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Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Strange defence of Kiran Bedi

Anna Hazare's campaign against corruption can lose its sheen after revelations of unethical conduct by a key team member. He should take decisive action, now.

Anna Hazare’s tirade against the “gang of four” in the Union Government, which is resorting to every conceivable trick to run down his team and the anti-corruption movement, is understandable. In fact, the ‘dirty tricks department’ of the Government has been working overtime ever since he launched his first satyagraha at Jantar Mantar last April. We are all aware of it. It is the uncanny ability of ordinary people to discern such invidious moves by the Government that has brought nation-wide support for the movement.

This massive public endorsement of Anna’s campaign is, however, subject to one condition: That Anna Hazare and his team work within the moral and ethical standards that they have laid down for those in politics and Government. Some recent events have left one wondering whether he is conscious of this. For example, his defence of Ms Kiran Bedi in regard to allegations which he describes as “air travel corruption” seems inexplicable.

The media has reported that in recent years Ms Bedi has been overcharging her hosts when seeking reimbursement of travel expenses. She would fly economy class but bill her sponsors executive class fares. A couple of dozen instances of such over-billing has been reported in the media. It has also been reported that she claimed a 75 per cent rebate on Air India tickets as a gallantry award winner but charged the institutions that invited her the full fare.

Ms Bedi’s first reaction was that she had done no wrong. The difference in fare — the excess amounts collected — went into the coffers of India Vision Foundation, her NGO, and not into her pocket. Secondly, it was even argued that she suffered the discomfort of travelling a class lower just so that her NGO got some funds for the noble work it was doing. But these explanations did not seem credible when a couple of organisations which had invited her told the media that they were unaware of the fact that Ms Bedi was not travelling by the class for which they had made payments. Her stand became even more untenable when Mr JS Verma, former Chief Justice of India, and retired Justice Santosh Hegde, former Lokayukta of Karnataka, publicly declared that they saw no merit in her arguments.

Ms Bedi’s stubborn defence of her conduct has put off many Anna supporters. Realising that the tide was going against her, Ms Bedi announced that her trust had held a meeting and ‘directed’ her to henceforth travel “strictly as per invite”. Ms Bedi probably thought that this would silence her critics, but that was not to be because it only raised fresh questions. First, do you need such a firman from somebody to be honest while raising travel bills? Second, if indeed this was a legitimate way of raising funds, why did members of her trust direct her to return the excess amounts collected from her sponsors? It was a contrived and half-hearted attempt to retrieve ground.

Finally, when all this failed, Ms Bedi made a grand announcement that all the organisations which were over-charged for her travel would be reimbursed and that the travel agency that handled her ticketing had been directed to do so. These statements also led to fresh questions. If, as Ms Bedi claimed, she had done no wrong, why was she now ready to return the over-billed amounts to these organisations? Further, her claim that the travel agent would return the excess sums to these organisations implied that he — and not Ms Bedi — was over-billing her sponsors. The travel agency in question has promptly challenged this claim and said it only billed the NGO for the tickets it bought on Ms Bedi’s behalf and not for anything else. Watch this space for the next round of explanations from Ms Bedi.

What can we conclude from this narration? Ms Bedi over-charged her sponsors when she travelled to attend events; when this was exposed by the media, she stoutly defended herself, but eventually announced that she would return the excess fare charged by her to her sponsors; members of her trust have “directed” her not to over-charge sponsors in future and to travel only in the class for which she billed them; and, finally, despite the facts, Ms Bedi sees no need to apologise for what she has done.

After all this, we have Anna Hazare going where angels fear to tread. He defends her on his blog and offers a disingenuous argument to shield her. He says, “She has time and again made it clear that if she has done such a thing and used the money for the benefit of her family then the Government should take help of one of its own inquiry agencies and, if she is found guilty, it should take stringent action against her”. But, Anna Hazare adds, the Government is not keen on taking such a step. All that it wants to do is “accuse and humiliate” members of his team. There is “a gang of four” within the Govern-ment which is opposed to the Jan Lok Pal Bill and which is out to discredit members of his team.

The question is not whether Ms Bedi used the money for her personal benefit or for her “family”. The question is one of propriety. If a person working in a Government or a private organisation were to generate such bogus travel bills and collect sums far in excess of the actual expenditure he or she  would have been dismissed from service and even booked for cheating under the Indian Penal Code. Even MPs and Ministers who fudge their TA and DA bills are thrown out of office when they are caught in the act. In the UK several MPs have had to pay the price for presenting bogus receipts for reimbursements. The US House of Representatives reprimanded and fined its own Speaker, Mr Newt Gingrich, for misusing tax-exempt funds. It is, therefore, rather pathetic to see Anna Hazare rush to Ms Bedi’s defence in the light of incriminating evidence of bogus travel bills.

Millions of citizens have invested in ‘Brand Anna’ in the fond hope of fighting corruption at various levels. The veteran social activist’s defence of Ms Bedi amounts to betraying the primary stake-holders in ‘Brand Anna’. He must be wary of the company he keeps and the causes he espouses.  Since he wants to cleanse the system, he must demand exacting standards from those who surround him. In short, he must set his house in order.


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