Years ago, at a museum in Oslo, I stood transfixed before The Scream, an iconic pastel by Edvard Munch. A bald, skinny figure stands on a bridge, against a flaming sky, skeletal hands covering his ears, his mouth an oval of horror. It is difficult to know whether he is screaming, or reacting to a scream.
This eerie emotion remained foreign to me until I heard former chief election commissioner N Gopalaswami speak about, “Is corruption inseparable from elections?” at a function organised by Kalki, the Tamil weekly. His slew of deadly statistics left me open-mouthed with panic.
When Mahatma Gandhi lamented, “Corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be the inevitable products of democracy as they undoubtedly are today”, could he have foreseen a Lok Sabha that included 162 members with criminal cases against them, and 76 charged with serious crimes such as rape, murder and robbery? Or a record breaking 31 per cent and 15 per cent of MLAs in all state assemblies accused of criminal and serious criminal offences? If an MP has assets worth Rs3.38 crore, MPs with criminal backgrounds average Rs4.30 crore, do we have to explain how recontesting candidates register a 200 per cent to more than 1000 per cent increase in their wealth? Well, politics is a business transaction. Why else would we have 1,594 registered political parties in India? Only six of them are national, 50 are state-rooted, and 20 more moderately active. The rest...? Hold your breath, one party had nothing but a rented room and telephone in Gurgaon, its single operator converting cash flow into real estate and jewellery.
Do we know that ambulances and tankers are deployed to transport cash during election times? Or that monthly liquor consumption in Punjab jumped from 2½ lakh litres to 20 lakh litres during an election month? That banks stagger under Rs230,000 crore in NPA, thanks to political interference in processes of allotment and recovery? Do we know that bans can be revoked by the transfer of a few crores in the business of, say, launching a medical college? Are we shocked to learn that a man who launched a new party in Rajasthan (2008) declared that blank letterheads signed by new MLAs would be ample repayment to his financiers?
An occasional expose cannot halt corruption (the 2G, 3G, CWG, coal-helicopter-housing scams), because perpetrators mostly get away scot free to continue swindling, or inordinate delays render retribution ineffective. Moreover, the nexus of politicians and bureaucrats breeds mammoth frauds. If IAS officers get transferred when they oppose corruption, the same stratagem works for the corrupt, who are then free to continue their skulduggery elsewhere! So, a highly-placed drunken brawler is quietly transferred from Tamil Nadu, without the whisper of any punitive action. Why, it took two whole years before an FIR could be registered against a couple, both IAS officers in Madhya Pradesh, despite their possession of assets of over Rs320 crore, and a raid recovering Rs3 crore in cash from their bed.
Gopalaswami detonated many questions: can we stop the sleaze and stench from asphyxiating us? Will Aam Aadmi Party’s recent success in fighting and winning with transparency intact, make other parties rethink strategies and accountability? Drop tainted candidates?
Will the CBI stop giving clean chits to the corrupt? Can RTI be utilised effectively? Can muscle and money power be replaced by moral fibre? Will people vote vigilantly? Or, has the great Indian democracy dismissed licence raj, only to drown in licentious raj?
Leaving the hall after the speech, I ask myself: did Edvard Munch know that the deafening silence of the good ensures the triumph of evil?
The author is a playwright, theatre director, musician and journalist, writing on the performing arts, cinema and literature