Dr Vivekananda Lal Sondhi
TODAY those who dare opine that corruption is an indefensible practice are countered with at least four lines of argument. The first, a favourite of some editorial writers is that the Indian situation is marked by a politics of aspiration, which has evolved past the politics of grievance. Since the government is delivering good GDP growth and the electorate continues to show up at polling booths, corruption is only the hobgoblin of a few, who neither understand the big picture nor the people’s aspirations.
A second defence is proffered by a set of opinion makers, often with an eye on a reward like a Rajya Sabha seat or berth in the PMO. Their advice is ostensibly aimed at no-nonsense grownups who understand that corruption is part of contemporary life though in the long run it may, with suitable policy suggestions, be reduced. Here the subtext is that the parties should do whatever grubby tasks they must to stay in or capture power, so that such intellectuals can be rewarded by access to power and perks.
A third approach is to express outrage against people exposing the corrupt on the grounds that no one should be presumed guilty until proven so in a court of law. This legalistic response is naturally given by lawyer-politicians, who are often professional past masters at delaying (denying) justice by extending the legal process ad-infinitum.
And the last most dangerous defence, which seeks to undercut all social norms, is that everyone is corrupt and hence no one is (corrupt). This is the underlying rationale in the attempts by those accused to tarnish the reputation of their accusers.
All these strands of defence are disingenuous. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the UPA can be credited with economic growth, there is little proof that Indians have ever accepted a trade-off between higher living standards and corruption of the state or powerful people. In China also, which has seen higher growth rates than India, through every political outlet and often at great personal cost, the Chinese people express their anger against the corruption of the communist party. India has certainly profited from a favourable global economic environment, so a slowdown in global growth for the foreseeable future cannot but negatively impact India. Concomitantly tolerance for corruption will decrease. Elections say little about prosperity: democracies can enter into long term decline and continue holding elections (20th and 21st century Italy and 19th century England come to mind).
The claim that long-term policy making will make short-term corruption irrelevant is shallow, as it supposes that the participants habituated to a corrupt process will abstain from perverting the formulation and implementation of longer-term reforms.
The third defence is offered by people who believe that the present crisis will blow over, and we can revert to (corrupt) business as usual.
The last apology is the most dangerous in that it undermines basic social norms. The whistleblowers, politicians, media people, PIL activists and lawyers exposing corruption are generally (always with a few exceptions) good people who have put themselves at immense personal risk. It is possible with state machinery at one’s disposal, to find something suspicious about anyone, failing which a CD or a story can always be concocted. Moreover it is the degree of compromise that matters in life and in politics: there is a difference between a compromise made to survive the system and one made to exploit it.
Before suggesting a line of action, let us review the relationship between democracy and corruption taking advantage of the analyses by academicians James Newell and Martin Bull, while pointing out characteristics unique to the Indian situation.
* Political parties are not public but private institutions in that their existence is not guaranteed by the state but is dependent on the ability of members to raise the necessary financial resources—the parties do not (or at least should not) provide a marketable function in the economy.
Since parties are formed for the purpose of competing for public office, the risk that they will exploit incumbency, exchanging favouritism in public decisions for the resources necessary to keep them in being, is inherent in their very existence.
* As the cost of successful campaigns has risen in India the temptation for corruption at the heart of the party system has only deepened.
* Almost everywhere ideological differences between the major parties have narrowed. While parties may differ on the details of economic policy, in India from the CPM through Congress to the BJP, there is an overall acceptance of market-friendly ideas. Thus it becomes difficult for politicians to rally the electorate one way or the other, especially the Congress which is possibly the least ideologically coherent of all the major parties.
* At the centre of any corrupt party is necessarily the business-politician who can skillfully trade public resources and policy to raise the type of funds necessary for his party – and also for him- or herself. The Congress, lacking in rhetoric or charismatic figures, has the highest density of such business-politicians, whereas the BJP’s advantage is that it can draw upon workers and leaders committed to social uplift from its cadres and its sympathetic organisations. In India there is a proud tradition of politicians with links to business from Lala Lajpat Rai of the pre-Independence Indian National Congress, to leaders of the Swatantra Party and of the Bharat Vikas Parishad (with ties to the BJP) who have practiced pro-business politics (with a view to helping the nation) as against pro-your-own-business politics.
* Checks and correctives to the political establishment and the state are simultaneously corroding. In our so-called free media, paid news has become the bane of national and regional newspapers and TV channels, and news-based extortion, once confined to the regional media, is today the subject matter of a suit against Zee News. The same media which lauds India Against Corruption for exposing top political leaders and their kin, is unwilling to report on their own kind.
It is clear that our democratic state stands in need of urgent repair. Distaste for and disillusionment with all political parties can lead to voter apathy, to attraction towards failed ideas like communism (which engender as much corruption if not more given their gargantuan bureaucracies) or reach a never-ending see-saw, as in Tamil Nadu, where the electorate is reduced to punishing alternate incumbents for the latest round of corruption.
When a country is playing catch-up, whether by introducing market reforms or by checking the ills that come with misdirected reforms, the task of policymakers can be relatively easy. The contours of what needs to be done are known to everyone – campaign finance reforms, protection of whistleblowers, fast track courts for big-ticket corruption and black money cases, autonomy for CBI and the police, more resources and training for prosecution agencies, etc. There is enough international and local expertise to draw upon.
But the crying need of the hour is to summon up the political will to truly tackle the problem. The NDA has to be different from the UPA, and not just different enough to win the next election. At the regional level BJP is already showing the way. In Goa, Manohar Parrikar acted, before a similar order was issued by the Supreme Court, to temporarily ban mining operations and has begun the process for prosecuting the guilty politicians and officials while protecting the livelihood of ordinary people connected with the mining industry. Parrikar has not abandoned his task although made more difficult by a vengeful local Congress acting in cahoots with bigwigs at the Centre. Such resolute action needs to be replicated at the Centre.
A future NDA government as it settles in its own incumbency will most likely face challenges regarding corruption arising from “coalition dharma”. The BJP together with its allies needs to announce much before the polls a minimum common programme on corruption. The onus is on the BJP leadership to change the political rules for itself and its political partners to safeguard Indian democracy.
(The author is a Research Analyst at Russell Investments (London). The views expressed are his own and not of Russell Investments).