AT FIRST glance, it would appear a crucial silence has been broken. Indian media and politicians have always had some inexplicable no-go areas, islands of immunity no one questioned out of a strange mix of tribal propriety, vested interests and fear. Of course, there have been many significant blows earlier by the CAG, civil rights activists, and some media houses, including TEHELKA itself. But last week, with Arvind Kejriwal’s high-visibility fusillade against Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, that moat was decisively breached. Since then, rolling one upon the other, several other politicians have come under fire, most spectacularly Sharad Pawar — the political leader everyone knows something about but no one will speak of. On 18 October, at a crowded press conference, former cop YP Singh ensured men like Pawar would never again benefit from national omertas.
In every way, this breached moat can only be a good thing. It signals that something is shifting in Indian democracy. It will embolden others to speak up. The scrutiny will deepen. The old ways can no longer hold good. The rot in India’s systems has become so gargantuan, it has to rebuild or it will implode.
With each exposé — differing as they may be in scale, vehemence and diligence — crucial concepts that had all but disappeared from India’s public lexicon are being forced back on the table; not just rank corruption, but ideas of conflict of interest; misuse of office; the political-corporate nexus; cross-party collusion; and the simple idea that those who wield great power must also live by the rules.
Clearly, the power elite in India don’t understand this shift in mood yet. Every exposé over the past few days has been met by the same set of brazen, unthinking war moves: silence, denial, dismissal or dull counter-accusation. BJP chief Nitin Gadkari preposterously denied that he is even a businessman; Vadra has not deigned to speak (instead whistleblower Ashok Khemka has been transferred); and Pawar has scornfully dismissed the evidence against him as inconsequential. Every party — bar none — has closed ranks against their errant. Not one leader or party has had the foresight or the fibre to step up, seize the day and say: No more, we are aghast. It is time to set the house right.
THE SCALE of crime — the sheer malfunctioning of our systems — is so staggering it’s hard even for the hard-bitten to be immune to it. Yet, like most things Indian, even cleansing winds in this country are complicated. Kejriwal is undoubtedly that wind. Media-savvy, tactical, and driven by a great sense of outrage, he has crystallised more collective attention on corruption than anyone else in recent time and one can only be grateful for that. The house needed shaking; he has shaken it. It needed anger and anarchy. He brought all of that. It is a great loss, however, that along with admiration, he also brings a sense of great disquiet in his wake. He seems unassailably fortressed in his head, trapped in a hermetically sealed argument that presupposes anyone he accuses must be guilty without trial. Only pronouncements of guilt can pass muster. No probe is possible because if his targets are proved even less guilty than he had graded them, it can only be proof of collusion. The difficulty is, he’s probably right about the collusion, and shrill witch-hunting may indeed be the most effective tactic for now. But in the long run, a cleansing wind that is predicated on unyielding distrust is likely to erode more than it builds.
But more worrying than Kejriwal and his cocktail of strengths and weaknesses is a deeper question: is the anti-corruption mood only carnival-deep? Has the silence really been broken? Are there institutions that can step in to close the loop after TV cameras have turned away?
Several weeks ago, for instance, our Investigations Editor Ashish Khetan wrote a story called Greed, a terrifying account of the irrigation scam in Maharashtra. It meticulously reported how projects budgeted for Rs 100 crore had been inflated to Rs 1,200 crore in a mere three months to benefit political contractors; how projects were sanctioned though almost no canals materialised on ground. It reported a nexus so deep between the Congress, NCP’s Ajit Pawar, Gadkari and his business associate Ajay Sancheti, that Rs 35,000 crore had been siphoned off from irrigation projects in the suicide-ridden state without anyone raising a flag. But because Kejriwal did not mention this in his press meet on Gadkari, the collective media is not interested in pursuing the story.
Even now, as this goes to press, the dominant discourse in the media is not on Pawar’s corruption, but why Kejriwal held back information on him. Corruption-busting is slow and tedious work. We may have breached the moat. But are we ready to take on the fortress yet?
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.