By Vijay Darda | 23-02-2015
It is not for nothing that capitalism gets a bad name. One of its traits is a fierce no-holds barred competition with all ethical considerations being damned and the desire to win at any cost. On the eve of the budget session, we have seen the eruption of a case that is being mistakenly labelled as a corporate espionage scam. The removal of official documents from the premises of oil ministry in the supposedly secure Shastri Bhavan of Lutyens Delhi can hardly be categorised as corporate espionage. It is a white collar crime of naked theft of government property. The expression espionage has some connotations of ‘a legitimate under cover’ operation with some sort of a higher motive like warding off a physical danger to be served. In this case, it is plain and simple theft of documents achieved through the bribing of low level officials.
This is no under-cover operation and can at best be described as a track-2 business transaction in which interestingly, documents that could impact business decisions worth crores of rupees could be accessed for a petty bribe of a few thousands. It reveals that to further their business interests the corporate houses whose officials have been arrested so far actively believe in using criminal methods like theft. But it would be erroneous to presume that only those corporate houses whose officials have been arrested are involved in such practices. The trend is pretty universal and in simple terms, it is a white collar crime against the nation. This is quite a serious matter.
But more serious than the emergence of this case, is the acceptance of the union minister for oil and petroleum Dharmendra Pradhan that this is something that has been going on for years. He has also conceded that all economic ministries are under similar pressure from corporate lobbies. Indeed, Pradhan would appear to looking for some credit for having busted this racket, and not be rapped for the fact that his ministry slept on the wheel while these thefts were taking place. From these candid admissions, it would not be off the mark to assume that there is some kind of connivance between the government on the one side and the corporates on the other side. This indeed, could be the babudom version of match-fixing cricket style.
It is well-known to media practitioners that major corporate houses employ liaison personnel who are tasked with establishing working relations with lower to middle rung officials who have access to documents in the ministry. These officials pass on photocopies to these corporate functionaries on a regular basis and are remunerated either in a case to case format on even a monthly retainer. But in this case, the crime went in a step further. The officials had duplicate keys to access the cabins of senior officers and thus could retrieve sensitive documents like the ministry’s inputs for this year’s budget speech. Indeed, the volume and range of documents recovered from the journalist Shantanu Saikia’s residence give some inkling into the scale of operations.
It is being suggested that the Modi government’s decision to go for a paperless cabinet would help check the leakage of the documents. Well, that decision would certainly prevent the ministers from leaking the documents, but then considering that the rest of the process would remain the same, this crime of documents being sold to corporates or interested parties by the babus would still remain unchecked. This malady persists at the lower and middle rung of the officialdom, and the motives are quite different from the ones that could be associated with a cabinet minister for leaking the documents.
More shocking than the recovery of the documents from these accused persons is the response of the corporate houses whose officials have been arrested. Maintaining an attitude of zero tolerance towards law breaking, these companies have issued statements to claim that they do not indulge in such practices. But clearly, the fact remains that their managers and deputy general managers would not be paying these small time government employees regularly from their own pocket and collecting official documents for their personal consumption. Indeed, these criminal cases would get an indecent burial unless the corporates themselves and their higher officials are penalised for these crimes. If on the contrary the government lets these higher-ups go unpunished, then the impression would grow stronger that these activities are actually encouraged by the officialdom.
The government is by and large the most important single player in terms of the economy. Its policy decisions and their trend can make or mar the fortunes of a corporate entity. Even an advantage of 24 hours for a policy decision can have a huge monetary impact for a company. For this reason, there is a premium on access to government papers. The corporate sector thus maintains a well-oiled machinery to ensure leakage on the part of the government. Curiously, the government does hardly anything beyond the routine security checks. For instance, you can enter Shastri Bhavan, once you have a valid pass. That valid pass can be available to anyone, even a driver or a cleaner. So up against anyone determined to penetrate the system, the government is poorly armed. No wonder this leakage of documents has been going on for years, and despite this high profile incident there are no signs that this would come to an end.
Before I conclude…
The budget session gets underway from Monday. We have seen a few conciliatory gestures from Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last few days. He has spoken in favour of religious freedom and also responded positively to the family invitations from the two Yadav chieftains – Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad – by attending the wedding event. These are surely positive gestures that could ease the tensions between the opposition and the ruling party in the days to come. But then these are mere cosmetic signs. The real test would come in the next few weeks, when this same spirit of accommodation would be tested on specific issues. There are real differences between the two sides and these are pretty substantive in nature.
The next few weeks would also test if the prime minister is willing to move beyond the atmospherics and make some real changes. So long his track record of dealing with even his own ministers has not been inspiring any great amount of confidence, and thus it remains to be seen if he does show the flexibility to reach out to the opposition in that sense. There is no way out for him at least in Rajya Sabha, where the BJP would remain in a minority till 2017 at least. Unless, he does this Parliament could remain deadlocked.