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Media support crusade against corruption

S. Viswanathan

There can be little question that the news media, print as well as television, have contributed significantly to bringing the issue of corruption to political India's centre stage. The focus on the corruption of elections through ‘cash for votes' comes in tandem with the proactive intervention by the Election Commission of India during the April-May elections to State Assemblies. There can also be little doubt that the U.S. Embassy Cables, accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, and the battery of cable reports and cable journalism have played a catalytic role, inspiring the anti-corruption campaign in India, as pointed out by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The huge response, especially in urban India, to Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign centring on the demand for a radical Jan Lokpal Bill, speaks to the centrality of the issue.

Aggressive role of tabloids

In the early years of independent India, corruption did not draw much attention from ordinary people, although from time to time mainstream newspapers came up with informed coverage of such issues. Unfortunately, the political establishment tended to rationalise the role of corruption in society, with even leaders like the personally incorruptible K. Kamaraj trying to convince the people that corruption and bribing officials were as old as the scriptures and there could be no solution for such problems. It was only the tabloids such as Mumbai-based Blitz, edited by R.K. Karanjia, a leading investigative journalist of his time, which probed corruption and misconduct aggressively. Interestingly journalists like Karanjia had a following among young people from the 1950s through to the 1980s.

Independent India's first dramatised financial irregularity was “the jeep scandal” (1948), which related to the purchase of army jeeps for the country. The charge was that the then Indian High Commissioner to Britain, V.K. Krishna Menon, bypassed protocol to sign a Rs. 80 lakh deal with a foreign firm. The case was closed in 1955 and soon Menon, against whose personal integrity there was not a shred of evidence, joined the Jawaharlal Nehru Cabinet. The “cycle imports scandal,” reported in 1951, saw the first conviction in a major corruption case, when an ICS Secretary to the Government of India, S.A. Venkataraman, went to prison for accepting bribes and the conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Mundhra scandal (1958) made a big splash thanks to sustained media coverage. In fact, it was the press that first hinted at a possible scam involving a sale of fraudulent shares by a Calcutta-based businessman, Haridas Mundhra, to the Life Insurance Corporation of India. Sourcing confidential correspondence between Union Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari (TTK) and the Principal Finance Secretary, a senior member of Lok Sabha with excellent press connections, Feroze Gandhi, the husband of Indira Gandhi, raised a question in the House about the “share” deal. Prime Minister Nehru constituted a one-member commission headed by Justice M.C. Chagla to investigate the deal. After finding that a prima facie case had been made out against the businessman, Justice Chagla concluded that Mundhra had sold fictitious shares to the LIC and defrauded it to the tune of Rs. 1.25 crore. The businessman was convicted and sentenced to a long imprisonment and Krishnamachari was obliged to quit the Cabinet. A point to be noted is that in these early cases, the judgments came in an unbelievably short time.

Most complicated scandal

Two decades later came Bofors (1987-1990), which is considered the 20th century's most complicated political corruption scandal in the country. It involved a $ 50 million payoff of what was described as “commissions” into secret Swiss bank accounts for the purchase by the Indian government of howitzers from a Swedish arms manufacturing company. Readers may recall the role played by the press, above all, The Hindu, in digging out the truth and documenting it meticulously. But cover-up, obstruction of justice in various ways, and the weaknesses of the Indian criminal justice system ensured that the conviction at the bar of public opinion did not result in any legal conviction.

The 1990s witnessed an escalation of corruption scandals involving crores of rupees. These included Harshad Mehta securities and banking scam involving Rs. 5,000 crore, the Rs. 900-crore fodder scam, and the Rs. 1,500 crore Sukh Ram telecom scandal. The first decade of the 21st century witnessed over ten major Indian corruption scandals, including cash-for-votes during the 2008 confidence vote in the Lok Sabha and the 2-G scam spectrum allocation scam (Rs. 1,76,000 crore, as estimated by the Comptroller & Auditor-General of India).

It is distressing that rising India has become notorious for its corruption scandals. If you go by the reported cases of corruption across the country during this period, the state exchequer is believed to have lost a whopping Rs. 73 lakh crore (nearly forty times the 2-G loss), according to one estimate.

It is no surprise therefore that when Anna Hazare began his “fast-unto-death” at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on April 6, 2011, thousands of social activists descended on the venue to express their solidarity with the crusader against corruption and back his demand for putting in place a Jan Lokpal Bill, drafted through a civil society initiative. Thanks to extensive coverage by television channels and newspapers, thousands of people gathered around the fasting Gandhian. Similar support movements were seen in Lucknow, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and other major cities. After four days of talks, the Manmohan Singh Government conceded Mr. Hazare's demand and agreed to constitute a 10-member committee, with five chosen from the Union Ministers and the rest representing the civil society. The idea is to introduce the Lokpal Bill in Parliament during the monsoon session. The media would do well to keep its eye on this particular ball.

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