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Lumpen Polity and the Silence that Breeds Criminals

Anand Teltumbde

The following three incidents reflect the utter lumpenisation of the polity in India today: (1) the manhandling of Abu Asim Azmi, the Samajwadi Party MLA in the Maharashtra assembly by the newly elected MLAs of Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena while taking the oath in Hindi in defiance of the diktat of their leader; (2) the unearthing of the mind-boggling loot by Madhu Koda, the ex-chief minister of Jharkhand, a relatively minor politician belonging to a scheduled tribe, who could so diligently execute such a huge loot in such a short time; and (3) the grant of parole by the Delhi government to the infamous prisoner Manu Sharma, the killer of Jessica Lall, on the ground of ill health of his mother, and for running his business. And yet, these incidents are taken as normal occurrences in this country.  Three recent incidents once again reminded us of the depth to which the Indian polity has descended, simultaneously highlighting the cynical quietude of the people insofar as there has not been any commensurate voice of public disapproval.

The Rot of the System The one that happened on 9 November last year was the manhandling of Abu Asim Azmi, the Samajwadi Party (SP) MLA in the Maharashtra assembly by the newly elected MLAs of Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) while taking the oath in Hindi in defiance of the diktat of their leader that all MLAs shall make the sworn statements only in Marathi. It is not that such brawls by unruly legislators had not taken place be fore or that we expect the honourable people's representatives to behave better. Given the fact that their tribe is increas ingly drawn from the stock of criminals such behaviour is not at all unexpected. What was novel and shocking, however, was that such a blatantly unconstitutional diktat was issued publicly and executed with impunity in the Maharashtra legisla tive assembly.

The second incident was unearthing of the mind-boggling loot by Madhu Koda, the ex-chief minister of Jharkhand. Koda is alleged to have stolen Rs 4,000 crore and amassed assets within the country and abroad through massive money laun dering operations. Again, prima facie there is nothing new in this case of cor ruption by a politician and the way it is be ing highlighted by the law-enforcing agen cies. What is new in the case is its sheer magnitude and implications. Koda, a rela tively minor politician of a small state like Jharkhand, himself belonging to a sched uled tribe, could so diligently execute such a huge loot in such a short time.

The third incident is the grant of parole by the Delhi government to the infamous prisoner Manu Sharma, the killer of Jessica Lall, on the ground of ill health of his mother, and, hold your breath, for run ning his business. Again, it is not that such a special treatment is not extended to pris oners who are "connected" to influential politicians and moneybags. We do know that they are kept in five star comforts, with all amenities at their command. Just recall that Ramlinga Raju of Satyam, who cold-bloodedly defrauded the company of Rs 7,000 crore over many years, is resting in Hyderabad jail with all conceivable comforts. What is new in this incident is the manner in which the most undeserving criminal is favoured by the government in utter disrespect of public sentiment.

All the three incidents evoked public indignation as they deserved to, and in all of them, patch-up measures were taken. These measures, inadequate as they are even to deal with their superficial mani festation, do not answer the deeper ques tion of the moral fall afflicting the polity.

MNS Menace in Maharashtra Raj Thackeray, known to have come out of his uncle's Shiv Sena for his personal ambition, has been aggressively playing a Marathi card to score over the Shiv Sena. Last year, in February, his MNS had clashed with SP followers in the wake of the latter's rally in Shivaji Park. In the same month, MNS workers attacked vendors and shopkeepers of north Indian origin in various parts of Maharashtra, and destroyed government property. They had also created a ruckus by beating innocent job-seekers who came from Bihar to take an exam in Mumbai, severely injuring many of them. Just to prove his bravado, Raj Thackeray has not only objected to the celebration of Uttar Bharatiya Diwas and opposed the Chhath Puja in Maharashtra, an outright offen sive on common Hindi-speaking folk, but also taken on film stars like Amitabh Bachchan for "trying to be an ambassador of UP rather than Maharashtra".

Earlier, he had launched an agitation over Jaya Bachchan's casual statement at a public function that she would speak in Hindi as her family came from Uttar Pradesh and threatened to ban all films of the Bachchan family in Mumbai and Maharashtra. After five days of protest, he declared a truce when Amitabh Bachchan apologised for his wife's remark. Raj Thackeray hailed it as a victory of the cause of Marathi people. In October, MNS activists stopped the screening of Karan Johar's new filmWake Up Sid in some cinema halls in the city. They were objecting to the use of the word "Bombay" instead of "Mumbai" in the film. Johar apologised to Thackeray and offered to display an apology in the film. The Thackerays, both Raj and Bal, knew that bringing famous Bollywood person alities to their knees gave them instant publicity as mard Marathas.

