A spate of high-profile arrests have brought the desperation of India’s government into stark relief, as a series of corruption cases threaten to overwhelm the once-impeccable image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Suresh Kalmadi, a politician who oversaw the graft-tainted and disastrously managed Commonwealth Games held in Delhi last fall, was remanded in police custody Tuesday on charges of cheating, conspiracy and corruption related to tenders for timekeeping equipment worth millions of dollars. He was detained Monday night and then suspended by the ruling Indian National Congress party, of which he was a senior member.
The same day, another high-flying politician was charged with corruption: member of Parliament Kanimozhi Karunanidhi.
Kanimozhi, who goes by one name, is the daughter of the chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu and a member of one of the most influential political families in a country where dynasties still play a critical role. Her Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party is a key partner in the governing coalition.
She is charged for her role in the ongoing drama of India’s mobile phone licence sale scandal, which cost the country an estimated $39-billion, not including millions of dollars in bribes that Kanimozhi is alleged to have helped funnel to private companies through her close relationship with the then-telecommunications minister, Andimuthu Raja.
Mr. Raja is now in jail, and last week five men who head large private corporations were also locked up after being charged in the second-generation (2G) mobile licence scam. Pictures of white-shirt-wearing, smartphone-toting business and political leaders being led into courtrooms or jailhouses are becoming a staple of the Indian front pages.
All of these criminal charges might appear to indicate that Mr. Singh’s government is cracking down on corrupt officials without regard for their level of power or prestige.
But in fact it’s the Central Bureau of Investigation, acting on orders from the Supreme Court – which has given itself control over the 2G scam investigation – that is running the show.
“These arrests have come only under public pressure and under oversight of the Supreme Court, which is unusual because the Supreme Court does not usually put itself in the position of overseeing an investigation. But this approach of the court has left the government no option,” said Brahma Chellaney, an analyst with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. “Even if the government wanted otherwise, it’s helpless.”
The court, which has taken an extreme activist role, is being driven by feverish media coverage of the public outcry over corruption.
A team of senior lawmakers and leading civic figures are drafting a new bill to create the office of a corruption ombudsperson after a hunger strike in central Delhi staged by a 71-year-old Gandhian-style social activist named Anna Hazare. Mr. Hazare’s planned “fast-unto-death” – which ended after four days when the government agreed to all of his demands – was a rallying point for middle-class, English-speaking Indians, who heralded him as a moral champion in a country rife with rot.
Mr. Hazare’s demand that leading civil society members be part of creating the new anti-corruption office almost immediately ran into trouble. It was revealed late last week that the father in a pair of father-son Supreme Court advocates Mr. Hazare had asked to have appointed to the committee, and who are known for speaking out on corruption, had himself been involved in a number of suspect land deals.
Both Mr. Kalmadi and Kanimozhi may have expected their level of power to protect them from prosecution. Mr. Kalmadi is a former cabinet minister, head of the Indian Olympic Association and a back-room architect with a key role in a number of Congress victories. Prof. Chellaney noted that in this case he is also a fall guy – that he did not control the $6-billion budget of the problem-plagued Commonwealth Games. “His arrest is just the beginning of an unfolding drama.”
The Prime Minister has not been implicated in any of this, but Prof. Chellaney noted that the trials of Kanimozhi and Mr. Raja will soon raise questions about whether the former telecom minister could have acted with such scope and audacity without the knowledge of other senior government figures, including Mr. Singh.
However Satish Misra, an analyst with the Observer Research Group in Delhi, said he did not see the government seriously imperilled by the ongoing scandals.
It might well lose the DMK as an ally, he said, but no other party has a leader with credibility any greater than Mr. Singh’s.
“The government's quick response to Anna Hazare's movement … has already taken much gas out of the opposition's rhetoric,” he said.