India's Activists Shake Establishment to the Roots

India Against Corruption, the new party formed by activists from the Anna Hazare anti-graft movement, is shaking the political establishment to its roots. Anna Hazare’s public fasts have tapped into a seething anger across Indian society, following exposure of the government’s massive 2G spectrum and Commonwealth Games scandals among many others. India’s long-ruling first family is right in the crosshairs.

IAC Party head Arvind Kejriwal and his team felt it opportune to ride into politics on the nationwide citizen fury unleashed. IAC drip-fed political scams to the media to gain instant public attention and national recognition. They seem to have succeeded – to the consternation of the old guard politicians.

The IAC message is that neither the Congress nor the BJP, the two dominant parties, can be trusted as both entrench corruption and abuse power to loot public assets. Calibrated release by the IAC of documented cases of profiteering by government ministers and opposition leaders has energized the nightly TV talk shows, riveting the chattering classes.

TV anchors are grilling the netas –politicians—and their proxies live on air. The parties are scrambling to explain away their misdeeds under the glare of TV lights. India’s political class is furious at IAC for breaking the unwritten omerta code among the political mafia.

When the grassroots anti-corruption movement first sprang up two years ago, it caught the government and the political classes by surprise. Many from both sides of the House tried to show they supported it – some even sharing the stage briefly with the fasting Anna Hazare against the giant backdrop of the venerated Mahatma Gandhi, for TV sound bites.

Now that the Anna Hazare movement has split off into a political party led by Arvind Kejriwal, the political class has declared war. Mainstream politicians have vast experience and deep roots in gutter fighting. They are masters at ground-level mobilization, goon strength and money politics. They are determined to kill-off a political party whose sole appeal is clean politics – which in their view is an absurd contradiction of purpose.

Mango people in a Banana Republic

Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, was the first character outed in the IAC hit list. Mr Vadra had shown amazing business acumen turning a 600 percent profit on a land deal in Haryana State. Closer scrutiny by IAC unearthed murky dealings between Vadra and the real estate company DLF, which loaned Vadra funds to buy land granted by the chief minister below market rates. Vedra then flipped it back to DLF after gaining super-fast conversion of the agricultural land to non-agricultural use. Both profited from the arbitrage.

Vadra dismissed the IAC team in an infamous FaceBook entry, calling them a “Mango people in a Banana Republic.” That brought the wrath of TV, press and outraged citizens on his head for arrogance. It escaped Vadra that his mother-in-law heads the ruling coalition of his Banana Republic. His Facebook account was shut down the next day and he has since gone silent. “Mango people” has entered the political lexicon. Editors and TV anchors use that phrase regularly to refer to the contempt of the political class for the citizens who vote them into office.

Prior to marrying Priyanka Gandhi 14 years ago, Vadra was a smalltime trader in costume jewelery. His family dealt in brass and his father and brother are rumored to have died in mysterious circumstances. The ambitious Vadra, a narcisstic fitness-freak and super-bike aficionado, worked the exclusive nightclubs of Delhi to build his social capital with the glitterati. He became a noted dancer and infatuated high society ladies. Priyanka fell for him.

Since his induction into the powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Vadra’s stock has soared. From a US$91,000 capital base in 2007 his company had amassed a book value of US$55.5 million by 2012. He moves everywhere with state security escort. He returns from trips abroad without clearing security or customs – a protocol denied even cabinet ministers.

Law Minister Kurshid loses cool, threatens blood

Till last week, Oxford educated Salman Kurshid was regarded as the most urbane and clean minister in a government sullied by multiple scandals. Kurshid mounted a spirited defense of Robert Vadra on national TV even though Vadra is not a Congress politician. Other lesser politicians also batted for Vadra. It is quite common for Congress politicians to ingratiate themselves to First Lady Sonia Gandhi. They accumulate brownie points for promotion.

But the IAC then revealed that the law minister and his wife Louise run a trust for welfare of the disabled, which forged signatures of several bureaucrats and political functionaries in Uttar Pradesh state to obtain central government grants. There was a conflict of interest in the minister’s cabinet position. The manner in which the trustees forged validation certificates from district and state level functionaries in 10 of the 17 districts the trust operates left minister Kurshid with egg on his face. That enraged Kurshid enough to lose his cool and threaten Arvind Kejriwal with dire physical retribution if he took his public protests to the minister’s Farrukhabad constituency.

“I have been made the law minister and asked to work with the pen. I will work with the pen but also with blood” thundered the former Mr Cool.

The Economic Times newspaper wondered why the minister had been asked to work with his pen. “Hasn’t the government given the law minister a computer?”

This was excellent fodder to feed the media hype for the newly launched IAC. Kejriwal’s rejoinder came swiftly: “Our law minister should not use such language. My life is not in the hands of Salman Kurshid but in the hands of God. I will not only go to Farrukhabad but also return safely.”

Although many Congress stalwarts sprang to the defense of Sonia Gandhi’s private-citizen son-in-law, there seemed to be an awkward silence when the law minister himself came under IAC attack. That revealed another unwritten rule of Congress party practice – there are two classes of members, the First Family and the rest.

Civil Servants in the way get booted out

One sorry consequence of the Vadra affair was the summary shunting of a senior civil servant who had the temerity to probe the paper trail by which the scam was sanctioned. Ashok Khemka, director-general for land holdings and consolidation of Haryana state, holds a doctorate in chemistry and is alumni of the super-elite IIT system, in addition to being naive. An honest bureaucrat in today’s India is an oddity. One who stands up to politicians is a fool or a hero. Khemka became both last week.

Within three days of initiating the probe, Khemka was removed from office through an executive order delivered to his house at 10 pm. The chief minister punished the Indian Administrative Service officer, who appears to have done his job by the book. He was sent to head up the Haryana Seeds Development Corporation, a post last held by an officer 12 years his junior in service.

Times Now, the Times of India group TV news channel, immediately showcased Khemka several nights in a row. He has become a national hero for defying corrupt politicians at great personal cost. More was revealed. He has been subject to anonymous phone call threats to his home. He has been humiliated in petty ways at work, having been been transferred 40 times in his 21-year career.

That is a world record for any civil service officer anywhere. It is obviously not the first time Khemka has challenged politicians and colluding civil servants in Haryana state. They could not find any grounds to fire the man.

The Times Now expose has triggered an outpouring of public support for Khemka which may inhibit further victimization by vengeful politicians. Times Now is keeping a close watch on the case, fully aware of the power-abuse habits of the chief minister and the First Family.

In most democracies the propaganda is that competitive politics keep graft under control through rule of law, an independent judiciary, an efficient civil service and disclosure by a free press. India has a free press. India also has collusion across parties for collective looting of the public purse, a rent-seeking civil service and a crippled judicial system burdened with a decade-long backlog of cases. Nearly half the sitting members of parliament have criminal charges pending. As the world’s largest democracy it is the saddest example of bad governance.