A stinging exposure of India's corruptNEW DELHI - India ranks among the countries that are deemed the most corrupt in the world. One unlikely agency that has been playing a sterling role in exposing the stink of corruption is television.
There are a slew of 24-hour television channels in India, and as the war for ratings and advertising revenue heats up, intrepid reporters have been assigned "sting operations" to catch, on tape, important people (read politicians, bureaucrats), accepting bribes.
Last week, 11 members of parliament (MPs) were recorded by a hidden camera, allegedly accepting money in return for asking questions in parliament.
Through questions asked at the highest representative body, MPs can bring issues to the notice of concerned ministries. These are often picked up by the media for comment. A pressure lobby for possible policy changes is built. In exchange for money, MPs will also attempt to further the cause - whatever it might be - of the people paying the bribe.
The questions the MPs were requested to place in exchange for money included the workings of five-star hospitals and their exorbitant fee structures and matters related to tsunami relief.
The secret videotape (in what has been termed as the cash-for-query scandal) was shot by website Cobrapost and TV news channel Aaj Tak (owned by the India Today Group). In the videos, the MPs are seen accepting wads of Rs500 (US$10) notes, some smiling very happily. The MPs have since been suspended. A parliament panel that probed the scandal has reportedly recommended sacking the accused.
Writing in Cobrapost, Aniruddha Bahal, who led the sting operation, said: "If used rightly, tiny lens-bearing apertures can empower a citizenry by exposing democracy's toxic acreage. Operation Duryodhana, a Cobrapost-Aaj Tak investigation lasting nearly eight months, succeeded in capturing the acts of 10 Lok Sabha [lower house] and one Rajya Sabha [upper house] members as they accepted money from representatives of a fictitious body called the North Indian Small Manufacturers' Association (NISMA) for asking questions in the Indian parliament. In all, more than 60 questions were submitted by 11 MPs, of which 25 questions [at last count] were tabled in the parliament."
Not to be outdone, rival news channel Star News this week caught seven MPs allegedly asking for bribes as a commission to approve public projects. Each MP is allotted approximately $445,000 each year to fund development projects in their constituencies.
As expected, the two recent revelations of MPs have created a furor. "It is a matter of grave concern that at a time when the inquiry was already going on against some MPs on allegations of having accepted money for questions in the house, fresh allegations have come up against other MPs,"' parliamentary speaker Somnath Chatterjee said.
Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief, L K Advani, said the allegations were "too serious to be glossed over. It is a matter of concern for us because, while the whole country is debating probity in public life, our own MPs have been charged with showing greed for raising questions in parliament. The BJP, which had the maximum number MPs exposed by Cobrapost-Aaj Taj, has initiated strict action."
Stung by some of their brethren being caught red-handed, some MPs have spoken about action against the media. One prominent MP accused the media of "trying to defame" the MPs and parliament. "If you make the MPs a commercial commodity, it cannot be acceptable. The media is trying to defame the MPs and parliament. The way they [media] intrude MPs' residences and manipulate their statements [is] deplorable," he said amid loud applause from members from all sides.
However, most have only harsh words for the caught MPs. Writing in the Hindustan Times, editor Vir Sanghvi said: "The problem is that Indian politics is now largely about money. It costs money to get elected. It costs money to remain in office, to run schemes in your constituencies and to maintain a staff. And because the electorate is so unpredictable and because governments know that they can suddenly collapse at any time, there is an irresistible urge for politicians to make as much money as they can. And then, there's the naked greed factor."
Although Indian television channels have been recording public officials, police officers, petty bureaucrats (referred to as babus) accepting cash and sex scandals involving small-time film stars seeking sexual favors from wannabe starlets, secret sting operations of this scale and magnitude were conducted only five years back.
At that time, news website Tehelka.com taped video footage of senior politicians, bureaucrats and Indian Army officers apparently taking money and services of prostitutes in exchange for pushing lucrative defense deals. The sleazy smile of BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting a wad of notes has since become emblematic of the low esteem in which politicians are held in India.
The Tehelka scam ultimately led to the resignation of former defense minister George Fernandes and the banishment of Laxman from political life.
Incidentally, Tehelka's expose was also led by Bahal, who worked for the website at that time. Bahal has justified his actions by saying that if a sting operation serves a public/social cause and establishes a truth that otherwise remains untold, then it is justified.
Several institutions are engaged in an often losing battle against corruption that exists in everyday life. The courts have done their bit, though they are bogged down by inefficiencies linked to understaffing and other systemic faults.
India recently enacted the Right to Information Act that gives legal rights to people to seek information from the government, placing India among the 55 countries that have such legislation.
Conscientious citizens such as Satyendra Dubey (he took on corruption in the handling of government contracts for the construction of national highways) and S Manjunath (he fought against the adulteration of petrol) are heroes in the country as they stood up to various mafias that ultimately killed them for taking an honest stand.
India ranks among the most corrupt nations in the world. Studies by the Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) and other indices such as the Corruption Perceptions Index have consistently ranked India as one of the worst as far as corrupt practices go.
In the latest TI report, India secured the lowly spot of number 88 (out of 159 countries surveyed) of the most corrupt places in the world, along with unlikely companions such as Gabon, Mali, Moldova, Tanzania and Iran.
Most agree that the role of television is limited. TV screens can only expose and reveal, but cannot check. Systemic changes as well as inculcating values and a high moral fiber, perhaps harking back to the teachings of the forgotten Mahatma Gandhi, are needed.
Meanwhile, the show only goes on and nobody seems to mind. This week, police officers in Meerut, an industrial city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, were seen beating up couples, including girls, in an ugly attempt at "moral policing". A female police officer was seen repeatedly slapping girls who were accompanied by their boyfriends/husbands at a popular park. The cops have since been suspended.
Journalists still have a lot of work to do.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.