Punishing corrupt ministers and other high state officials

In what, according to media reports emanating from New Delhi, was an open and shut multi-million dollar corruption scam, the Indian Textiles Minister Dayanidhi Maran tendered his resignation after it was disclosed that he sought to use his influence to coerce the founder of the privately-run mobile telephone company AIRCEL to sell his stake in the company to a competitor favoured by the now disgraced minister.

Perhaps the odd thing about this particular case – and it has to be said that India is by no means a stranger to corruption scandals involving ministers of government – is that Mr Maran owned up to the corruption charge and handed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh his resignation in circumstances where,  apparently, he would almost certainly have been dropped from the Cabinet anyway.

The question that arises of course is whether – if in fact it is true that Mr Maran has admitted guilt in the AIRCEL corruption scandal – any consequence will accrue to him apart from having had to give up his ministerial portfolio, whether, to put it bluntly, he will be charged, tried and punished under the law. This point becomes even more important if Mr Maran might have already benefited materially from the AIRCEL corruption scam.

We know little of the motive behind Mr Maran’s alleged admission of culpability in the corruption scandal. Perhaps he may have decided to make a clean breast of it having realized that the game was up, anyway, and, moreover, having already come to an understanding of the penalty he would have to face.

That having been said, it is certainly not common for ministers and other high officials of government to openly concede culpability in corruption matters despite the fact that Transparency International has, time and again, drawn attention to the billions that are creamed off by public officials either by plundering their respective treasuries, or else, by pressuring, bullying and otherwise persuading elements in the private sector to pay for services, or else for the privilege of not being subjected to inconveniences which state officials are ideally positioned to cause to happen.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second-term coalition government has been rocked by a succession of huge graft and corruption scandals which has distracted government’s attention from its preoccupation with pushing economic reforms. Another former Indian Telecommunication Minister, Andimuthu Raja, is currently in prison over charges that about four years ago he caused telecommunications rules to be set aside and accepted bribes to favour firms seeking mobile phone licenses. India allegedly lost around US$39 million in revenue on account of the scandal, an amount, according to a section of the Indian media, “equivalent to the annual defence budget;” an amount too which perhaps offers some indication of the size of the kickbacks that the minister is reported to have received.

If the jailed Indian minister is one of a handful of senior state officials incarcerated over corruption charges, it is no secret that what is more commonplace in developing countries is to have ministers and high officials evade entirely the consequences of such charges or else, at best, he removed from one portfolio to another or – depending on the level of the political temperature created as a result of the scandal – be required to leave the Cabinet or whichever other high post the officials might be occupying at the time.

An integral part of this scenario, of course, is the trotting out of sundry scapegoats, lesser functionaries who may well have benefited to a lesser extent from the particular scam, but who, in the final analysis, must often carry the can alone for no other reason than the fact that it is a politically expedient option to implicating a high official of government. Here in Guyana, for example, if it by no means uncommon to learn of large numbers of ordinary people being implicated in corruption-related scams – the current Ministry of Finance issue is a case in point – one rarely if ever hears of senior government officials being hung out to dry over corruption-related scandals.

India may have its problems with corruption but the case of former minister Raju and others before him at least demonstrates that there are built-in mechanisms against which protection can be difficult. In other words the case of former minister Raju demonstrates that if you are found guilty; you could go to jail. It is a sobering thought that is worth contemplation by corrupt ministers and high officials in other countries.

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