New attitude of Corruption: T.V.R.Shenoy

Between 1991 and 1996 there was a determined effort to paint Narasimha Rao as the patron saint of liberalisation, a man who blazed a new trail for the economy. This was bunk—the new policy was forced upon India by the international lending agencies. But yes, there was an area in which Rao was a trendsetter. The Narasimha Rao Raj ushered in a new attitude to corruption.

That cancer had always existed. But up to the point when Rao took over even its practitioners didn't flaunt the fact. It fell to Rao to change all that. It was one of Rao's ministers who decided that the best defence was to be offensive. "I brought hundreds of crores worth of investments to India," said Sukh Ram, "why is everyone so bothered about a few crores here and there?"

But Sukh Ram is a mere amateur compared to his brazen ex-boss. Narasimha Rao has taken shamelessness to another level by arguing that it was his duty to be corrupt! That, believe it or not, was the gist of his defence in the JMM bribery case. His lawyer, R.K. Anand, stated to a stunned court that Article 75(2) of the Constitution mandates that a ministry should take any measures necessary for its survival, up to and including bribery.

Quite frankly, that is one of the scariest arguments I have ever heard. If bribery is permissible, why not kidnapping? Or even outright murder of anyone who opposes you? The principle is the same—a warped reading of the Constitution justifying any crime. The judge, however, wasn't swayed by R.K. Anand's eloquent plea. So Rao will stand trial after all. And, hopefully, justice will be done somewhere down the line.

But there is another aspect of the episode that has gone unremarked. This is the utter silence of the Congress, the party once led by Rao. Not one Congressman has cared to remark on their former president's novel interpretation of the Constitution. Sitaram Kesri, perhaps predictably, has nothing to say. But what of the conscience-keepers of the party, A.K. Antony and Manmohan Singh? When Chacha Kesri nominated them to the Congress Working Committee he made great play on their clean image. Shouldn't both men at least try to live up to that perception?

But there isn't a word from either. Is it because both gentlemen were participants in the Rao ministry that survived on lavish bribes and unprincipled defections? If so, one can understand their shame at such a connection. But it doesn't excuse their silence today.

Come to that, the Congress as a whole is in a hurry to pretend that Narasimha Rao never existed. But they do make half-hearted attempts to discuss, say, the Ayodhya issue. Why is there such a numbing silence on the JMM bribery case? Could it be that the probe holds the potential to severely embarrass not just the past Supreme Leader, but the current one too? The judge in the case has already wondered why the CBI investigators didn't include Kesri's name in the chargesheet. As the then Congress treasurer, there is a distinct possibility that he was involved in the disbursement of funds.

Common sense dictates that the CBI should have made at least a cursory probe of this aspect. Why did it fall to the presiding judge to remind the agency of the basics of criminal investigation? I am perfectly willing to accept that Sitaram Kesri wasn't around when money was paid out to save the Congress regime in which he was a cabinet minister. But shouldn't that be proved?

Some months ago, as Rao was tottering to his fall, Manmohan Singh quoted the maxim about Caesar's wife—not just innocent, but beyond suspicion. Would the erudite Dr Singh care to remind his current boss too?