Will Indian politics now be a cleaner place?
Given Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, like Lalu Prasad before her, is preparing to install a proxy now that she is in jail for having assets disproportionate to her income and disqualified from her job, it’s easy to be sceptical about the law catching up with the political class. It doesn’t help that the case itself took 18 years to reach a conclusion and that people in the state have voted her back to power despite knowing about the case. Indeed, though the BJP is confident Jayalalithaa’s conviction will improve its position in the state since the DMK is also reeling under corruption charges, there is the possibility the electorate may vote her party again in another two years.
There is little doubt that convicting politicians has been difficult, but when you look at the plethora of politicians and chief ministers—Jayalalithaa is the first serving chief minister to be convicted—who have done jail time, it is difficult to believe things aren’t changing though the pace of change could have been faster. Apart from AR Antulay in Maharashtra, other chief ministers who’ve had to spend time in jail include Lalu Prasad, OP Chautala, Parkash Singh Badal, BS Yeddyurappa and Jagannath Mishra; and among prominent politicians who have been arrested are A Raja and Suresh Kalmadi.
While the arrests will themselves have a salutary effect, what is reinforcing the messages is the accompanying changes in the law. Apart from the RTI which makes collecting information on politicians easier and the mandatory affidavits at the time of fighting elections, the Supreme Court had last year ruled that those found guilty of corruption and sentenced for more than two years in prison will automatically lose membership of assembly/Parliament and cannot contest elections for 10 years. And whatever be the impact of the cancellation of the 2G telecom licences and the coal mine allotments on business sentiment, there is little doubt this has forever changed the manner in which natural resources will be allocated—which is why the first reaction of the government to the coal block cancellations was one of relief that it could now go ahead with a transparent auction for allocating resources. Unless the cleaning up process is kept up, things can once again slip back to where they were. The RTI is a powerful tool to collect information, for instance, but the Madras High Court delivered a verdict that damaged it badly last week—criticism by a vigilant civil society followed and the court was quick to admit a slip up on its part and withdraw the objectionable part of its order. With public sector banks in trouble with bad loans piling up, the political cover to various defaulters has begun to wear, but it is the job of vigilant officials—in the finance ministry, in banks and RBI—as well as the media to shine a spotlight on them. Above all, as economic reforms deepen, and the role of government discretion and largesse reduce, the vital oxygen supply to corruption itself gets cut off.