Accountability in fake democracies
The extreme Left has been calling India a fake democracy ever since one can remember. In the 1970s, the excuse was that it is a young democracy and it...
The 21st century India is different. Some 66 years after Independence, the lines between politics, business and crime are completely blurred. Through systematic subversion of regulations and laws, politicians, entrepreneurs and criminals have consolidated their grip over the country. The greater the unaccounted-for wealth, the stronger their chances of survival and growth in the system.
The new generation politician has installed profit as the primary purpose of all institutions, including such sectors as banking. The 1970s' understanding of banking as a sector with a role to play in the economic transformation of the country remains firmly discarded.
Instead of being sceptical, the media have contributed their bit by orchestrating the unrealistic obscene growth of some of the banking enterprises as something resulting from the business skills of their bosses. The massive advertising spend of these banks could perhaps better explain this confusion in media's vision that mistook a cancerous tumour for robust growth.
The recent reports by Cobrapost on the banking sector and the money-laundering indulged in by several of them highlight this problem. Accumulation through illegal means, the desire to evade taxes, thrives on the nexus with a banking sector whose primary objective now is to increase its deposits. A In both instances, despite advertising to the contrary, there seem to be no larger social objectives other than to accumulate as much of the financial resources as possible; mostly hard-earned savings from individuals.
The biggest players revealed in the Cobrapost sting have also figured in several other stock market and corporate scams. The banks, which have been the usual suspects in a series of financial delinquencies, appear to pay no price for their transgressions. Public memory being short, the same people are also lionised on media as experts in different avatars. The media seek their views on policy direction the State is contemplating. Public interest is of little concern.
The apex business association in India is headed by the chief executive of a major international bank involved in laundering and illegally routing money for the drug cartels. The bank is being investigated. Though the India operations of the bank are not yet under the scanner, news media have no qualms in seeking advice and policy direction on critical issues from an executive of such a bank.
Neither the media nor the business association is unaware of the record of the enterprise the executive belongs to. But showcasing corporate muscle of such individuals through media underlines in the public mind the scale of impunity possible in our system.A The major private sector banks named in the sting are also headed by iconic figures who appear to be active at multiple levels in the financial sector. They are also playing advisory role to the government as 'stakeholders' in the sector.
Apart from blatantly illegal acts like money laundering, major banks, both private and public, have been lending thousands of crores to business entities. If the enterprises fail, it is ultimately public money that is risked and more public money deployed in bailing out and further supporting the delinquent entrepreneurs. A This is an incentive for criminal conduct. Some of the entrepreneurs have become legislators and have also become members of the highest policymaking bodies (despite the obvious conflict of interest).
While it is true that a few of the politicians are beginning to feel the weight of the law, the financial and corporate sectors seem to be still thriving in impunity. A The neo-liberal agenda of the central and state governments has rapidly privatised natural resources and commons that belong to the people of India. The corporations that have benefited from this are contemptuous of the government hand that fed them because the regulators are compromised and can be depended on to ignore serious violations.
If this allows the errant officials to make their nest egg for retirement, the politician behind the scenes is busy ensuring success in the next election with money from the same pool. A The relentless push for neo-liberal reform of the economy is persisting on its course, despite the evidence of disastrous consequences elsewhere of such policies. The drive to put public savings into the uncertainty of the markets is continuing apace, with the proposed banking, insurance and pension fund reforms. These policies are not just risking the welfare of the people but corrupting and corroding the moral core of the economy. People and their welfare have disappeared from the conversation.
When a politician is caught at corruption, he may well pay a price for it at the next election. The entrepreneur, on the contrary, can influence the politicians, the regulators, use legal and administrative loopholes to delay prosecution for decades, meanwhile continuing with their delinquent practices and accumulating greater wealth.
Across the world, in democracies like the USA, the UK, Italy or Greece, these tendencies of predatory capitalism are being severely questioned on the streets. In India too, as the elections in Karnataka demonstrated, unbridled corruption and mismanagement of the economy will face the wrath of the electorate. The point being missed is, if the newly elected party also allies with the corporate vested interests to mortgage public interest for private gain, what are the options before a disaffected public? One does not see a fundamental change in economic wisdom between parties, despite their populist rhetoric.
Somehow, even learned people participating in media debates see popular mandate as a legitimizing thing. Questions such as: "If people elect a candidate with known criminal record, who is to blame? If power is misused by them, who is to blame?" lead us into a moral cul de sac. A While it is undeniably important, is it enough if a Cobrapost does a sting and uncovers the misdemeanours in the banking sector? Is it enough if a rigorous television debate brilliantly analyses the causes and effects of the issue? Do we move on to newer "breaking news"?
What must we as people do to confront the shape and form our democracy is taking? Many have voted in every election, only to be taken aback by the squalid results it produced. We have to enter the conversation to reverse and restore the true content of democracy.
(The writer is professor of journalism, Osmania University)