Raj Thackeray has systematically carved his image as the true protector of the Marathi interest and eaten into Shiv Sena's constituency in urban areas around Mumbai and Pune as shown by the results of recent elections to the Lok Sabha and the Maharashtra assembly.

It is not the political genius of Raj Thackeray alone that has catapulted him and his MNS into a significant political force in Maharashtra within a matter of three years; it is the tacit support of the ruling Congress combine which he capitalised on in propagating the Marathi agenda. It may be recalled that the then Congress Chief Minister V P Naik had created Bal Thackeray out of a small-time cartoonist to curb the "menace" of the leftist trade unions in the 1960s. Bal Thackeray suc ceeded in creating Marathi chauvinism and broke the backbone of "socialist Ma harashtra", the vision of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement. With his fascist outfit, he swiftly drifted from his Marathi plank to the Hindutva bandwagon, lured by political power. Raj Thackeray, aping his fascist uncle in every manner, was fated to be similarly propped up by the very same Congress after three decades, in a repeat of history, first as tragedy, then as farce as per Marx's famous aphorism. It is an open secret that the main beneficiary of his Marathi acrobatics is the Congress combine. For each of Raj's misdeeds, he could be incarcerated in jail for years but every time the government feigned taking action, which was calibrated so as to rein force the brand - Raj Thackeray.

The fascist build-up of the Thackerays blind their followers from seeing that their professed concern for Marathi and Maharashtra is just a ploy to fool them. While they preached Marathi pride, the Thackeray children went to upmarket English schools. Their attitude towards Marathi could be discerned from their insistence on the Anglicised spelling of their own Marathi names as Thackeray and not Thakre. While they enjoyed harassing the poor north Indian peddlers, they did not have qualms in negotiating deals with the Hindi elites. In 1996, Raj Thackeray organised a Michael Jackson concert in Mumbai, the first ever in India, supposedly to raise funds for the Shiv Udyog Sena. Nothing is heard of this Sena thereafter. What is seen is Raj Thackeray, along with Manohar Joshi (who is said to have lived onmadhukari (meals offered by people by turn) in his early years in Mumbai), instead of fighting for the jobs of Marathi mill workers of the National Textile Corporation's Kohinoor Mills, buying off its land for Rs 421 plus crore to build a mall there. The Thackerays never spoke against the inhuman eviction of slum-dwellers, many of them being Marathis, and, as a corollary, never went against the builder lobby. The latter has grown powerful during the Sena rule in the Mumbai municipal corporation and in the state in coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Thackerys always issued diktats as though they were the kings of Mumbai, nay, entire Maharashtra. Their followers do not realise that while speaking about Marathi pride, they have done incalculable harm to their interests. They decimated the dream of the martyrs of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement to create a socialist Maharashtra. By the over -projection of Shivaji for their brand-building exercise, they have rather insulted Maharashtra inasmuch as it is seen basking only in four-century-old glory and having not produced anyone worth remem bering thereafter. They have sullied the image of Maharashtra as a modern and progressive state by voicing parochial and medieval concerns. Maharashtra, despite its tremendous historical and natural advan tage, is fast falling behind other states in all developmental parameters. It is during the Sena-BJP rule in the state that fiscal profli gacy was inaugurated - the state's public debt rose from Rs 17,485 crore to over Rs 60,000 crore. Today the stock of debt of the state is Rs 1,58,520 crore, which is 25.8% of the gross state domestic product (GSDP), the highest for any state. The Thackerays' contribution is not insignifi cant in the decline of the state.

In the incident mentioned, the assembly suspended four of the MNS MLAs for four years. Interestingly, no action has been taken against Raj Thackeray, who has been behind this act as he issued a public statement threatening that no one would be allowed to take the oath in any language other than Marathi. While every newspa­per reported it, the chief minister is still searching for evidence. Before this contro­versy subsided, Raj Thackeray issued an other threat, this time to the State Bank of India that outsiders should not be allowed in the impending examination for recruit­ment of clerical staff being held in Mum bai. The state repeatedly creates a situa tion where any move Raj Thackeray makes, proves beneficial to the MNS. If it had act­ed, as it is supposed to, to stop the MNS' misdeeds in time, such a situation would not have arisen. The media also has been equally responsible in building up the myth of the Thackerays. Any and every act of theirs is publicised by the media in a manner that reinforces their image as the lords of the state.

