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IT comes as no surprise that our political class – across all divides – continues to be held in such low esteem. Barely had we recovered from the unusual show of unanimity by our Parliamentarians – whittling down the recommendations of the Supreme Court and the Election Commission regarding the disclosures relating to income/assets and criminal records of those seeking electoral office – that the country was rocked by the petrol pump allotment scam.

In a praiseworthy feat of investigative reporting, The Indian Express revealed that in the last couple of years, despite reforms in the petroleum sector, individuals enjoying proximity to ruling party politicians managed to corner a bulk of the dealerships to run petrol pumps, sell kerosene and LPG. This, when the system had been ostensibly reformed to cut out the ‘earlier practice’ of discretionary quotas in the hands of the Minister/Ministry. Disingenuously, it was claimed that the final selections are made by Dealer Selection Boards headed by retired judges and with membership restricted to representatives of petroleum companies.

True, that the prime minister, once the scandal surfaced and rocked the Parliament, immediately ordered cancellation of all dealerships awarded in the last couple of years. But, and this is important, all demands to properly investigate the matter and go into each individual case were stonewalled. Clearly, the fact that the ‘tainted’ list might include a number of genuine cases, and that the courts would ‘stay’ any executive order which violates previous contractual understanding, was seen as irrelevant.

Even more distressing was the ‘war of words’ exchanged between the politicians. The ruling party, while ineffectually trying to insist that there had been no wrongdoing and that the cancellations had been ordered only because the ‘opposition’ was trying to ‘make an issue’, gleefully pointed to the beneficiaries from the other side. Also stressed was the fact that such patronage was an integral element of our political culture and tradition, ipso facto admitting that the BJP was only following in the footsteps of the Congress.

The principal opposition party, while sidestepping the question of the many beneficiaries from its own ranks, tried to draw a fine distinction between patronage and making money in the awarding of contracts. But nothing was more disgusting than the erstwhile petroleum minister, Satish Sharma, taking the moral high ground. That this worthy had been reprimanded by the Supreme Court and even ordered to pay an exemplary fine of Rs 60 lakh was conveniently forgotten as the attack was mounted on the ruling party.

One suspects that the subsequent scam awarding prized land in central Delhi to institutions enjoying proximity to the ruling party, even more the Sangh Parivar, will go the same way. As always, we will be informed that all procedures were scrupulously followed and, if that does not wash, that the Congress did the same thing when it was in power. Like in the petrol pump case, or any other that we might think of, there is no serious attempt to reform the system, both by making it more transparent and by minimising the role of the executive in arenas where it should not be.

We have just completed 55 years as an independent nation, 52 of them as a constitutional, democratic republic. But more than the satisfaction and pride we as citizens should be experiencing in having weathered many storms and still retaining our democracy, the mood is turning increasingly black as each day greets us with a new scandal.

Fortunately, the actions of our President, both in his various addresses to the nation and the visit to Gujarat, have struck a welcome note. Many, including the present commentator, had expressed concern about the manner in which the run-up to the election to the highest constitutional position had been conducted. But President Kalam has, without sacrificing propriety, gently pulled up our political class for being uncaring and self-centred. His message to the children, to be unrelenting in their pursuit of larger goals without undermining the values marking our civilizational ethos is timely. One only hopes that the elders among us, particularly those in positions of power, take note and act.

Equally, it is crucial that larger civil society activates itself and engages in the political process. For a start we must push for a speedy approval to the Freedom of Information Bill and lobby for a scrapping of the Official Secrets Act to increase the information available in the public domain. Only through increased transparency can we hope to institute a measure of accountability on our rulers. Otherwise, there is no escape from the continuing politics of loot and patronage.

Harsh Sethi

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