Corruption and the courts

Sunday Island Editorial

We have today run three of the concluding paragraphs of the Indian Supreme Court judgment on the Sasikala case on our front page today as we believe that there are many things for us in Sri Lanka to learn about how India tackles corruption among politicians.

There is no need to labour the point that corruption among politicians is as bad here as in India. India being a huge country, the scale of corruption there must necessarily be much greater than in this small island of ours. But the fact that the various investigative agencies were able over a period of many years to gather reams of material to convict both Jayalalithaa, Sasiskala’s mentor and her protégé who may yet ascend the chief ministerial throne in Chennai is a matter of no small import. True, the Karnataka High Court overturned the original court verdict but the Indian Supreme Court has delivered the final judgment and Sasikala is in jail.

Sil redhi (paid for by the taxpayers) is small change compared to the goodies like rice cookers, television receivers and what not gifted to Tamil Nadu voters at election time. UNPers earned the appellation of buth gottas for the practice of giving a packet of rice, often accompanied by a bottle of arrack, to their supporters when their assistance to win elections became necessary. Now buriyani packets and something to wash it down with is standards issue, along with T-shorts, caps and saris in party colours. Sil redhi was a new one. This matter is now subject of a court hearing and the final verdict will be a judicial determination. There has been testimony that millions of rupees of funds belonging to the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission had been paid on ‘orders from above’ to pay for the cloth that appeared to have been distributed as a vote gathering sweetener.

Theme cartoon googled and added by TWImage result for Sil redhi bribe cartoons

It was in the post-1977 period that corruption and commissions went sky high. That phenomenon was directly related to the growth of public expenditure with several gigantic schemes like the Mahaweli diversion and many more taking off. The money supply of the country multiplied not tenfold but hundredfold – maybe more. There will be people who will remember that the National Savings Bank whose interest rates some decade earlier were at lower single digits paid as much as 22 percent at a time that the rupee was depreciated very steeply against hard currencies like the dollar and the pound sterling. Huge contracts were awarded and huge commissions were ‘earned’ – if that is the right word to use. Robbed seems more appropriate. Politicians, bureaucrats and various agents representing foreign suppliers made mega bucks on the various schemes. These additional costs, as they must, eventually trickled down to the taxpayer where the buck always stops. US President Harry Truman once famously said “The Buck Stops Here” meaning the presidency. That buck of course was of the ‘passing the buck’ variety, not hard cash.

Though Sasikala maybe in jail serving a four year term, and also faces a 10-year ban from politics, her nominee has taken office as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. She commands the loyalty of the majority of the State Assembly and like some of our drug barons in prison she would be able to pull the strings manipulating many affairs of government. Older readers may remember that here in Sri Lanka many decades ago political parties nominated MPs found guilty by a Bribery Commission to stand for re-election and the voters re-elected them. The gratifications that may have been taken then would have been small change by today’s standards. As one of those MP’s said, they were small santhosams for the “work I have done.” Such work may have been securing a transfer or helping somebody to get a job. There was one MP, found guilty of bribery, who was expelled from Parliament during the 1965 Dudley Senanayake government. We cannot remember any other such cases.

Today a whole host of functionaries of the previous regime are under investigations and many of them have been hauled before the courts and placed in remand. How successful these investigations will be and whether hard evidence that can ensure conviction has been unearthed in an open question. Just like people by and large are very well aware that corruption was rampant during the Mahinda Rajapaksa years, they are equally aware that the situation is no better now. Witch hunting allegations are legion and questions are being asked whether those in office today are immune from investigation. We do not know whether the various investigating authorities do their work in a chronological order so that the older cases come up first. But there is a clear perception that there are attempts to protect those who belong to the ruling establishment or has its patronage. The alleged bond scam matter though is now subject to an inquiry by a Special Presidential Commission in what appears to be a tussle between the two constituents of the ruling National Unity Government.

Investigating Jayalalithaa and Sasikala over a period of nearly 20 years, despite various compulsions of coalition politics, is no mean achievement. So also the judgment of the original trial court which though reversed by the High Court of Karnataka, has now been affirmed by the Supreme Court of India. President Sirisena has chosen to go public about how a former chief justice had seen him not once but twice pleading to be retained in office and promising judgments desired by the rulers. We have had another chief justice apologizing for a wrong judgment. He continues to publicly consort with politicians to the detriment of the institution he once headed. India has no such problems with its highest court enjoying the greatest respect of the people. Given the proportions corruption has assumed in our country, perhaps a degree of judicial activism in this area is desirable.