Defending the indefensible

Defending the indefensible

After nearly a week of shying away from making a statement on the 2G telecom licensing scandal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh late last week said all wrongdoers would be brought to justice.

The statement defies belief.

The doubt on this count is not about the Prime Minister’s sincerity when he made that claim; it comes from two different sources. There are serious political and legal barriers to getting the crooks to face the dock. When seen in this light, the charitable explanation is that the Prime Minister is being naïve. But more on this anon.

Politically, any legal proceedings against the man in the centre of the scandal, former telecom minister A. Raja, could seriously jeopardize the existence of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Its dependence on allies hobbles it from doing anything meaningful on this score. It may be that other regional parties—for example, the AIADMK of J. Jayalalithaa—may come to the UPA’s aid. But that is of little comfort: Apart from encountering more difficult demands from a new partner, floor management in Parliament—a difficult task in any large coalition—will become even more difficult. It is an unappetizing prospect and the Prime Minister knows this.

Legally, it is almost impossible to prosecute political and senior administrative figures for alleged corruption. When was the last time a minister was convicted for corruption and sent to prison? The restrictive requirements of evidence in Indian law, the procedural getaways afforded in trials and the foreknowledge that they are politically secure ensure that corrupt ministers know that they will not come in harm’s way. Once again, Singh is surely aware of this.

When seen in this light, it is difficult to believe that Prime Minister Singh is not aware of the futility of what he said on Saturday at a public gathering. It is this aspect of the situation—that of his undoubted awareness that he can do little to arrest this situation and others that we are unaware of—that is troubling. Why should a person of his sincerity say something that he knows is unlikely to be believed? One answer is that he is trying to salvage a difficult situation. The problem is that this is a scandal that has been three years in the making and by now events have moved so far ahead that his explanations are least likely to be believed by anyone, least of all India’s politically aware citizens.

Were it not for his personal probity, it could have been dubbed another cynical statement from an Indian politician.

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