Make Vohra Committee report public

Given the enormous divergence between the findings of opinion polls, prudence demands that commentators writing on the eve of the elections refrain from risking their reputations in wild speculation, and let the ballot box tell its own tale. As the first major round of Assembly elections after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led Government was sworn-in earlier this year, it is inevitable that the voting will be perceived as a significant public statement on the regime, even if it cannot legitimately be considered a referendum on its performance in office.

Seen from a wider perspective, the Assembly elections are a continuation of the transitional phase the country has been go­ing through over the past few years, as reflected in the inadequate mandate given to the Bharatiya Janata Party despite the pronounced shift in its favour. Society is undergoing a profound change, which can only be partially articulated through the electoral process. After years of economic suffocation in the Nehruvian straitjacket, public emotions erupted in the revolution of rising expectations in the early 1970s, which saw a spurt in vigilance in state after state and threatened the very survival of the central government.

Since then, the picture has become more complicated, because while economic concerns have been legitimized in the private and pub­lic domain, the focus has enlarged to include the intellectual and spiritual starvation wrought by Nehruvism. The steady decline in the fortunes of the Congress party (barring Rajiv Gandhi’s fluke victory in 1984) is the re­sult of pubic rejection of the Nehru framework and the corruption and depravity it spawned in public life.

However, while people can easily decide what they do not want, it is more difficult to consciously endorse and commit oneself to an alternative. Hence the uncertain mandates extended to non-Congress formations and their seemingly transitory and experimental nature. It is not as if the Indian people lack the wis­dom to realize that only a clear mandate willproduce a stable government that can readily deliver the goods.

The crux of the matter is that the Indian identity that was thwarted and stifled at independence has as yet been able to assert it­self only partially and defensively. That is why it hesitates and falters even as it desires, and opts for, change. The veracity of this statement can be corroborated from the fact that in the 1991 elections that were governed by national issues until Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination gave them an emotive twist, the Congress party was again heading for rejection by the electorate, but no rival party seemed likely to get a clear mandate. The transitional phase, therefore, is likely to continue, especially since the pic­ture has been clouded by the unprecedented price hike that has now mercifully subsided. As such, I will not be sur­prised if the electorate were to deliver a verdict that will satisfy the major rivals.

Whatever the nature of the results, however, the Central Government cannot afford to lose sight of the larger issues behind the present transition in the society and polity. The sharp erosion of public morality and the criminalization of politics, which have so cor­roded the system as to pro­duce a porous state with compromised internal security, are the principal reasons for people’s disillusionment with the Congress. While the politician-bureaucrat nexus can be rationalized as the inevitable offspring of the license-permit-quota raj, people find the spawning of a formidable criminal underworld through political patronage unacceptable.

As the current grisly saga of Romesh Sharrna shows, this cancer has acquired a menacing new twist with hostile agencies like Pakistan’s ISI successfully interlocking with India’s elite politician-bureaucrat-corporate world-underworld circuit. Sharma alone en­joyed enviable proximity to a former Prime Minister, former ministers of state for home, former chief ministers, politicians, socialites, corporate citizens, and senior officials. He en­joyed a charmed criminal career for over a decade, fleecing rich and poor alike. What is more, notwithstanding the fate of cases against him in court, he already seems to have got away with criminal assault of countless female victims who are too scared or ashamed to speak out. Their sufferings must not go un­avenged.

Home Minister LK Advani is sensitive to the fact that the Sharma case has sinister implications for the country’s internal security. The fact that he could conduct his criminal career so successfully for so long is a measure of the extent to which he has contaminated the sys­tem, rendering it ‘porous’. Mr Advani also seems to have realized that punishment of Sharma alone would be inadequate; the time has come to name the names and reveal ful­ly the extent and reach of his evil empire.

As of now, the nature of the investigation raises more questions than it an­swers. While a tangential encounter with the execu­tive of a leading corporate house has resulted in high­ly publicized raids on its premises, there has been no proper enquiry into the conduct of the officials who facilitat­ed the smooth escape of Dawood Ibrahim’s mother and sister in the wake of 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai. Nor have we been en­lightened about the identity of the bureaucrats or politicians who provided sustained pro­tection to Dawood’s aides at a time when the police was supposed to be hunting them out with a fine-toothed comb.

A newsmagazine has suggested that the Reliance-Dawood interface arose as a conse­quence of an extortion demand on the chair­man’s son-in-law over a decade ago. If true, there is an urgent need to investigate whether other corporate houses have been similarly tapped, and the price they may have paid for their well being. The enquiry would be es­pecially apt in view of the growing demand from the Mumbai trading community for pro­tection from extortion rackets, and would serve a dual purpose. On the one hand it would release the business community from the bur­den of such extortion, on the other hand it would reveal the extent to which business houses have used the criminal network to il­legally transfer funds abroad. Since a prop­er investigation could clean the Augean sta­bles once and for all, the Finance and Home Ministers would do well to consider an amnesty to corporate houses revealing details of the Dawood Ibrahim-Abu Saleem-Romesh Sharma modus operandi.

Such an investigation need not clash with Mr Advani’s legitimate concern with the in­ternal security aspect of the Sharma case, par­ticularly the methodology adopted by the ISI and Dawood for their operations in India. The Home Ministry’s shocking disclosure that the Delhi Police covered up an RDX seizure from a Delhi farmhouse owned by Chota Shakeel and managed by Sharma (intended to carry out blasts on Republic Day last year), makes it amply clear that a number of probes will have to be carried out simultaneously. There is a sense of disquiet in some quarters that some of the officials investigating the cases may themselves have been close to Sharma during his heydays. It stands to reason that the credibility of the investigation will depend on how soon the officials who have assisted Sharma are named. Indeed, the price of their honour should also be made known.

This would also be the best time to make the contents of the Vohra Committee Report on the politician bureaucrat-criminal nexus public. It may be recalled that this demand figured in the United Front manifesto two years ago, but was neatly shelved when it was realized that Congress support was necessary to form the Government. The ruling coalition, however, does not share the Congress’s dis­comfort in this matter. There is no need for it to be queasy.

The Pioneer, 24 November 1998

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