Courts May Alter India Politics As They Push Probes of Corrupt Leaders

When the new president of the opposition Congress Party, Sitaram Kesri, declared his personal assets last week, the event went almost unnoticed by the Indian media. Among the former party treasurer's modest possessions were one refrigerator, one television set, and an air conditioner. His taxable income last year: $1,480.

Although such disclosures are routine in the West, Mr. Kesri was only the second politician in India to voluntarily declare his assets, despite a 1989 law making it illegal not to. There was nothing altruistic about his declaration. It was a move aimed at pressuring the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe deeper into political corruption, something it has been reluctant to do.

That reluctance has been targeted by India's increasingly activist judiciary, which has demanded that the entire political establishment be held accountable to the law.

Through Public Interest Litigations, media probes, and a restive public fed up with corruption, the judiciary has come to occupy the center stage of politics.

By declaring his assets, Kesri has put the onus on his political rivals to do the same, secure in the knowledge that if their assets are found to be disproportionate to their earnings, he will have the courts on his side, forcing the CBI, India's equivalent of the FBI, to act.

"Corruption has now become the No. 1 political issue in India," says Vishv Gupta, one of India's small but growing circle of social activists using the courts to clean up the government and politics.

From demanding that action be taken against pollution, to questioning the independence of the CBI, individuals like Mr. Gupta are changing the face of Indian politics today.

Last January's so-called "Hawala Scam," which involved $20 million in illegal payments to politicians and started the current avalanche of corruption cases, might have been buried forever had a group of journalists and lawyers not filed a 1993 Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court. The litigation forced the judiciary to question the political independence of the CBI, drew the public's attention to other cases of corruption, and led to charges being laid against dozens of politicians.

Gupta, a former tax commissioner, says the current anticorruption drive will be a turning point in Indian politics, the directions for which were laid as far back as 1989. In that year, an amendment in the Prevention of Corruption Act was passed that extended the definition of a public servant to include politicians, obligating them to declare their assets and ending any ambiguity about their immunity from prosecution.

THE independence of the judiciary and the potential for politicians like Kesri to use corruption as a weapon to disarm opponents are part of the long-overdue process of cleansing the political system, Gupta says. "With the Prevention of Corruption Act as it now stands, the freedom from political interference of the judiciary, and the immense political instability in the country ... India is probably heading toward a less corrupt society."

As well as taking a firmer stand against corrupt individuals, the judiciary has also brought the conduct of India's top corruption watchdog, the CBI, under greater scrutiny.

According to attorney K. Madhavan, the courts have ensured that the CBI is less prone to political pressure than ever, despite the fact that it is directly accountable to the prime minister.

"You can't fault the courts for what they are doing," says Mr. Madhavan, who quit the CBI over political interference in his investigations into a 1992 securities scam. "And in any event the government brought this upon itself by its own conduct, by intervening too much and influencing the CBI's investigations."

Former CBI joint director Shantonu Sen agrees. "All this would not have happened without judicial activism," he says. "The system seems to be working. It is not a closed society that we live in. You cannot indulge in corruption and cover your tracks all the time."

For the Indian public, which for years had resigned itself to political coverups every time a new corruption scandal surfaced, the last 10 months have seen some dramatic changes. New names and charges are being added so fast to the list of allegedly corrupt politicians that one newspaper has started a daily "Scam Scan" column to help its readers keep abreast of who is being charged.

"For the first time in independent India, politicians are scared of the law, are scared of the courts, and that is how it should be," Madhavan says.

Among those politicians whose fortunes are being closely monitored is former Congress Party leader P.V. Narasimha Rao, who made history last month by becoming the first Indian prime minister, in or out of office, to face court in a criminal case.

Having lost the party presidency to Kesri after being charged with fraud in September, Mr. Rao is under pressure to quit his post of Congress Party parliamentary leader as well.

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