Fighting corruption by embracing it

#1. The 1995 winter session of Parliament was among the least productive on record (constant disruptions resulted in only 36% of the total time being productive, according to Parliamentary records).

The constant stoppage of play was led by the BJP, which was protesting the continued presence in the PV Narasimha Rao cabinet of Telecom Minister Sukh Ram, against whom charges of taking a bribe and favoring HTL in the awarding of cable supply contracts had begun to surface.

The BJP kept the pressure up — until, in 1997, he broke from the Congress and founded the Himachal Vikas Congress — at which point the BJP sought and obtained his support for the Prem Kumar Dhumal-led BJP government in Himachal Pradesh. Ram joined the government — and was persuaded to quit in March 1998 when charges were finally framed against him. The story of how he finally relented is a classic case study of realpolitik.

In 2002, he was sentenced to three years in jail under the Prevention of Corruption Act in a different case that, it was alleged, caused a loss of Rs 1.66 crore to the government. In 2009, Sukhram was found guilty of possessing disproportionate assets worth Rs 4.25 crore. And the case in chief finally wound to a close in 2011, when Ram was convicted of misusing his position and taking a bribe to award a contract. (The amount of the bribe was Rs 3 lakh — a measly sum by today’s standards, but remember that back in 1995-’96, “paanch lakh ka maal aanewala hai” used to be a wow moment in Bollywood movies). During the sentencing, Ram pleaded for leniency on the grounds that he was an old man (86, at the time), somewhat akin to the guy who shot both his parents and then pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan.

Pissed off with the BJP for not having protected him in the case, Ram switched again — citing the BJP’s “communalism” as the reason — and in 2013, while out on bail, was campaigning for the Congress under Virbhadra Singh in the assembly elections, when sleazy tapes purportedly featuring him surfaced, and were brushed aside as part of the BJP’s dirty tricks.

Cut to the present. On October 6, Sukh Ram arrived in his pocket borough Mandi, where Rahul Gandhi was scheduled to address an election rally, in the hope of sharing the dais. He was ignored by the Congress — at which point he trekked to Delhi, met Amit Shah, and in another of his periodic epiphanies, joined the BJP with son Anil Sharma, who resigned his ministerial birth in the state cabinet, and grandson Ashray Sharma. Apparently, the troika is motivated by a desire to “fulfill Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of a New India.”

A big ‘prize’ and yet another indication of Shah’s political savvy — Ram has an iron hold over the Mandi region and can play a vital role in the electoral fortunes of whichever party he chooses to support. As with BS Yedyurappa earlier as a precursor to the BJP’s bid to wrest Karnataka (and see how well that worked out), it begs the question: Is the short-term gain (which remains to be quantified at the polls) worth the long-term erosion of one of the BJP’s prime election planks? Corruption has been, for the party, the political gift that has gone on giving, but it is going to be an ever more difficult high moral ground to claim as it fills its ranks with the dregs of previous generation politicians. Or is it true that you can fool all the people all the time?

#2.  While on elections, a news report:

That the Congress candidate from Gurdaspur Lok Sabha constituency was better placed over his BJP rival was clear as the campaigning came to a close. But the massive margin of victory has left even the Congress leaders stunned. To wrest a seat by a margin of 1.93 lakh votes, when the BJP had won it by a margin of 1.40 lakh votes in 2014, is remarkable for the Congress, which has been witnessing a slide across the country over the last few years.

For the BJP, which had been on a winning streak, the wide margin of defeat is nothing short of humiliation. The huge difference in the vote share is sure to make the leaders sit up and take note.

Nah. Nothing much to see here, folks, move on. True enough that the late Vinod Khanna held the Gurdaspur constituency for four straight terms (I remember covering his debut election — reports here and here; interview here). But Punjab earlier this year roundly rejected the corruption (there’s that theme again) and mismanagement of the SAD-BJP regime; the Congress winning Gurdaspur by a huge margin is nothing more than a continuation and affirmation of that verdict. (Not to mention that the BJP blundered in its choice of candidate — while the Congress fielded a local leader who was a familar face with good brand equity, the BJP imposed on the constituency an Amit Shah-backed outsider — the Mumbai-based businessman Swaran Salaria, whose educational institutions in the region are the subject of considerable controversy.)

