Book title: Why scams are here to stay: Understanding political corruption in India
Author: N Ram
Publishing house: Aleph Book Company
Price: Rs 399
Just as it is impossible to know when a fish moving in water is drinking it, so it is impossible to find out when government servants in charge of undertakings misappropriate money. – Kautilya, Arthashastra.
The small pocket book gains significance for both the burning topic as well as the author’s name.
Corruption in India today covers every branch of the Indian state and key sectors of the economy. Far from declining and fading away, as predicted, with deregulation and liberalisation, it has increased exponentially at all levels. In this book, N Ram, who led the investigation in to the Bofors scam, tries to get a measure of political corruption in India and explains why it has become an intractable problem.
The book is segregated in to three sections – story of corruption and scams in India, history definitions and theory, and two case studies that speak of a much larger reality. The conclusion underlines that without deep, radical changes to India’s political economy, it will not be possible to prevent and eliminate the endemic and deep-seated disorder. So it suggests what can be done to minimise, contain and combat corruption under nine broad heads. These proposals cover laws, enforcement capacity, policies, institutions, regulation, vigilance, the corporate sector, journalism and politics.
The book makes a vital comment on the importance of fact-checking. Here the author mentions that there used to be a widely-traded joke about the verification culture at The Hindu: Before a report or ad of a natural death was published, a staff member would be dispatched to the house of the departed to ensure that he or she was not of this world. The book rightly points out that the habit of verification, which is integral to the credible-information function of journalism, helps build trust in newspapers and other news media.
Also, while making a comment on professional obstacles, it mentions how India’s criminal defamation law and other liberal laws restricting freedom of expression were working in tandem with conservative, play-safe norms of the newsroom to produce a dampening, if not chilling effect on independent journalistic investigation.
Then there is the issue of pervasive corruption in the news media industry, which no commentary on corruption can ignore if it is to be credible. The best known and most flagrant form of corruption in the press and in TV news is the practice that has come to be known as ‘paid news’.
The author speaks of how after the Watergate probe, journalism had become a romantic and even glamorous profession, drawing in to its fold droves of young men and women who all wanted to become ‘Woodsteins’. For the reader, one of the most relevant chapters may be the one about PM Modi’s demonetisation, which was claimed to be a devastating ‘surgical strike’ on black money, which though not synonymous with corruption, is enmeshed with it.
What is striking is that despite the massive scale on which corruption takes place across India, so little is being done to go after the big fish. In terms of enforcement failure, as per a Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) study, of the 54,139 registered cases of corruption only 35.33 per cent of the cases that were sent to trial ended in conviction. But the most telling statistic was that merely 19.53 per cent of all registered cases ended in conviction.
As the book suggests, the public outcry against corruption is a constructive force that needs to be harnessed to support a government that is willing to undertake serious reform. Mass campaigns against corruption, fuelled largely by moral outrage, make their contribution by raising the level of public awareness but are unable to sustain themselves beyond a point and fail to meet the lofty objectives they set themselves.
In the final analysis, progress in the fight against corruption depends on the quality and effectiveness of political education, organisation, and mass mobilisation. In short, the struggle against corruption needs to be waged in parallel with a larger democratic and progressive political struggle. There is no way to predict how long it will take before significant positive gains, not to mention a radical breakthrough, can be achieved by these struggles. But it would be irresponsible for citizens to stand aside and let the hugely damaging current situation and the trends discussed in this book continue to take their toll.