Ending Corruption in India
Posted on 1-May-2011
For anyone who was in his teens or older in India in the 1950's, neither highly publicised cases of corruption in high places nor public outcry against them--corruption in the currently most common meaning of people in positions of authority in governmental institutions using their power for making undue and illegal material gains for themselves, their kin, their friends or their political parties--are new. In one case, involving the business house of Mundhras, the publicly owned life insurance company and the finance ministry of India, the call for action was led in parliament by Feroze Gandhi, the son in law of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, also a member of the ruling party. The affair ended with the imprisonment of the head of the house of Mundhras, and the resignation of the finance minister and the virtual end of his political career. The finance secretary, the bureaucratic head of the finance ministry, survived the severe indictment by the judicial commission appointed to probe the affair and resurfaced two decades later as India's finance minister, under whom the present Prime Minister of India served as a senior finance ministry bureaucrat. Feroze Gandhi's position as persona non grata in the Nehru household was reconfirmed. He ended in political obscurity. At least Jawaharlal Nehru did not try to brazen things out in the Mundhra case, which is not what can be said about his dogged defence of his own party's chief minister of Punjab against all allegations of unchecked corruption. Another scamster, Dharma Teja, who ended in Costa Rica as a fugitive from law, rose to fame under Nehru's patronage and was defended by him till all defence became untenable.
In the decade of the 1970's, in an India awash with tales of financial misdeeds and barefaced abuse of power by Mrs.Indira Gandhi's younger son and her minister of railways among others, Jayaprakash Narain, hailed then as a latter day Mahatma Gandhi, started a mass movement against corruption in high places. That movement was answered by an imposition of nineteen months of autocratic rule by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, which in turn led to massive loss of political power by Mrs. Gandhi and her political party in 1977 and a two year rule by a motley group of politicians who had either lost political power or whom political power had eluded till then. They did not last in power long enough for any major story of corruption to break out, their government finally crumbling in 1979. Jayaprakash Narain was for a while a distant guardian angel to this government but eventually faded out, reverenced in political speeches but ignored in every other way.
The political story of the 1980's is the story of Mrs. Indira Gandhi's rise once again and her fall and the rise and fall of her elder son. In her second spell of power Mrs. Gandhi occupied herself being a world stateswoman when she was not busy dowsing secessionist fires in Punjab or preparing through sheer political blunder the ground for an insurgency in Kashmir which started in 1989 and has not yet ended. The fires of Punjab consumed Indira Gandhi. Mrs. Gandhi's younger son having died in a quaint air crash within six months of her return to power, there probably was not enough time in Mrs. Gandhi's second stint for any story of corruption to break out. Her son Rajiv Gandhi spent the last three years of his five as Prime Minister fighting to save his credibility in the wake of the "Bofors scandal" in which people in India widely believed Rajiv Gandhi and his relations had personally received bribes in a deal for buying howitzers from the Swedish company Bofors. To a very large extent, this affair destroyed Rajiv Gandhi's political career.
Barring a brief one and a half year long entirely forgettable interregnum under two governments as sleazy as any other, the next government under the leadership of P.V. Narasimha Rao of Indira Gandhi's political party spent the last three of its five years keeping its head above a tide of major corruption scandals: bribery of members of parliament for voting for the government, illegal manipulation of the stock market and the high level political connections of some of the operators, import by a government agency of urea that never arrived in India. These along with other misdeeds such as the government looking away while right wing Hindu groups busied themselves organising the destruction of a 365 year old mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, destroyed Narasimha Rao's government, in which India's present prime minister was finance minister. There followed an interlude of two years under two successive governments each lasting a year, neither getting the time for setting up a money making mechanism.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which with the participation of some "socialist" and regional political parties ran the government of India from 1998 to 2004 was not any better. Either through skill or due to sheer good luck, it managed not to get dragged into any dominating financial scandal. Of smaller scandals, there were plenty and at least three of its senior ministers along with some members of the prime minister's household were widely believed to be making big, illegal money. In one case, that of Abdul Karim Telgi, who had been caught selling counterfeit stamp paper which legally only the government security press can print, the suspect was charged, tried and sentenced. It also happened that the criminal investigations produced no link between Telgi and any of the politicians in power in Delhi in 2003 and that the investigations straddled the election of 2004 in which the coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party was voted out of power despite its claims of foreign policy successes and of having created a "shining India".
