The Corrupt Are Not Afraid of the Law: Justice N Santosh Hegde
In the run-up to the Assembly elections in Karnataka, senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta spoke with N Santosh Hegde, former judge of the Supreme Court of India, former Solicitor General of India and former Lokayukta in the state of Karnataka. The interview focuses on corruption as a poll issue in the Southern state, the “unethical” ways of electioneering, and the “apathetic” approach of the voters. Please read the near-verbatim transcript of the interview below.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: Hello and welcome to NewsClick. I am Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.
The Assembly elections in Karnataka are scheduled to take place on May 10. The outcome of the elections would be known on May 13. There are several issues that influence the preferences of voters across India, across the world and certainly in Karnataka. What will those issues be? Will it be the Hijab issue or tensions between the Hindus and Muslims? To what extent would caste factors play a role? But for the purpose of discussion, I'm going to focus on one issue – corruption. And to what extent would corruption be an important issue in the elections that are going to take place very soon? And I'm very happy to welcome over a Zoom call all the way from Bengaluru, the person I had interviewed almost exactly five years ago and I asked him precisely the same set of questions. I'm very happy to welcome N. Santosh Hegde. Now almost 82, former judge of the Supreme Court of India, former Solicitor General of India and the Lokayukta or the people's ombudsman in Karnataka from 2006 to 2008. Thank you so much, Mr. Santosh Hegde for giving us and the viewers of NewsClick your time.
When we talked before the 2018 Assembly elections, you expressed your sadness and disappointment at how the Bharatiya Janata Party had fielded former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate. Ostensibly, because he had been given a clean chit by courts of law, by the Central Bureau of Investigation. Earlier, your report had shown how he and his family members, his sons, and his son-in-law had benefited directly and indirectly from the scandal relating to illegal exports of iron ore from Karnataka. And you pointed out; you gave specific names – you named JSW, Jindal Steelworks and its head, Sajjan Jindal, you named the Adani Group, you named several large corporates and you all pointed out the manner in which large amounts of money went to private trusts, family education trusts that were controlled by Mr Yediyurappa’s family. After your report, Mr Yediyurappa became one of the few chief ministers, sitting chief ministers of a state in India who had to spend time behind bars for a little over three weeks. Then you know what happened, after the 2018 elections, the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) government didn't last. Mr Yediyurappa was back in power as the chief minister and then in 2021, he was jettisoned and replaced by Mr Basavaraj Bommai. But corruption continued to grow and I'm going to ask you to comment on some of the major scandals, corruption scandals in Karnataka. But how do you react to the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi again wooing Mr Yediyurappa – ostensibly because he is an influential leader of the Lingayat community in Karnataka? And we know they are really influential. And nine out of the 23 chief ministers of Karnataka have been Lingayats. So, I'm asking you to sort of weave in the caste factor and the anti-incumbency factor into whether or not corruption will be a major issue in the run-up to the elections. Your views, sir.
N Santosh Hegde: I'm not going to speak specifically about Mr Yediyurappa only. I'm going to speak in general about what corruption is doing in the state of Karnataka and the present elections also. I start by saying in my 82 years of life I have seen many elections but the present election that is being—what happened in the month of May, the electioneering also—I have never seen such low-level electioneering in my life. There are no holds barred, no law followed, and no ethics whatsoever in the electioneering process by all the parties that are contesting elections.
You asked me about the question of corruption being involved as an issue in the election this time. I don't think that's an issue at all. The people of Karnataka seem to have accepted corruption as a thing that we have to live with. Because if you see the promises that are being made by all the political parties which according to me is nothing but corruption in my opinion. Impossible things are being promised and I think the voters are accepting it. For example, one political party has said that if they are elected to power, they will take the reservation percentage to 75%, knowing very well the judgment of the Supreme Court has specifically stated any reservation over and above 50% is unconstitutional. In spite of that, they are making promises that they are going to have a reservation to the extent of 75%. What does it indicate? Are you not wooing the voters on the promise which is unconstitutional? But they are not bothered about it. One party has made 13 promises assuring financial aid. And one of them is giving two lakhs to a girl who is willing to marry a farmer boy, a boy who is involved in the farming profession. So, what is the meaning of this? Is this a social reform? Is it for the benefit of the society? Another party promises free bus travel and government buses for women. Look at the promises that are being made.
Guha Thakurta: In Delhi, women are allowed to travel free on buses. Every politician always makes these promises before the elections. But it’s a separate matter that many of these promises are not adhered to…
Hegde: Yes, but is it not corruption? To offer all these things to receive votes? Maybe he knows that if he comes to power, he won’t have to implement this. But would it not amount to false representation inducing people to vote on the basis of false promises? Is it not a type of a...
