income are from an explained valid source of income. Those assets and income that do not have a satisfactory source are then deemed to be disproportionate wealth. This is what the trial court did in September 2014 and had found Jayalalithaa guilty of possessing disproportionate wealth to the tune of `53.6crore. On the contrary, the Karnataka HC acquitted her of all charges as it found disproportionate wealth to be only to the tune of `2.82crore, which works out to 8.12 per cent of the ‘known source of income’ of the accused. For this, the judge has applied some strange Krishnanand Agnihotri formula, which states that “when there is disproportionate asset to the extent of 10 per cent, the accused are entitled for acquittal”. He has gone much further in protecting and defending corruption by citing a totally irrelevant circular issued by the Government of Andhra Pradesh, which states, “Disproportionate asset to the extent of 20 per cent can also be considered as a permissible limit.”
THERE are several other gems in this judgment that virtually declares all political corruption as non est. Resorting to blatant arithmetic miscalculation and factoring loans advanced to Jayalalithaa as income, the judge brought down the value of excess assets from 76 per cent to about 8 per cent. In the sources of her income, the order lists ‘gifts’ to the tune of `1.5crore offered to Jayalalithaa on her birthday in 1992. These gifts are under CBI investigation for an alleged breach of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988, which prohibits a public servant from receiving gifts from those with whom he or she has official business.
The judge named `4crore as income that Jayalalithaa earned from the company Jaya Publications, between 1991 and 1996, whereas the directors-Sasikala and Jayalalithaa-themselves have claimed only `1.15crore. No explanation was given for this fourfold exaggeration by the High Court. The order goes into some detail on a newspaper subscription scheme cited by the defence as additional income. But, the trial court verdict last year had found this scheme to be fraudulent, retrospectively invented to justify the income that was unaccounted for. The High Court judge has not countered this contention.
Crucially, the High Court verdict used a puzzling method to compute the cost of construction on Jayalalithaa’s and her associates’ properties. According to the prosecution, these plots-adding up to about 1.6lakh square feet-were developed at a cost of approximately `27crore, which makes up almost a third of Jayalalithaa’s alleged unaccounted wealth of `66crore. But the judgment found the cost of construction to be only about `5crore, slashing almost a third of her unaccounted for assets. The order does this by fixing a flat rate of `280 per square foot as construction costs for all properties, a highly unusual decision, given that the properties range from farmhouses in Tirunelveli to posh bungalows and offices in the heart of Chennai. No clear explanation is given for how it arrived at this uniform rate.
As of now this judgment stands and, as Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley proudly claimed on the eve of the BJP’s completion of one year in office, “the word ‘corruption’ is being removed from India’s political dictionary!” Perhaps in the judicial lexicon also! India indeed is morphing into a kleptarchy!
The writer is a former Army and IAS officer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org