Some conclusions can quite clearly be drawn from this unsavoury story. One of these is that corruption in high places is not new in independent India, though the scale and brazenness with which politicians and other senior people have indulged in it has progressively increased. Secondly, very few--Haridas Mundhra in the Mundhra case, Dharma Teja of Jayanti Shipping or the stock broker Harshad Mehta who created a great deal of embarrassment for Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, to name some of the more notable examples of those punished under the law--found to have been involved in corruption have been tried successfully in courts of law and punished. Thirdly, parliament, the most important watchdog agency meant to check abuse of power by those in government can, if it acts, force the government to take action against corruption, as it did in the Mundhra case. Fourthly, governments in India have rarely acted against corrupt politicians, senior officials or top managers of business concerns found to have broken the law except under pressure from parliament, the press or now, increasingly, the Supreme Court of India. Fifthly, the people of India can and do vote those governments they perceive to be corrupt out of power.
The present government of India, led by Manmohan Singh about whom the most charitable thing that can be said is that there is no reason to doubt his and his supporters' repeated assertion that he is honest (in the limited sense that he does not make money illegally), has in the last six months been shown to have presided over many more corruption scandals (on a much greater scale) than any of its predecessors in independent India. In the case of each of these recent scandals--thievery by members of his political party and their associates in the organisation of Commonwealth Games, by members of his government and their business associates in the allocation of radio frequencies to cellular phone operators and by people in the department of space in the allocation of microwave frequencies to a company promoted by their erstwhile colleagues, skulduggery in the allotment of flats to politicians, former generals and government officials on an expensive piece of real estate in Mumbai or mala fide action by himself and his government in the appointment of India's seniormost anti-corruption watchdog--Manmohan Sigh's own or that of his colleagues' initial reaction has either been to deny wrongdoing or of reluctance to act. In each case the government has been forced to act either by parliament or by the pressure of public opinion or by the judges of the Supreme Court of India. In fact, in the case of the appointment of the anti-corruption watchdog the government did nothing. Occasinally Manmohan Singh was rather economical with the truth when this matter was being considered by the Supreme Court. It is the Court that settled the matter by invalidating the appointment. Manmohan Singh admitted error of judgment and admitted responsibility only after the court verdict.
It is a measure of the people's angst over all these tales of corruption that when an unlikely ant-corruption messiah in the shape of Kisan Baburao Hazare, better known as Anna Hazare, hailed mindlessly by some as another Mahatma Gandhi, announced in the middle of the last month that he would sit in a fast unto death in central New Delhi, unless the government immediately agreed to appoint a committee in which its nominees and "people's representatives" featured in equal number for the purpose of making a law for appointing and delineating the powers of a Lokpal (supposedly the Indian version of the Swedish Ombudsman), large numbers of people came out in his support. Later, Hazare was joined by a number of activists, professional do-gooders and other seekers of the limelight. The government agreed to appoint such a committee which has started its work. Optimistically, this Committee will complete its work in time for a law about the appointment and functioning of a Lokpal, considered satisfactory by the "civil society", to be enacted by August 15. Equally optimistically, a Lokpal of a kind to satisfy the "civil society" will also be appointed. Thereafter, disappointments will soon set in because Hazare and his companions have been talking as if the appointment of a muscular kind of Lokpal is a sure shot remedy for the disease of corruption.
It may be worthwhile to look at this proposal about a Lokpal. Some people in the decade of the 1960's, concerned about the perceived rise in corruption in public life mooted the idea that India might create an office like that of the Swedish Ombudsman to act as an independent watchdog to go into complaints about government's misdeeds. An Administrative Reforms Commission under the chairmanship of Morarji Desai, former finance minister of India, recommended in the 1960's the appointment of a federal Lokpal and Lokayuktas in the states to function somewhat like the Swedish Ombudsman. Sixteen of India's twentyeight states have over the years established the office of Lokayuktas. There is no evidence to suggest that the existence of Lokayuktas has reduced corruption in the states where they function. It is not clear why politicians of all hues running successive governments of India have balked at the establishment of a Lokpal for India. Perhaps Anna Hazare will succeed in this and earn for himself the sobriquet of Father of the Lokpal.