Guha Thakurta: Justice Hegde, I get your point. But are you not being excessively cynical when you say the people of Karnataka have come to accept corruption as a way of life? I mean, the opinion polls indicate that the present regime, the present government headed by Mr Basavaraj Bommai, is extremely unpopular. And one of the reasons for its unpopularity is corruption. And the brazen kind of corruption that we've seen, I mean, in the last year or so alone, we've seen several major scandals. I'll just name a few. The state government has been accused by the Karnataka Contractors’ Association that they are taking a 40% cut on every contract; they have written to the Prime Minister of India. We've had the Lingayat seer Dingaleshwara Swami of Balehosur Mutt accuse the government officials of taking a 30% commission to release funds for that religious body. We've had associations of schools writing to the Prime Minister that the Education Department of Karnataka is asking them for bribes for the recognition certificates. I mean, one after the other, we are seeing scandal after scandal. Would this have some impact on the electorate?
Hegde: According to me, no, because the methodology of voting is such that it is based only on caste basis or religious basis. That's the foundation of the voting at least in Karnataka. That's why people get re-elected in spite of the fact there are serious allegations against them. The percentage of people against whom criminal cases are pending, if you look into it, how dare they contest elections unless being a criminal is a qualification to be elected? That is not confined to any one political party. What you are saying now is because BJP's in power and they are reusing that power to make money only. And similar was the case when it was the previous government but not the 40%; it was much less. Maybe because the rupee’s value was more than.
Guha Thakurta: No, I am just saying, I repeat the point, you are sounding excessively cynical. Suppose hypothetically, if you suppose there is a change of regime, and the present government is voted out of power. Would you not acknowledge that corruption was one of the factors? I am asking a hypothetical question. I accept your point that there are levels of corruption, degrees of corruption. Somebody is a 40% corruption regime. Somebody is a 30%, somebody is a 25%. But don't ordinary voters choose between the lesser evil?
Hegde: No, I don't think that is the criteria at all in Karnataka. Otherwise, BJP would not have got as many seats as they got in the last election. Of course, they didn't get the majority, no party had the majority and by defection, they came to power. But they did get a large number of votes. If corruption was one of the grounds, they should not have got even 5% of the votes. It is not so. According to me, corruption is no issue at all in this. And promises are the most important thing according to me, which attracts people to vote. And that's why such promises are being made by all political parties.
Guha Thakurta: Sir, your father was one of the founders of the Janata Party. I am talking about 1976 when as a Supreme Court judge, he was superseded by Indira Gandhi's team.
Guha Thakurta: I stand corrected. What I'm saying is that at different points of time, you have, you know, you adhere to the advice of Mr L K Advani. This is again regarding when the government reinstated a person who had been suspended. But you, your report on the illegal iron ore scandal… people still talk about it. People talk about the involvement of the Adani group, of the JSW group. We saw how the resources that belong to the people of this country were looted. We've also seen how the judiciary has been corrupted. Gali Janardhana Reddy spent three years in jail; he's out. But he's no longer a part of the BJP. The infamous Bellary brothers… there were court restrictions on them. So, I'm saying that should you take an excessively cynical view that everybody accepts corruption, degrees of corruption? And these don't matter when people vote. Only religious considerations matter, only caste considerations matter. I am repeatedly trying to suggest that you may be excessively cynical in your views.
Hegde: Could be, could be because of the fact that I have seen corruption and the consequences of corruption from very close quarters as working as Lokayukta. Take for example this election now. Hundreds and hundreds of crores of rupees have been seized by the investigating agency being carried for the purpose of electioneering. What does it mean? Where was that money going? And it's from different political parties, it's not confined to any one political party. And if people are not willing to accept money and vote, do you think that much of money is going to be used in the electioneering? I mean these are the bases on which I have become a cynic. And look at the people who are contesting. You see the assets declared by the people who are contesting from all different political parties including the independent candidates. Hundreds and hundreds of crores of rupees; for some of them, thousands of crores of rupees. Where did they get the money? Did they pay their income tax?
