Swami Agnivesh and Rev. Valson Thampu

What would be the verdict of future historians on the Tehelka tapes, the most sensational media revelations in our times? Will they see it as a moral milestone in the evolution of our public life? Or will they dismiss it as a glorious opportunity obfuscated by partisanship? In the end what is important is not how sensational the media revelations are, but what is more important is the formative message we derive from these developments as well as the intents with which we respond to them.

The Tehelka revelations should be considered as our date with truth. The fact of corruption prevalent in high places did not entirely take us by surprise. However, what the intrepid investigators of Tehelka did was to unveil the stinking sores on our public life that we knew existed for quite some time. They gave compelling immediacy to what was till then a vague, though widespread, apprehension. With the Tehelka tapes we moved from allegations and speculations to irrefutable revelations which then led to unprecedented public admissions.

The state of affairs revealed by the tapes was serious enough to warrant introspection and systemic reforms at various levels. It should have been treated as a wake-up call to the nation as a whole. All parties should have been forthright enough to realize that corruption was becoming a national epidemic from which no one could claim to be free. Our patriotism, if it was worth anything at all, should have got us worried about the ill health of the country writ large over these sleazy revelations. A collective search for effective remedies should have ensued. But that was not what happened. Instead, the ruling coalition- barring Mamata- went into a huddle to improvise cover-up and damage control. In the case of the “Bengal tigress,” in all likelihood, the compulsions of Bengal politics, rather than a commitment to probity in public life, dictated her uncompromising stand with this regard. Opposition parties smelt blood and launched an ‘unseat-Vajpayee’ tehelka. Despite all this the pitiable plight of the nation, especially affecting its most sensitive sector, was nobody’s concern.

It is a withering commentary on our collective moral sensibility that a crucial moral issue was quickly degraded into a political slinging match and trial of strength. Going by available indications, there is hardly any ground for hoping that the sort of systemic reforms that the situation so desperately calls for will be put in place. The silver lining on the cloud, though, is the appointment of Shri. B. G. Verghese,
a man of unimpeachable integrity, to the Ministry of Defense, presumably to help clean up the system. Only time will tell if this is yet another cosmetic exercise or an indication of serious intention.

Given the track record of Commissions of Inquiry, it is hardly surprising if the people are cynical about the appointment of a Commission to look into the matter. Very few Commissions have come out with “the whole of truth, and nothing but the truth”. Very few findings and recommendations of Commissions have been acted upon. The work of a Commission is often pre-empted through the terms of reference imposed on it; and invariably those who are more interested in covering up the truth rather than bringing it to light formulate these terms. At any rate, the Tehelka revelations, and the personal confessions that followed, are so transparent and unambiguous that one wonders what work is really left to a Commission as far as ‘establishing the truth of the matter’ is concerned. The pronouncement of the powers exonerating the accused and promising their speedy rehabilitation ‘soon after the inquiry’ casts a long shadow over the nature and scope of this exercise.

Corruption in high places is not political mud that parties may hurl at each other. It is an issue that imperils the welfare of each and every citizen of the country. Those who shut their eyes to this stink because they or their party benefits from it and those who cry foul only because they or their party stand to gain from this commotion, are both unconcerned about the moral health of this nation. We can no longer dodge the truth that a country that is overwhelmed by corruption cannot have any national cohesion or social dynamism. Even more importantly, it is impossible to separate the reality of mega-corruption from the emotive issue of national security, especially when corruption is revealed to have infected our defense establishment. Indeed it is a sad state of affairs because those who are entrusted with the stewardship of our country are the ones who bleed it to gradual death. This is the single most important cause for our political bankruptcy and economic backwardness. Unless the cancer of corruption is eradicated, it will keep eroding the very foundation of our democracy. Examples abound both in Asia and Africa to prove that corruption and democracy cannot co-exist. The way to dictatorship is paved with corruption.

Corruption begins at the top and percolates through the rest of the society. The ruling elite are vulnerable to corruption all over the world. But the difference is that the corrupt in India escape the arm of the law, whereas, their country cousins in the more developed societies of the world are punished when caught. It is the assured immunity of the corrupt so long as they wield power that encourages them to be as brash and vulgar as those on the Tehelka tapes were. Our crying need today is to deal a deathblow to this dogma of depravity. And we have never had a more propitious moment to do this than what has been so painstakingly put together by the Tehelka team.

The Tehelka scoop is a stupendous media feat. The price of democracy, said Jawaharlal Nehru, is eternal vigilance. This is the essence especially of the vocation of media. It is a reflection on the state of the media today that a section of it suddenly got busy with rubbishing these investigations. What if a ‘political conspiracy’ underlies these revelations? Does it make rapid and rampant corruption
any less reprehensible? The question before us is not who is corrupt and who is not. The question is if corruption in any quarters should be tolerated at all? The height of corruption is the assumption that corruption is uglier in you than it is in me. Sadly, we have pushed the idea of ‘tolerance’ over the brink. We have come to tolerate a great deal of rubbish. The truth is that the evil we have tolerated has now assumed gigantic proportions and it threatens to overwhelm the life and destiny of this country. Surely, we must love India more than we love our ideologies and our parties.

We call upon the political parties of this country to address the prevailing tragic state of affairs with an unprecedented sense of responsibility. This is not an occasion for the ruling coalition to flex its muscles against the opposition. Nor can the opposition limit its duty in the given context to taking potshots at the ruling alliance. Instead, it is a time for all parties to work together to cleanse our public life of the muck that has accumulated over the years.

We call upon those who are in leadership in the religious constituency to raise public awareness concerning this grave national crisis and to work towards reinforcing the moral fibers of our society. We call upon the opinion-makers, especially those in the media, to help create a climate of opinion that makes the corrupt ugly and uneasy, rather than clever and successful. Above all, we call upon the people of this great nation to be clear-minded on the basic moral issues on which their own future and the dignity of our country depend.

These are not days and issues for partisan advocacies. The need of the hour is to be uncompromising vis-a-vis the bottom-line of accountability, transparency and probity in public life. But good sentiments alone will not suffice in these matters. We cannot afford to stop short of creating foolproof instruments and systemic safeguards to achieve this goal. To run away from the responsibilities unveiled by the Tehelka tapes is to create the logic of endless tehelkas, which we can scarcely afford.