The press (including this newspaper) has been screaming blue murder about the spectrum scandal from the time it was perpetrated in broad daylight, nearly three years ago. Not only did nothing happen, the man at the centre of the scandal retained the telecom portfolio when the second UPA government was sworn in, last year. The story with the Adarsh building scam was no different; there were newspaper reports on the subject several years ago, even as it was happening; again, no one took notice and a 31-storey building went up — again in broad daylight. As for the third scandal to occupy the public mind in recent weeks, the Commonwealth Games, the press kept pointing fingers for many months; yet those in charge continued their merry way. So what is it that has brought scams to the boil suddenly, and caused powerful heads to roll? For an answer, go back to Watergate and the early 1970s.
The Washington Post and The New York Times went after the break-in into the Democratic Party office in Washington’s Watergate building, and linked the burglars to the Nixon campaign committee and the White House. The Post reporters were subsequently lionised in a film (All the President’s Men). But if you think that President Nixon was brought down by just journalistic heroics, you would be dead wrong, because reporters could only take the story up to a point. Bringing down the US president needed the combined efforts of people empowered to summon witnesses and demand evidence (like the incriminating tapes of presidential conversations): Judge John Sirica, Senate Committee Chairman Sam Ervin, and Special Prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski.
The parallels with current events in India are obvious. What has got the spectrum scam to boil over, and force the resignation of Andimuthu Raja as telecom minister, is the damning report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). What got the Organising Committee of the Games into trouble was the concurrent audit of expenditure by the CAG, ordered as it happens by Mani Shankar Aiyar when he was the sports minister; the CAG reports confirmed, even before the Games were held, that something was seriously amiss. The prime minister himself is now in a spot because the court has asked some questions. In other words, however much the media may bark, it usually has no bite; that has to come from suitably empowered institutions.
There is no shortage of scams in India. Indeed, they unfold every day — the Yeddyurappa land grab in Karnataka; the collapse of an illegal building in the Capital and the bribe-taking that permitted its construction; the real estate hijack being scripted even as one writes, by Delhi bureaucrats, legislators and others who want to gift themselves Games Village flats at less than market rates… It is easy to respond to all this with a resigned shrug of the shoulders (corruption is everywhere, the coalition has to survive, etc.), and ignore media reports that act as warning shots. But as the prime minister must now know, that can be a dangerous course.
The purposeful response has to be to work for systemic solutions to the country’s No. 1 scourge. Some have already been put in place, like the Right to Information law. The courts encourage public interest litigation, and sector regulators, at least sometimes, act as a check on ministerial arbitrariness. But also needed is a Central Bureau of Investigation that is independent of the government of the day, a properly led Central Vigilance Commission, and Lok Ayuktas with suo moto powers. The speed with which the spectrum scam has snowballed should spur even those in office to see the merit of such safeguards; they will prevent a whole government, including honest men in it, from being engulfed by scandals.