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The Niira Radia tapes have firmly put the spotlight of adverse attention on politics and the media. But surprisingly, the loudest voice of protest—which is also a claim of innocence and a warning that the focus on the mud-smeared keeps attention off the real beasts in the 2G story—has come from India Inc. Ratan Tata, head of the Tata group and Radia’s foremost client, calls the leaked tapes “unauthorised” and their publication and the subsequent buzz “a smokescreen” for the real scam. He has asked the government to book those guilty in the 2G scam “but stop this banana republic kind of attack”.
For this paragon of propriety, rightly affronted by the breach of privacy, the whistle-blowing that brought the tapes into the open is symptomatic of a “banana republic”—never mind that it exposes the nexus between business, bureaucracy and the media. He has even enlightened us, in the course of a television interview, on what happens in banana republics: “Banana republics are run on cronyism. People of great power wield great power. People with less power, or those who are not in power, go to jail without adequate evidence or their bodies are found in the trunks of cars.” Sounds like one of the many cautionary notes wise men pronounce regarding the conditions the country could slide into if the rule of law is not upheld. But listen to those words, coming from a powerful industrialist, from the perspective of a whistle-blower, presumably someone with “less power”, and you would be forgiven for reading a threat between those lines.
Something good may come of it, after all, for the great man has helped us with the diagnosis by telling us how banana republics work—through cronyism, which has been on ample display in those very tapes he despises, though the more precise term for what the tapes reveal would be crony capitalism. What the cag report on 2G and the tapes reveal is the sale of spectrum at throwaway prices, changes in eligibility and procedural criteria to favour a few chosen ones, windfall gains through sale of equity and resale of spectrum, cartelisation through cross-holdings in supposedly rival companies, and lobbying for the appointment of a minister whose decisions made all that possible. They also hint at money-laundering, bribery and manipulation of policy, administration, the media and even the judiciary in matters like aviation and the quarrel over natural gas between the Ambani brothers. The primary driver in all this is capital: it is corporate houses that employ lobbyists to cozy up to politicians, bureaucrats and the media; it is corporate houses that cultivate and invest in these groups in order to corner windfalls. Corporate houses, therefore, cannot claim victimhood in a kleptocracy of their creation.
The diagnosis is for the UPA-2 government, professed champion of inclusive growth and the aam aadmi, to understand and act upon. For it’s crony capitalism that has driven the miracle growth rate of close to nine per cent. Rajeev Chandrashekhar, a Rajya Sabha MP and former FICCI president, has pointed out that agriculture has grown at a dismal one per cent and manufacturing at no more than three per cent. The so-called miracle has been achieved through phenomenal growth in mining, real estate, construction. Recent scams—Adarsh, CWG, the Bellary brothers’ many depredations, Yediyurappa’s land largesses to relatives, and not the least, the 2G scam itself—are strong enough indications of the profitable webs big business casts.
The public revulsion these scams have evoked should be a wake-up call. Pointing to bigger stains on the clothes of the opposition will not be enough to save this dispensation. Governments that were complacent about corruption were overthrown despite a decimated and vanquished opposition in the wake of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement in the 1970s and the Bofors disclosures in the late 1980s. The scale of robbery this time has been revealed to be so high, its execution so systematic, that it will take much more than window-dressing to save the government—and much more important—the poor who live in hope.
When the licence-permit raj was disbanded, ushering in liberalisation and globalisation and the promise of plenty, it was said cronyism would come to an end: anyone with initiative could compete on a level playing field. How mythical this is the robber barons of big capital have just driven home to us. The real smokescreen—one Ratan Tata is unlikely to warn against—is the neo-liberal rhetoric that shields crony capitalism and allows it to stealthily profit by influencing policy and leave India’s poor with empty bowls.