Our many ‘gates’

It is now customary to affix “gate” to all scandals. For example, Hackergate referred to the illegal hacking practised by the newspapers of the Rupert Murdoch group in the United Kingdom; Recruitgate in the 1990s involved the high and mighty of Japan’ and Milkgate in China concerned adulteration in food exports. The practice of attaching “gate” to scams and scandals is, of course, linked to the Watergate affair in the United States in 1972.
In India we have seen Railgate, Coalgate, IPLgate, and now we have our own version of that four-decade-old mother of all “gates” — a gift to the nation from the United Progressive Alliance-2 (UPA-2) government on its fourth anniversary in office.
In March this year, the Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to uncover relevant facts underlying the allocation of captive coal mining blocks. The CBI investigators did what was asked of them, but before submitting their findings to the Supreme Court, they shared the files with the law minister and a senior official from the Prime Minister’s Office. When the Supreme Court learnt of this, it expressed its displeasure in no uncertain manner to the CBI and the law minister. The incumbent, Ashwani Kumar, was forced to resign but only after an avoidable delay, inviting further opprobrium. These events are eerily reminiscent of the original Watergate.
The background and events that led to Watergate in 1972 in the US and to CBIgate in 2013 in India are eerily similar. Both the governments, finding themselves a tense political environment, displayed extreme paranoia.
Richard Nixon, never a confident or charismatic leader, jumped at every shadow as the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular. Mired in scandal after scandal, UPA-2 has grown very fidgety, and it’ll only get worse as the general elections come close.
Both scandals were followed by rather crude cover-up attempts. Then as now, the front officials offered up as possible wrongdoers were mid-level functionaries — joint secretaries in our case, presidential assistants and counsel in Watergate. In both cases, the needle of suspicion pointed to much higher levels — the head of the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Chief of Staff to the American President. The chief law officers of both countries were hopelessly compromised. And in both cases, a stern and unforgiving judiciary helped prevent further damage to institutions and values underlying governance.
While 40 years ago, America was consumed by its overwhelming Watergate shame, we have scandals and misdeeds galore at all levels and in most states. Two types of abuse of power are at the heart of all scandals. The first is venality motivated by personal gain — greed makes individuals misappropriate public resources or usurp others’ benefits for personal enrichment or empowerment. Deplorable as these criminal acts are, existing laws provide remedies and restitution, even though the process is often long and painful for the victims.
The other kind of abuse is far more damaging. Some persons either singly or as a group arrogate to themselves powers that they do not possess. The perpetrators set themselves above the law and show no accountability. There is no one identifiable target, because the victim usually is the society at large — ministers pressurising investigating agencies into sharing information on possible government wrongdoings, or the government using police or tax agencies to silence inconvenient opposition or critics. The most egregious of such abuses in India was undoubtedly the Emergency of 1975-77, but we have had and continue to have, numerous examples of what we euphemistically call “extra-constitutional power centres” at all levels.
In all instances, whoever is caught follows the Sreesanth rule: Protestations of innocence and rants against “vested interests.”
Is there a way out of such deterioration of values and institutions? The original Watergate itself provides a relevant lesson for India, and it concerns the role of the legislature. The American lawmakers, even those who were convinced of Nixon’s guilt and wanted him to go, did not paralyse the Congress or the Senate in the years of the scandal. The patrician and about-to-retire Senator Sam Ervine presided over the Senate Watergate Committee, thundering like some modern-day Biblical prophet, calling the entire Nixon administration to account. Despite machinations of the justice department, special prosecutors took on the might of the entire executive. This was possible because of the majesty of the legislature, the first among equals of the three branches of government, which stood by them.
The near-certainty of conviction in the impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives was the one factor that led to Nixon’s resignation.
Time was when Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned post-haste after the Ariyalur train accident in 1956. But now owning up responsibility for even the most blatant act of commission is an alien concept. People are solemnly advised to wait until the results of the inevitable “inquiry” are in. The last railway minister resigned several days after his close relative was found with his hand in the proverbial cookie-jar, and that too only because the Supreme Court shamed the government into dropping the law minister.
Both the ruling party and the Opposition reduce themselves to caricatures by blocking the functioning of Parliament when convenient, mocking an institution that is the bedrock of our democracy. Preserving and protecting these institutions needs vision arising out of people’s concerns. We voice them every time we vote, however chaotic the message be. As 1977, when the ruling Congress was voted out of power for the first time, clearly shows, we do not tolerate abuse for long. Therein lies the hope for fewer gates in the future.

The writer taught at IIM Ahmedabad and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand. He writes on economic and policy issues.

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