Tue, 15 Aug 2000

India's chief graft buster means business

NEW DELHI: At 61, N. Vittal is still the sort of man who makes people half his age feel exhausted.

He speaks rapidly and incessantly, underscoring points with jabs of the fingers and ideas drawn from Hindu mythology, Socrates and de Tocqueville.

Aside from giving a dozen speeches a month all over the country, he writes newspaper columns and books. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day for prayers, reads 10 newspapers, takes a one-hour walk with his wife, and then is ready for work.

And oh yes, technically, he is retired. His post-retirement job entails fighting some of the most entrenched vested interests in the country.

Vittal is India's Central Vigilance Commissioner -- a watchdog and prosecutor of corrupt officials in central government departments and a string of mammoth public-sector corporations. India's primary investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), reports to him.

He has made waves before at the helm of government departments, but none as significant as the one last year, when he posted on the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) website the names of several hundred government officials indicted for corruption.

There was an uproar. The media was unsure what to make of it. Was Vittal a hero? A gadfly? A liability? Editorials urged moderation and warned against publicity-seeking stunts.

A parliamentary committee moved recently to clip his wings by recommending that the CVC's decisions should be taken by a group of three. The committee tried to play down the move.

"Vittal still has all the powers. He can do whatever he likes," said upper-house member Kuldip Nayar.

But he added ominously: "Some of us may have disagreed with the publicity. I personally would warn him that he should not go the Seshan way. Seshan had all the powers and destroyed himself."

T.N. Seshan, a plain-speaking former top bureaucrat who served as Chief Election Commissioner, was lauded for his tough measures against electoral fraud and corruption. But many politicians and bureaucrats turned against him, and when he ran for President, he was soundly defeated. India's President is elected by Parliament.

The comparison is telling. Seshan was known as much for his incisiveness as for his abrasive manner. Vittal, appointed less than two years ago, is not as abrasive, but no less forthright -- in an environment where rocking the boat is considered dangerous.

The problem for many is that he outshines everyone else in the CVC, running a virtual one-man show. "In a democracy, powers and decision-making should not be concentrated in the hands of one person," said MP Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi.

Vittal rejects the accusations that he is a publicity hound. "I have taken corruption out of the closet...

"I am the first person to say India is a corrupt country. We are 73 out of 99 in the Transparency International corruption index. I want to bring the issue into civil society, and that I can do by creating awareness."

More than 90 percent of the readers of The Hindustan Times polled on the issue approved of Vittal's methods, and he cites that frequently.

New Delhi office manager Virender Rawat told The Straits Times: "He is doing a great job, but he will not be allowed to succeed."

To those who say he oversteps the CVC's limits, Vittal says: "I ask the people of India, do they want to check corruption or do they want to check the CVC?"

His machinery does not look impressive, but actually runs quite deep. At the CVC's head office in New Delhi, he has some 289 staff members, and he has 589 officers across the country whose activities, combined with communications from the public, generate about 110 letters and 40 files a day across Vittal's desk.

The heads of vigilance operations in public-sector corporations report to him also.

His officers do their own investigations, while criminal cases are handed over to the CBI.

"Our goal is to see that once the inquiry starts, it is finished in six months," he said.

"Singapore is a model for me, it's a clean city, a clean administration," he added. "Nick Leeson was punished in two years. Here, it took seven years for Harshad Mehta to be punished. Justice delayed is justice denied."

Mehta is the Indian bull trader who brought about the collapse of the Bombay Stock Exchange.

"It is a fundamental right of every Indian to have corruption- free service," he insists. One of his proposals is to have corruption-free service listed as a right in the Constitution.

"People criticize me, saying, "Which other country has such a right?' I say, "Yes, Singapore doesn't need it because Singapore is a clean country; in that table, 72 countries are less corrupt than India, they don't need it; 26 are more corrupt... do we want to be like them?' "

He has coaxed the members of the Confederation of Indian Industry to agree on a resolution not to use bribes in the course of their business.

He has also offered that the CVC computerize and publicize the names of anybody indicted for corruption, in a sort of national blacklist.

"So there will be an independent agency, and corrupt people who are flourishing and flaunting their wealth unashamedly will know there is a possibility someone will squeal on them and their names will be publicized," he explains.

Vittal admits to facing an uphill battle, but it is not a new experience.

He was once Secretary of the Department of Electronics in the central government, and chairman of the Telecom Commission. Then, he took on the powerful Department of Telecom unions which opposed liberalization.

He was fond of saying: "Who is more important, the 400,000 union members or the 600 million people waiting for telephones?"

Ultimately, he failed to break the unions, leaving a subsequent government to implement telecom liberalization. But he made an important contribution by breaking ground and bringing issues into the open.

As for his current mission as national graft-buster, he has this to say: "I'm just doing my job. Whatever job is given to me, I take seriously. It is, ultimately, individuals who bring change."

-- The Straits Times / Asia News Network