In a major embarrassment for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), five government departments have been asked to submit their reports on action taken against corrupt bureaucrats after India's Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, complained of millions of dollars having been paid as bribes to government officials.
The Indian Navy, Railways, Maharashtra State Electricity Board, Department of Revenue and Insecticide Board allegedly took bribes from American companies for government contracts.
The letter was reportedly written to the Prime Minister's Office as far back as May this year but so far the government has ordered only one Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry.
CNN-IBN show Face the Nation asked: Bribes scandal: Are babus more corrupt than netas?
The panel of experts included: Congress MP and Spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan, MP and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad, Senior Associate Editor of the Business Standard Sunil Jain and former chief secretary of Delhi Shailaja Chandra.
Bureaucrats' box office collection
The charges against some bureaucrats came as far back as May 2009. Why has the government taken so long to act against the corrupt?
Jayanthi Natarajan began the debate by saying, "It is very important for the government to act with expedition in matters like this. And I am very sure that no stone has been left unturned by the government in this matter. With regard to the timeline I think only the government can answer this question. I would also mention that there are some corrupt officers but there are excellent bureaucrats as well just as there are good and bad politicians. The difference is that politicians are more subject to public scrutiny whereas the bureaucrats are not."
But the argument that many hold is that a bureaucrat does what his boss does.
However, can the BJP lay this at the UPA's door? Four of the instances of corruption that have come to light took place in the time of the NDA rule. Money was transferred in a period of six years – 2000 to 2006 for placing 215 orders.
To which Ravi Shankar Prasad said, "Let's put the facts in the right perspective. I have got a copy of the letter of Meera Shankar. It says the report of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was published on May 10, 2009 and the letter was written on May 11, 2009. There was a proper confirmation by the companies concerned in the report that these payments have been made by them. Therefore, a formal official communication of ownership of this bribery was made by the government of USA through this report. Now what I am worried about is why should the release by the BJP await the government al action."
Replying to the BJP's stand, the Congress Spokesperson said, "There is no timeline that can be dictated by the BJP. What is important is that the government will take action. There has to be an inquiry instituted, which needs to be followed up and only then can action be taken."
The Bofors issue has died down, the government is getting ready to withdraw the case against Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi. So is the BJP just looking for another issue to beat the government with?
"I am not here to get more TRPs, I am worried about the fact that American companies have repeatedly bribed their way to the Indian babudom and got their work done. I am not doing any political segregation here. The question here is the integrity of India's governance. There should not be an impression that the country can be bought over and that should be the focus of this debate," Prasad said.
Not impressed with Prasad's argument and taking a dig at him, Natarajan said, "Mr Prasad sounds very noble while saying such things. I too want to rise above politics because this is a national issue. But it is very clear that the BJP wants to politicise the issue. Yes, American companies may have said what they did. But permit me to say that what they said may not be the gospel truth. We have to follow the rule of law in our country also."
Is the government 's system rotting?
"The system is rotting but I would like to put it in a different way. In the ‘50s and ‘60s you could fool the ministers as bureaucrats. Now the politicians know exactly how the system works. They know how to manipulate it and manoeuvre things to suit their interests. There are two types of bureaucrats. One which will play along and the other will turn a Nelson's eye to what is happening. And there is a third lot which would not even know what is happening because they are so busy with their humdrum lives," said Shailaja Chandra.
She added, "Now I would also say that there is no comparison between the scale of corruption that is indulged in by politicians and bureaucrats."
Coming back to the letter of Meera Shankar, Chandra said, "She talks of officials but if they took it home then there would be a lot of money as kickbacks. So politicians could also have taken that money home."
So are the bureaucrats in the firing line here or could the ministers have taken the money?
"There is no doubt that the politicians are involved," said Sunil Jain and added, "In the Meera Shankar case if there was no political cover-up then they would have been put behind bars. But if you look at the amount then it is really small when compared to the bigger scandals in the recent years of this government. Even the BJP never raised these points earlier. But I would like to ask which big agitation the BJP carried out to stop the telecom licenses."
"To put facts correctly on this telecom issue I will repeat that we have nailed this government repeatedly in Parliament. I am in the standing committee of IT and Communication and I have raised the matter there," Prasad clarified. He further added that the matter was not about political points but cleansing the system.
Dollar bribes for babus
The impression that is gaining ground is that there are some big names involved in this bribery scam. Are the bureaucrats just a scapegoat for a larger culprit? Why did the UPA wait for the BJP to come out with this letter?
"I deny any motive or delay on the part of the government in this regard except the due course of law. I would like to respond to what Chandra said. It is wrong to say that all babus are like babes in the woods. It is totally a wrong picture if we say that ministers manipulate bureaucrats. No file can move until a Secretary of a department allows it to happen," Natarajan said.
Responding to Natarajan, Chandra said, "I have never said that only politicians are involved. I have said that both could be involved. There is not a single policy decision at the high level that can be taken without the Minister's approval. The bureaucrats may do anything they wish but every decision needs a minister's approval and there is hardly a minister who does not know what is going on."
At this point Prasad intervened, "Please don't degenerate this debate between civil servants and politicians. There are good and bad politicians just like there are good and bad officers. At this point in time we need to concentrate on the seriousness of the issue highlighted by the Ambassador."
But the experts debated that if the letter has been written by the Indian Ambassador to the US and a CBI inquiry does exist then the government is acting on the issue. Then why is the BJP worried?
Prasad concluded the debate by saying, "When nothing was done for full six months only then we were constrained to release the letter. And when this matter came into the public domain only then has some movement been there in this case."
Final results of the SMS/web poll:
Yes – 73 per cent
No – 27 per cent