At a seminar in Delhi a few years ago, a soft-spoken, petite woman in a crumpled sari was one of the panelists. She engaged in the debate and then quietly left in a self-driven Maruti car with hardly anyone noticing. Except for her associates, few others would have known that they had been in the company of the prime minister's daughter, Prof Upinder Singh, a history professor in Delhi University.
The prime minister has faced many charges in recent times. What no one can ever accuse Manmohan Singh of is any attempt to use his position to benefit his family. This may seem no special badge of honour, but in the context of what has been happened before and since in this country, it is quite a remarkable achievement, proof that it is possible to be untouched by the capital's VVIP culture even while being the prime minister of the country.
Since the era of Indira Gandhi, who allowed her son Sanjay to benefit from the largesse of a Haryana chief minister of another era (remember Bansi Lal and Maruti?), almost every Indian PM has had to face the accusation of allowing proximity to power to benefit their relatives in some form. In that sense, Singh and his family stand out as glorious exceptions to the rule.
Singh is perhaps fortunate that his family has been primarily in academia and, thus, is less likely to be influenced by a charmed power circle. Robert Vadra is a businessman, and to that extent, was always more susceptible to the charge of misusing his position for monetary benefit. Ditto the case with another businessman-turned-neta Jaganmohan Reddy, son of the late Andhra chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy. Both Vadra and Reddy have every right to be in business, but both, as a result, have to also explain as to just how their assets multiplied several times over when their families were in power.
Nor is this any longer just about Vadra or even a Jaganmohan Reddy. This is about a wider popular anger of an 'aam aadmi' (yes, mango people!) against a 'khaas aadmi' 'lal batti' culture where certain individuals are deemed to get benefits and privileges that are not available to the ordinary citizen. An aam aadmi will face an Income Tax scrutiny for the smallest investment made; a khaas aadmi will face no such problem. An aam aadmi looking to buy a house finds it very difficult to make a clean transaction; a khaas aadmi can perhaps get away with a similar high value sale. An aam aadmi must stand in every queue, a khaas aadmi can easily break the line. And yes, an aam aadmi must be frisked at every airport; a khaas aadmi will not face any such inconvenience.
The likes of an Arvind Kejriwal have astutely tapped into this growing rage against an unequal system and looked for specific 'targets' who are seen to symbolise the privileges of the powerful. The evidence need not be foolproof, criminality need not be established. But in an atmosphere where there is a general 'perception' that netas and their influential kith and kin are given special treatment, the anti-corruption campaign has become synonymous with a desire of the aam aadmi to get 'even' with the khaas aadmi who is seen to be unaccountable. You don't need to establish a quid pro quo in the dealings of the rich and powerful; the widespread 'perception' that such cosy networks exist is enough to convince people that undue benefits have been conferred.
To a large extent, these perceptions do mirror the emerging reality of the spectacular growth of the 'political entrepreneur' across the country. These are essentially individuals who have built their business empires primarily through their access to political power. Certain industries which are poorly regulated and remain heavily dependent on the discretionary powers of government have been particularly prone to the influence of such political entrepreneurs: mining, real estate and private education are good examples in recent times of the large scale profiteering to be made from linking political to business interests.
Is it any surprise, for example, that more than half the elected MLAs from the prized real estate belt of Mumbai and Pune are connected to the construction lobby? Or that realty companies in Andhra Pradesh have a strong representation in the state assembly? Or that Karnataka's mining lobby can decide on who will be the state's chief minister? Or that education barons in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are politically influential? Or that every chief minister in Haryana has used the state's proximity to Delhi to make windfall profits through land acquisitions?
Maharashtra, with its high stakes, has perhaps shown the way, and a senior official in Mumbai's Mantralaya explains just how it works. Till 30 years ago, ministers in the much prized urban development ministry would get a couple of benami flats in exchange for changing land use rules and sanctioning housing projects. Over time, the deals got 'formalised' and the minister would get flats plus a certain percentage of the profit. Now, some ministers and their families have set up investment companies that directly acquire the project and corner the benefits for themselves. No longer are the deals 'benami', but are directly done in the name of the family firm.
For much too long, all this has only been whispered in the power corridors. Now, in the age of 24x7 media, Right to Information activism and public interest litigation, the lava from a dormant volcano is beginning to spill out. The aam aadmi is seeking revenge and has put the VVIPs on notice. The message is clear: either be like Prof Upinder Singh and remain one of 'us' or risk the wrath of a noisy, empowered civil society.
The views expressed by the author are personal