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Rajdeep Sardesai
Friday , October 19, 2012 at 00 : 02

Only if Robert Vadra could learn from Upinder Singh


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At a seminar in Delhi a few years ago, a soft-spoken, petite woman in a crumpled sari was one of the panelists. She engaged in the debate and then quietly left in a self-driven Maruti car with hardly anyone noticing. Except for her associates, few others would have known that they had been in the company of the Prime Minister's daughter: Professor Upinder Singh, professor of history at Delhi University.

The Prime Minister has faced many charges in recent times. But what no one can ever accuse Dr Manmohan Singh of is any attempt to use his position to benefit his family. This may seem no special badge of honour but in the context of what has been happening in this country, it is quite a remarkable achievement. It is proof that it is possible to be untouched by the capital's VVIP culture even while being the Prime Minister of the country.

Since the era of Indira Gandhi, who allowed her son Sanjay to benefit from the largesse of a Haryana chief minister of another era (remember Bansi Lal and Maruti?), almost every Indian Prime Minister has had to face the accusation of allowing proximity to power to benefit their relatives in some form or the other. In that sense, Manmohan Singh and his family stand out as glorious exceptions to the rule.

Dr Singh is perhaps fortunate that his family has been primarily in academia and thus is less likely to be influenced by a charmed power circle. Robert Vadra is a businessman, and to that extent, was always more susceptible to the charge of misusing his position for monetary benefits. Ditto the case with another businessman-turned neta Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of the late Andhra chief minister YS Rajasekhar Reddy. Both Vadra and Reddy have every right to be in business but both as a result also have to explain as to how their assets multiplied several times over when their families were in power.

Nor is this any longer just about Mr Vadra or even a Jagan Mohan Reddy. This is about a wider popular anger of an 'aam admi' (yes, mango people!) against a 'khaas admi', 'lal batti' culture where certain individuals are deemed to get benefits and privileges that are not available to the ordinary citizen. An 'aam admi' will face an Income Tax scrutiny for the smallest investment made; a 'khaas admi' will face no such problem. An 'aam admi' looking to buy a house finds it very difficult to make a clean transaction; a 'khaas admi' can perhaps get away with a similar high value sale. An 'aam admi' must stand in every queue, a 'khaas admi' can easily break the line. And yes, an 'aam admi' must be frisked at every airport; a 'khaas admi' will not face any such inconvenience.

The likes of an Arvind Kejriwal have astutely tapped into this growing rage against an unequal system and looked for specific 'targets' who are seen to symbolise the privileges of the powerful. The evidence need not be foolproof, criminality need not be established, but in an atmosphere where there is a general 'perception' that netas and their influential kith and kin are given special treatment, the anti-corruption campaign has become synonymous with a desire of the 'aam admi' to get 'even' with the 'khaas admi' who is seen to be unaccountable. You don't need to establish a quid pro quo in the dealings of the rich and powerful; the widespread 'perception' that such cosy networks exist is enough to convince people that undue benefits have been conferred.

To a large extent, these perceptions do mirror the emerging reality of the spectacular growth of the 'political entrepreneur' across the country. These are essentially individuals who have built their business empires primarily through their access to political power. Certain industries which are poorly regulated and remain heavily dependent on the discretionary powers of government have been particularly prone to the influence of such political entrepreneurs: mining, real estate and private education are good examples in recent times of the large scale profiteering to be made from linking political to business interests.

Is it any surprise, for example, that more than half the elected MLAs from the prized real estate belt of Mumbai and Pune are connected to the construction lobby? Or that realty companies in Andhra Pradesh have a strong representation in the state Assembly? Or that Karnataka's mining lobby can decide on who will be the state's chief minister? Or that education barons in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are politically influential? Or that every chief minister in Haryana has used the state's proximity to Delhi to make windfall profits through land acquisitions?

Maharashtra with its high stakes has perhaps shown the way, and a senior official in Mumbai's Mantralaya explains just how it works. Till 30 years ago, ministers in the much prized urban development ministry would get a couple of benami flats in exchange for changing land use rules and sanctioning housing projects. Over time, the deals got 'formalised' and the minister would get flats plus a certain percentage of the profit. Now, some ministers and their families have set up investment companies that directly acquire the project and corner the benefits for themselves. No longer are the deals 'benami', but are directly done in the name of the family firm.    

For much too long, all this has only been whispered in the power corridors. Now, in the age of 24x7 media, RTI activism and public interest litigation, the lava from a dormant volcano is beginning to spill out. The 'aam admi' is seeking revenge and has put the VVIPs on notice. The message is clear: either be like professor Upinder Singh and remain one of 'us' or risk the wrath of a noisy, empowered civil society.


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More about Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He comes with 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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