A Lokpal whenever he comes can at best only be a watchdog. But it is not in watchdogs that the Indian system is lacking. There is the Comptroller and Auditor General of india and the Public Accounts Committee of parliament to look at the propriety of government spending. There is the Election Commission of India for conducting free and fair elections. There is the Central Vigilance Commission to function as an anti-corruption watchdog with the help of the Central Bureau of Investigation. Above all there are the law courts with the Supreme Court at the apex with wide powers to examine the legality of governmental action. Over the years, the Supreme Court has through the instrumentality of public interest litigation enlarged its powers to hear practically any citizen's complaint against the government's misdeeds. A free press can and often has acted as an important guardian of public interest. Finally the most important check against abuse of power by government--all governmental corruption involves abuse of power--in a democracy is the elected parliament. But no number of watchdogs can stop a determined government from brazenly disregarding courts, ignoring criticism and subverting institutions if it can manipulate a parliamentary majority, at least until the next election. That is exactly how the present government has acted. In fact at this moment of writing members of Manmohan Singh's party with the help of a regional political party whose members have been indicted in the telephone scandal and two other political parties not best known for probity are busy destroying one of the watchdogs: the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament. Members of Manmohan Singh's Government have been denigrating the Comptroller General of India ever since he prepared a report on the telephone scandal. No matter how we look at the issue of corruption in public life, some inescapble realities have to be reckoned with. No social or political institution can ever be above the people who manage it: good people will enhance its value and bad people will ruin it. Secondly, notwithstanding the opinion of philosophers and constitutional experts about the judiciary, the the legislature and the executive being equal arms of governance, in real life the executive is always the dominant branch especially in a parliamentary democracy like India. More than any other people, it is largely the politicians who control the executive who can determine the quality of public life for they have the power and the responsibility.
A head of government determined to promote probity in public life can make a great difference. Manmohan Singh has amply demonstrated that he cannot be such a man. If instead of recently promising that he would soon end corruption in public life, he had promised that he would take steps to check corruption, he would have convinced some people that he meant what he said. There can be no such thing as ending all corruption, because some people will always abuse power and steal public money. A properly running system can only ensure that those found stealing are are punished. For reducing corruption in public life, a beginning can be made by trying to improve the quality of politicians that can get elected in India. One first step could be to accept the repeated recommendations of the Election Commission of India that anyone indicted by a court of law for a major criminal offence such as forgery, defalcation, fraud, stealing, armed robbery, kidnapping, illegal possession of firearms or explosives, rape, murder, terrorism or destruction of public property will be disqualified from an election and will remain so until his final acquittal. A second suggestion of the Election Commission that, if accepted, can improve the quality of public life is that the voters be given the choice of saying that they do not wish to vote for any of the candidates on offer. Another rule that could be made is that no election in which less than half the voters have voted will be valid. If the politicians agreed on a code of conduct in which a minister on whom a court of law had passed a stricture for a midemeanour had to step down, they would greatly improve standards of probity. The politicians could likewise adopt many more similar measures of self correction. And, in a democracy, the final sanction against misdemeanour of politicians comes from the people. The hope is that the people of India keep voting corrupt governments out of power, including the present one.
There are other deeper moral and societal issues that arise in a discussion of corruption. The ivy of corruption does best in a soil of moral laxity and permissiveness. The generally cavalier attitude of Indians, particularly urban middle class Indians, towards the law, the willingness to pay bribes not always out of helplessness but even for small gains and the lack of any social disapproval of those known to be corrupt all make for an ambience in which corruption and the corrupt flourish. Thus senior bureaucrats, army generals as well as high court and supreme court judges have all been caught in recent years with their hands in the till. Only a few have been punished. None of them has tried to hide himself out of shame, nor any one is afraid of ostracism. While improving the moral standards of an entire society can not easily be done, simple, unspectacular, constant and unrelenting enforcement of the laws of the land can make a great and perceptible difference. That is where a beginning can be made.
It is these relatively simple measures that the anti-corruption warriors of India, including the latest Mahatma Gandhi, should be campaigning for, if they wish to make a difference.