Daylight Robbery

The Koda case depicts the great Jharkhand robbery of Rs 4,000 crore, one-fifth of its annual budget, by its own Chief Minister, Madhu Koda, once a construction labourer working in a mine, and associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He first became an MLA in 2000, getting elected on a BJP ticket and was made pan chayati raj minister in the Babulal Maran di ministry. In the subsequent assembly elections in 2005, he was denied a ticket by the BJP but got elected as an independ ent and became minister for mining and geology in the Arjun Munda ministry. Shortly thereafter, in 2006, he unsettled Munda and became the chief minister with the help of Congress, retaining the ministry with him. The entire loot was engineered during his three-year tenure as the minister of mining and geology. What is stunning in the Koda case is not the corruption or the magnitude of it, but the fact that a political upstart from a humble background could do it at that scale within a short period of three years. This raises the question as to how much the established politicians of elite back grounds would have amassed during their lifetime. The $1.4 trillion Indian black money stashed away in Swiss banks that was talked about during the elections but now no more may well contextualise the inference.

Soon after the Central Bureau of Inves tigation began questioning him about the scam, Koda got himself admitted to hospi tal on 3 November in a well-established tradition of the corrupt in this country. The audio-visual media screamed that Koda would be arrested soon after he was released from the hospital. He was re leased from the hospital on 8 November just to go canvassing for the elections. The Enforcement Directorate has filed the case under the Prevention of Money Launder­ing Act (PMLA) but the fact remains that he was still not arrested even after a fort­night. It is not a few days or months that have gone by but almost a year since Durga Oraon had filed an affidavit in the Jharkhand High Court giving most of the details of his operations. Interestingly, in 2005, Koda had declared his movable assets worth Rs 13 lakh, which by 2009, rose to over Rs 94 lakh. His immovable assets, as per his election declaration also doubled to over Rs 4 lakh during this period. The declaration of assets by politi cians may be a farce at one level as they are adept at "benami" operations, but could be revealing at another, only if our watchdog institutions did their work. How could politicians whose professed job is to serve the people beat even the most brilliant financial wizard in multi plying their worth is the question that haunts the public imagination. The media just write or speak about it as a narrative but scrupulously avoid commenting or asking the relevant questions to our insti tutions. Going by their declarations, at the minimum, politicians have managed to double or treble their wealth over a period of five years. Can the income tax department not simply scrutinise how they as a class have been repeatedly per­forming this miracle?

The modus operandi of Koda was to c ollect kickbacks from the mining companies for giving mining leases and from mining mafia to undertake the ille gal mining of coal and iron ore. The total volume of the illegal trade of iron ore and coal in Jharkhand is a whopping Rs 8,000 crore annually. Directly benefit ing from this are more than 500 mining mafias, operating at different levels as well as the local authorities and mine officials, who benefit by simply turning their back to what is happening. Of course, this happens in utter violation of the guidelines set by the government under the Mines and Minerals Develop ment and Regulation Act. This kickback would be taken over by Koda's close aides who would then launder it, using hawala networks, into investments abroad. There are stories that one of his aides had deposited a whopping Rs 991 crore in cash with the Union Bank of India, a public sector bank. The chairman and managing director (CMD) of this bank claimed procedural compliance insofar as KYC was available for the account in which it was deposited, saying that bullion transactions are done in cash. But being 1,98,200 times the Rs 50,000 as the KYC threshold, should the bank not alert the concerned institutions about such a transaction? The CMD's explanation that bullion transactions happen in cash may be understandable but is it irrespec tive of magnitude? These are the obvious questions which may be answered differ ently in the bureaucratic sphere but in the public sphere they may never get satisfactory answers.

Madhu Koda expectedly called the investigation politically motivated and threatened to divulge the "real" names at the appropriate time. There is no doubt that there are names of political bigwigs associated with this robbery. It is a fact that most of the mining businesses, legal or illegal, are in the hands of political mafia well-entrenched in power. The neoliberal policy of privatisation of mines has opened the doors to this loot. When the fence itself eats the crop, what could be expected from such a system? It would be a gross understatement if one calls the kind of loot of the country that is happen ing today as just corruption. Corruption used to be a petty baksheesh sought by minions in the administrative machinery. Today it is taken for granted because the people who are supposed to curb it have taken to daylight robbery. The country of which 77% population languishes at an income of less than Rs 20 a day without any safety net whatsoever, has its rulers robbing the country of trillions of dollars, the kind of money that could wipe off all the development deficit of the entire country in one shot. The state action against the criminals, instead of becom ing a deterrent against the crime, result antly proves a motivator for others to indulge in bigger crimes.

