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In scam central, corruption allegations alone might not be enough to engineer change.
Despite new efforts to publicize the criminal records and outsized assets of politicians, the number of members of parliament who face charges of crimes including robbery, extortion and murder increased from 128 in the 2004 elections to 162 in 2009, while the average lawmaker's assets grew to $1 million apiece from around $400,000.
True to form, while this season of scams brought the legislature grinding to a halt, there was no sign that the government might fall. Moreover, with the next national election not scheduled until 2014, unless it loses a confidence vote the Congress will have more than enough time for damage control. And that's where the renewed focus on fundamentalism gets interesting — if we look back at the most famous corruption scandal in Indian history.
Though it certainly contributed to his defeat, the Bofors defense kickbacks scandal, revealed in 1987, was only the final straw for then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Like the present, the late 1980s were halcyon days for the "India story." Rajiv, who had not yet turned 40, was hailed as India's John F. Kennedy, and his efforts to open up the economy ushered in industrial growth of 5.5 percent and manufacturing growth of 8.9 percent a year.
But during Rajiv's term, Sikh terrorism had spread, militancy had begun in Kashmir, reporters had begun to call his intercession in Sri Lanka's civil war "India's Vietnam," and two catastrophic droughts had struck the poor even as his economic policies drew criticism for pandering to the rich, according to Ramachandra Guha, the author of India After Gandhi.
Moreover, instead of ousting an implicated cabinet minister — as Manmohan Singh has done — Rajiv sacked the man who had brought the irregularities to light.
Even then, Rajiv might have been able to weather the storm if not for the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. The BJP capitalized on a new enthusiasm for the god Ram and the claim that Rajiv had adopted a policy of Muslim appeasement to increase their tally of parliamentary seats from just four in 1984 to 88 in 1989 — tipping the balance in favor of the National Front coalition.
And three years later, after Rajiv's assassination, the Ram temple movement and the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya — believed by Hindus to be Ram's birthplace — began the rise of the BJP as a legitimate national rival to the once unassailable Congress.
With the Congress itself now endeavoring to turn the national dialogue back to multicultural secularism versus Hindu nationalism, the Bofors comparison shows how much India has changed — and how much it remains the same.
Today, in stark contrast to 1992 or 2002, the Congress believes that the BJP's failures to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment after the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai indicates that the opposition party's fundamentalist ideology is a weakness, rather than a strength. But at the same time, today's daily allegations about the back room deals behind seemingly every Indian fortune — and the public outrage that trusted journalists, too, might be corrupt — suggest that in the broader arenas of business and politics the wide-eyed enthusiasm for the "new India" was mostly plain naivete.
During the Bofors era, when a former gas station attendant built Reliance Industries into India's most powerful company by dint of his political connections, every large business house maintained lobbyists in New Delhi to lever an advantage from the so-called License-Permit Raj, according to Guha.
But cutting the red tape associated with the planned economy wasn't enough to destroy — or even dent — the culture of corruption, the ongoing 2G telecom license debacle shows. The corruption-free information technology boom of the 1990s was an aberration, because there were no regulations governing IT and thus no bribes to pay. But now that India's economic growth has shifted to mining, telecom, property development and public works, the continued dominance of crony capitalism is becoming clear.
The only thing that's changed in this era — often called India's Gilded Age, in allusion to the freewheeling decades that created the fortunes of America's robber barons — is the scale.
"Business has never been as powerful, as interfering, and as assertive and self-confident as it is now," Bidwai said.