Guha Thakurta: I know I've been to your house in Bangalore, I've been to where you stay, you stay in a flat. You surely don't own hundreds or thousands of crores, but you've seen the corruption in the judiciary as well. You've seen what happened to the institution called the Lokayukta. You saw the accusations against some of the judges who replaced you. Be that as it may. You were an integral part of the India Against Corruption movement that was led by people like Anna Hazare. Then you were not happy when the Aam Aadmi Party was formed. You felt that the India Against Corruption movement was confined to the urban middle classes. It didn’t go to the rural areas. But over this period of time, we've seen nine years of the Narendra Modi government. Corruption is an issue, not just in Karnataka, but in the country. What do you have to say? The BJP came to power, it went to town that the Congress government had been corrupt. There was the 2G spectrum scam. There was the Commonwealth Games scam. There was the Coalgate scam. The BJP came to power on the issue that they were going to provide a cleaner government, a less corrupt government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi even had this pre-election slogan, "Na khaaunga, na khaane dunga". Neither will I accept bribes nor will I allow anybody else to accept bribes. Where have come in the last decade or so?
Hegde: That's why I say that corruption has not been sidelined or kept apart. It is an issue in the election. But unfortunately, a larger section of the society is not bothered about it. They accept it as a matter of impossibility – the corruption in the administration. That's why this government has not done anything to reduce the corruption which was there in the previous government. At least in Karnataka, there is an allegation that the government of Karnataka is receiving 40% [commission]. I am told the opposition said during our time it was only 10% corruption. What is this explanation? Corruption is there in every walk of life. I may be a cynic. The fact is that I have seen corruption and the consequences of corruption from very close quarters. That's why I have been following this election, not with the political view of who wins and who loses. For me, NOTA is the only voting [option].
Guha Thakurta: Let me again intervene here. Even if people press the ‘none of the above’ button, still somebody has to be elected.
Hegde: But it will send a message to the political parties: people are not believing you anymore. When NOTA gets the highest number of votes, they will realise, I am hoping that they will realise that they have to change. Today, politics is only for making money, not for service.
Guha Thakurta: So, once again, with all due humility and I have great respect for the amazing work that you have done. You have tried in your way to fight against corrupt practices. Today, you were born on June 16, 1940. You are 82 today. What I am saying is that you are not just being cynical, aren't you being excessively idealistic? I mean, can we hope to live in a world completely free of corruption where every person in politics is a sadhu or a saint? I mean, we can't be... Don't we have to look at lessening corruption? And what is the role that individuals like you and civil society have to play in this?
Hegde: Let me tell you, I have tried to analyse corruption and the cause of corruption very much. But I couldn't find a really good ground for that. Now, according to me, people who are indulging in corruption are not afraid of the law. And the judicial system in India supports that with delays. People don't get convicted up till about 35 or 40 years and all because of the hierarchy of courts that we have. There is no medicine for controlling greed, no known medicine for controlling greed. With that background, according to me, unless social thinking is changed, there is no way you can fight corruption. When I was young, if a person was sent to jail in my village, my parents used to tell me, don't go near that house. There was a social boycott of people who committed the crime. People go to jail, they are not acquitted, they take bail and come out. Hundreds and thousands of people go to the airport to receive such a person and bring him in a procession, shouting slogans in his favour. It could be criminal cases of murder, it could be rape, it could be corruption cases and all. But today, how many political leaders of different parties are out on bail? Just trying to find out.
Guha Thakurta: According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, if you look at Parliament and you look at most state Legislative Assemblies, close to half or almost half of the elected representatives have serious charges against them.
Hegde: Why is this happening? Because society does not think that being corrupt is being wrong. You have got to change that attitude. I have been to more than 1,600 educational institutions to interact with the youth of this country and tell them to inculcate just two values. One is contentment in life, the other is humanism. If you have contentment, it controls greed. If they have no greed, then they will be satisfied with what they legitimately earned. We were told when we were young to be happy with what we have earned legitimately. So, we have developed an attitude of satisfaction, I for one, with my pension. What little arbitration I did, I have stopped that also. I am quite happy. As a matter of fact, you should know that one of the chief ministers, who is leading one of the political parties here, whom I indicted in my mining report, said he invited me to become the Lokayukta. He said that my nightlife should be audited. I told him I got only one wife and only one house.
Guha Thakurta: On that personal note and on that somewhat idealistic note, I want to thank you so much for giving your time to the viewers of NewsClick. I sincerely hope that in your lifetime and in my lifetime, your children, my children will live in a less corrupt country, in a less corrupt state like Karnataka, but time alone can tell what will happen or not.
Hegde: Provided we teach our children to be content with what they legitimately have. When I say contentment, it doesn't mean you get a job, you become a sanyasi (monk). No, you must have the ambition to become somebody big, somebody rich also, but legitimately, not by stealing from somebody.
Guha Thakurta: Sure! On the other hand, we'll wait and watch what happens on May 10 when the electorate of Karnataka votes. There are 224 Assembly constituencies 224 and we will know on May 13 whether or not corruption, and anti-incumbency would be significant issues or not. Thank you for watching NewsClick.
The interview can be viewed below:
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