The Shame of the State

The Manu Sharma story reveals how the rich and powerful can get away with practi cally anything in this country. Manu Sharma epitomises the feudal brazenness of the Indian elite. He had shot a bar maid dead merely for not serving him and his friends drinks at 2 am, when the bar was long closed. In the case that ran for seven years he had "managed" all the witnesses, turned them hostile and got himself ac­quitted in February 2006. In an unprece dented outcry by ordinary people against this blatant miscarriage of justice, fol lowed by an audio-video media campaign, the case was readmitted in the Delhi High Court in March 2006. It was tried on a fast-track basis and based on the evidence that was surprisingly overlooked by the trial court, the high court, in its verdict on 18 December 2006, held Manu Sharma guilty of murdering Jessica Lall and sen tenced him to life imprisonment. After conviction, Manu was imprisoned in the Tihar Jail. An appeal filed in the Supreme Court of India is pending judgment. It is the extraordinary public pressure that got Manu Sharma to Tihar Jail but how long the jail would be able to hold him there is anybody's guess.

Even without waiting for the outcome of this judicial process, Manu Sharma was freed by the Delhi government to frolic around the Chandigarh and Delhi bars and pick up quarrels with people of his ilk. His parole application was disposed of with astonishing speed within 20 days, granting him a parole of two months by the lieutenant-governor of Delhi. The grounds were that Sharma needed to at tend to his ailing mother and also to look after the family business which was suf fering in his absence. There are scores of innocent people rotting in Indian jails without trial or conviction; there are some who have been granted bail but who still languish in jail as they could not manage securities with impossible solvencies courts imposed and there are those whose im prisonment directly spelt a death warrant for their entire family. They would have far better grounds to get parole than Manu Sharma. Would the lieutenant-governor have granted them parole? Surely, they would not have a business to look after but they would have their mother on deathbed longing to see her son. There are a number of such questions that could be asked of the government. The Delhi government could easily check the medical condition of Manu Sharma's mother, who was a socialite. Of course, Manu Sharma had to look after his business - the business of at tending parties and frolicking in city bars with friends. That is precisely what he did during his parole.

It is not a question of what Manu Shar ma did or did not do during his parole, it is the basic question how the Delhi govern ment granted parole to him in utter disre gard of the public sentiment. It imagined that its action to oblige the Sharma's high power contacts would not be noticed by people and in any case it may not evoke a public outcry again. It is rather Manu Sharma's daredevilry thatexposed him in the public glare and he had to prematurely return to his cell in Tihar jail.  And with that was exposed the misdemeanour of the Delhi government.

People's Silence

The very fact that these incidents are taken as normal occurrence in the country re­veals the moral degeneration and "lumpe nisation" of the polity. The façade of de­mocracy under which this gangrenous de generation is hiding is cracking under tre­mendous strain and exposing the fangs of the system but not many even want to see them. There is widespread cynicism that things have always been like this and that they can never be changed. There could be several reasons for this: The people long mired in surviving feudal culture do not find it amiss when the ruling classes indulge in highhanded or blatantly amoral acts. The rot has been around for so long that people have lost their senses to smell it. The people had struggled enough in the past but are disillusioned now as nothing came of it. While there could be many such reasons that can be cited for the cur rent cynicism, there is something that has

resulted in a transformation of the moral fabric, which has reinforced the existing cynicism in a significant measure. That something can be identified as neoliberal paradigm that has descended over the globe since the 1980s.

The neoliberal paradigm has pulver ised society into vulnerable individuals who are pitted against the rest of the world for their survival. While it provides a free field to the elite to exploit and ac cumulate to the hilt, and to those in the middle band, aspirations to make it big, to those at the bottom it makes the strug gle so much more difficult. The latter have to struggle harder to survive lest they slip off the cliff and vanish. If they direct their struggle against the systemic forces that created the crises for them, the state, the protector of the system comes out with its brute force to crush them. Antici pating people's resistance, neoliberal states have enhanced their repressive prowess many times over. In a bid to nip public opposition in the bud, it has al ready diminished whatever little demo cratic space there was for the people to express their dissatisfaction. The people are driven to strive for their individual ends by all means, fair or foul, but not to question the system. It is a veritable threat by the state that hangs over their heads. The sheer magnitude of the power asym metry between the state and the individual potentially dampens people's spirit to speak out against the misdemeanour of the state and reinforces an attitude of cynicism.

While this is the broad story of people being reduced to discreet individuals, there are scores of those at the margins passively bearing the brunt of the neoliberal order, who still live as collectives. They strongly disapprove the status quo and are ready to act for the change. The incipient anger of these people is however suppressed, brand ing them as Maoists or terrorists. In this process, the state increasingly bares its real character and in turn helps swell the ranks of rebels. The system is thus caught in a vicious cycle, which eliminates the possibility of any piecemeal change and only anticipates a big bang revolution. The Thackerays, the Kodas and the Sharmas just remind us of this inevitability.

Economic and Political Weekly, January 9, 2010