I don't quite remember where I had read it. Over a decade and a half have passed since, but I still recall the sense of impotent rage which engulfed me when I read that rather flippant remark by the woman I admired most. Indira Gandhi had dismissed charges of grave financial irregularities against some of her senior cabinet colleagues by observing: "Corruption is a global phenomenon."
That one statement erased all the admiration I had for Mrs G, the heroine of the Indo-Bangladesh war. The woman who had proven her worth even before that by her radical economic measures like the abolition of the privy purse, bank nationalisation and the state takeover of coal mines. She suddenly seemed to be no different from the others, turning a blind eye to the loot of public money.
There were endless debates in the college canteen then. It was difficult to deny that Indian politicians were not unique in their corruption. But why, I wondered, was the spirit of public accountability, which was evident in so many other countries around the globe, non-existent in India? After all, in our own Asian backyard—in Japan and even Singapore—it was not difficult to find once powerful politicians cooling their heels in jail after being convicted of corrupt practices.
1996 has partially lifted my gloom. For, the year witnessed a sustained spurt of judicial activism and public interest litigations, which placed a record number of powerful politicians, including a former prime minister, in the dock. While none of them has been sentenced to a jail term yet, the prospect is staring quite a few in their faces. A couple of them have even been heavily fined by the Supreme Court for undue favours granted to their cronies by abusing the so-called discretionary quota. Both as a journalist and as a private citizen, I have derived vicarious pleasure every time a politician has squirmed before a judge.
It is in this respect that I rejoice at India's 'globalisation'. Personally, I am not too enthused about the market economy, for even as it has made life better for the well-to-do, it has totally failed to bring any succour to the urban or rural poor. But yes, I wholeheartedly welcome the global trend of corrupt politicians getting it in the neck.
However, it wouldn't do to get carried away. Remember judicial activism can only get us up to a point. Even if we are to ignore the dangers of judicial despotism the activism may degenerate into, we can't forget that the politicians by virtue of being legislators are also our lawmakers. There are already signs that they want to safeguard their 'privilege' of being corrupt. For, aren't they toying with the idea of amending the Prevention of Corruption Act to keep legislators outside the pale of this law? Why, in their zeal to defeat the judiciary's assertiveness, some of them have even argued that they cannot be deemed public servants! The sheer hypocrisy of it all. The same people who for years in their election campaigns have been describing themselves as janata ke sevak (servants of the people) are now claiming that they are not servants of the people.
The limitations of the courts is underlined by another fact. They cannot act even if the honourable judges share the people's perception about an individual politician being corrupt. They can only convict if there is evidence, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that the politician is corrupt. And this is where, more so in a democratic polity, the people come in. It is they who must inflict the ultimate punishment on corrupt politicians. Once again 1996 witnessed this to a limited extent. Voters in Tamil Nadu were categorical in their rejection of the corrupt Jayalalitha regime, handing her and her partymen a crushing defeat in both the parliamentary and assembly elections. Jayalalitha's perceived corruption, and of course her brazen display of power, was the overriding issue of the polls in Tamil Nadu in May this year.
But then, one cannot stop wondering: is the voter really supreme? Reducing the discussion to the micro level of a constituency, what does a voter do if all the major candidates in the fray are perceived to be corrupt? Boycott the poll? In that case, the candidate with the marginally higher muscle power will romp home in our first-past-the-post system. It is for this reason that I cannot but go back to what I wrote earlier. 1996 lifted my gloom but only partially. For, the real test will lie not in India remaining globalised, but in charting its own independent course and providing other democracies with something to ponder over. Why can't the voters have the right to reject?
I will explain. Should voters in a given constituency feel that they have been saddled with bad choices, they should have a right to reject all candidates. For this it will be necessary for all ballot papers to have a column saying "none of the above". And the law must stipulate that if in any constituency more than 50 per cent of the votes cast have been in favour of this option, then a re-election should be ordered. And all the candidates who were in the fray earlier should be disqualified for at least the next election. If even a small step were to be taken in this direction in 1997, I shall be on cloud nine. But will our lawmakers even consider the proposal? And can the people force them to do it?
I had to wait nearly two decades for the spirit of public accountability to make a mark on our polity. I wouldn't mind waiting two more to win the right to reject.