More election news, from Kerala:

While the UDF candidate secured a total of 65227 votes, LDF candidate P P Basheer secured 41917 votes and Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) candidate K C Naseer secured the third position with 8648 votes. The BJP candidate K Janachandran managed to secure only 5728 votes.

Again, nothing much to see here. The Congress margin of victory eroded somewhat; the CPM made some gains. That the dangerously divisive SDPI candidate placed ahead of the BJP is perhaps the only notable outcome — and not in a particularly good way, for either party.

Update, 12.30 PM: An interesting sidelight thanks to a Calicut-based journalist who called just now. Vengara, part of the Muslim-majority Malappuram district, has around 25-30k Hindu voters. In this region, as in fact throughout Kerala, the BJP ground game has been centered around temples. The preferred modus operandi is for local leaders, community elders, to collect phone numbers from the faithful who visit the temple (while on which, in Kerala temples are an integral part of the social fabric) and then pull them into WhatsApp groups that are used to disseminate communal propaganda, fake news, and BJP/RSS talking points besides calls to action. “When you read the figures,” the journalist told me, “look at how the BJP actually lost votes there — 5.7k votes where it potentially had over 20k votes to pick up. It is one small indication of how angry people here are at the rubbish being disseminated, which they see as denigrating Kerala and its ethos.” (This quote, by the way, is a literal translation from Malayalam — added here FWIW, and as something to keep an eye on.)

Staying with Kerala for a beat longer, there is this notable example of the state of political discourse in the country today:

BJP national general secretary and former Lok Sabha MP Saroj Pandey on Sunday said that the purpose of the Jan Raksha Yatra, launched by party president Amit Shah, was to show the CPI(M) that if the Left party continues to “show eyes” to BJP workers in Kerala, the latter would respond by “entering homes and gouging out those eyes”.

That is to say:

“Hum logon ne ye jo march ki shuruwat ki hai, hamaare rashtriya adhyaksh-ji ne ki hai, vo isliye ki hai ki aanewale samay mein agar baar baar hamaare karyakarta ke saath mein isi prakaar se aise aankh dikhaane ki stithi hogi, toh hum ghar mein ghus kar aankh nikal lenge. Yeh tay baat hai.”

That is not a remark from the fringe — it is a national general secretary of the ruling party speaking.

#3. This morning I read of an interesting experiment in Madhya Pradesh in aid of farmers. In sum:

While the Centre declares a minimum support price for 25 crops, in practice, it procures mainly wheat and rice, which it can then funnel into the Public Distribution System. Other crops –cereals, pulses and some oilseeds – are often left out of the loop. Procuring and storing these crops is often difficult and expensive, with neither states nor the Centre able to adequately establish buying centres or warehouses.

Through the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana, Madhya Pradesh is experimenting with a different model of price support. The state government will not buy farm produce from farmers but it will pay them the difference between the market price and the minimum support price. For instance, if the minimum support price for maize is Rs 1,425 per quintal, but the average market price is just Rs 1,225, the government will pay the farmer the remaining Rs 200.

Like the farmers referred to in the story, I am not sure how it works in practice. But there is no disputing the fact that agrarian distress is one of the single biggest problems of our times, which is why any considered attempts to relieve that stress is worth keeping an eye

#4. On a personal note, I was chatting with the organizers of this year’s edition of the Bangalore Literature Festival, slated for October 28-29. There is a lot this year that is of interest — the organizers have scheduled a press conference this evening at 3 PM, at which the various panels and themes will be discussed. But without getting into spoilers, one of the things I learned is that this year, there are three different panels on cricket/sport (I’ll be moderating one of those). And one of those, at least, is a must-attend: the always eloquent Sharda Ugra of ESPN/Cricinfo will be in conversation with the author and cricket writer Gideon Haigh.

It is not just that Haigh is prolific, which he is — he wrote his first book when he was 20; 30 years later, he has 30 books to his name besides thousands of columns and match reports. I have read 22 of those books, and every single one is exquisite. Why Haigh is unmissable is his natural, easy eloquence. Last year, I heard him speak at a sports-themed lit fest in Pune, and what struck me was the graceful contours of his language, even when he spoke extempore — if you transcribed what he said spontaneously, you could publish as essays without changing a single word.

If you are in Bangalore, make time at least for that session. More details later in the day, if I can get back home quick enough, or in my update tomorrow.