Sixteenth Loksabha Elections: A forgotten debate

by K Vijayachandran

Containing corruption: a historical perspective* 

K Vijayachandran

Our English speaking elite classes and the so called national media patronized by them were obsessed with long debates on corruption for a couple of years. They had promoted Anna Hazare and a few others as the sole custodians of anti-corruption struggles which have led to the formation of the Am Admi Party (AAP) led by Kejriwal. The national media keep on projecting AAP as a serious contender for power in Delhi along with BJP and Congress in the 16th Loksabha elections. However the subjects of corruption, Lokpal etc have vanished into thin air and the present election campaign is vitiated by mutual mudslinging by the major contenders for power. Nevertheless this essay, written three years ago at the height of anti-corruption campaign by the national media, has not lost its relevance.

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Entire nation seems to be obsessed with the issue of corruption and debating on having omnipotent institutions of Lokpal at the Central and State levels for policing over the corrupt state machinery. An NGO under the banner, India Against Corruption (IAC) (www.indiaagainstcorruption.org ) and its leaders, a group of eminent citizens describing themselves as India’s civic society, are the promoters of Anna Hazare. They are supported by our English speaking media, visual as well as print, generally patronized by the elite classes living in Indian metros. National debates and discussions triggered by them had focused entirely on the policing of corruption, with the help of a large establishment, to be created anew. Little is being discussed about how to prevent or at least minimize the incidence of corruption: If policing were a solution, India could have been a corruption-free nation, long long ago.

The IAC was jointly promoted by the Fifth Estate Movement (www.5thpillar.org), another recently promoted NGO, mostly powered by NRI funds, and the Indian Chapter of Transparency International (TI), an NGO established in 1993 and head-quartered in Berlin: The TI (www.transparency.org) seems to be part the global political initiative of European Union (EU) and claim themselves to be a Global Coalition Against Corruption. Its Indian Chapter, Transparency International India (TII) “ is part of the Asia Pacific forum comprising 20 nations that include China, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Maldives and others.” The TII (www.transparencyindia.org), according to its website “is a non-government, non-party and not-for-profit organization of Indian citizens with professional, social, industrial or academic experience seeking to promote transparent and ethical governance and to eradicate corruption”.

TII seems to be intensely patronized by Navaratna CPSUs and has zonal offices in almost all Northern states. The Lokpal movement, spearheaded by an NGO network jointly promoted by TII and the more recent Fifth Estate Movement in Southern states has several similarities with the recent reform movements staged in the Arab world, in style as well as content. It has opened up a Pandora’s box, and the massive media build-up managed by it within a few weeks, has greatly embarrassed and shaken up the Indian Establishment: The ruling coalition as well as the opposition political coalitions are under compulsion to take a stand on the galloping corruption in the country, as a result of the two decades old economic reforms and trade liberalization program.

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has come out in defense of his Government, saying that his Government was being (wrongly) described as the most corrupt in India’s history. He has blamed the media as well as the institutions like CAG for playing the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge at the same time. He has told the press that, there was no question of short-circuiting the Parliamentary process of legislation and bringing the PMO under the scanner of the new Lokpal as demanded by the NGOs. He was quite right in upholding the values of parliamentary democracy and in not yielding to the demands by the international network of NGOs, well-orchestrated by a section of the local and foreign media. He had asserted that Lokpal was not a panacea and that there was no question of going back to the era of license-permit raj or ushering in a new era of police raj, for eliminating corruption. In his view, the unique identification project of UIDAI would “discover a new pathway to eliminate corruption and leakages in the management and distribution of various subsidies to which the people are entitled.”

By such assertions, Prime Minister was trying to win back the confidence of India’s elite classes on one hand and the global financial institutions on the other: But they are largely illogical and hardly supported by facts. For example, there was little logic in characterizing the Nehru era of planned development as mere license-permit raj: It had helped to build the technological as well as political foundations of modern India, despite its several deficiencies. Instead of reforming it to the real needs of the country, similar to what China had done, Dr. Singh & Co implemented reform packages recommended by IBRD experts, that had opened up the flood gates of corruption in almost all sectors of national economy. His reference to police Raj was an obvious diatribe on the Chinese or Socialist model development which is getting better and better acceptance today, in the context the current global crisis. Dr. Singh seems to argue that parliamentary democracy, as presently practiced in India is a great virtue and that corruption is very much a part of the deal. However, this is a grossly misleading formulation and an irresponsible one for the Prime Minister.

All developed countries practice parliamentary democracy in one form or the other, and their governments are counted to be more transparent and free from corruption in their dealings with the general public as well as business. True, perceptions on corruption and transparency as well as their indexation by TI and their affiliates are likely to be influenced by their free-market culture. Despite possible distortions, indexes arrived at in their studies and reports may be counted as reflections of reality. TI Report of 2010 evaluated the transparency or Corruption (Free) Perception Index of 178 countries on a 10 to 1 scale, using the reports of World Bank and other international institutions as inputs. In this report, Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore tops the list with an equal score of 9.3, where as Somalia (1.1), Myanmar (1.4) and Afghanistan (1.4) are at the bottom of the scale. Transparency indexes for selected countries, based on this report, are reproduced in the table for enabling a critical review.

Despite its claims as World’s largest democracy, India with a transparency rank of 87 and score of 3.1, is far more corrupt, compared to the developed countries with market economies and practicing parliamentary democracy. Hong-Kong and Taiwan are placed several notches above India. None of these countries has Lokpal-type institutions for the policing of corruption, as pleaded for by India’s Civic Society people. However, unlike India, USA has a genuine federal constitution that functions, and the governments of member states, together with an efficient network of local self-governments are accountable to people at large, for most part of their social and economic needs. US Senate and Congress, unlike Indian Loksabha and Rajyasabha, debate and discuss not only bare laws, but also policies and programs, rather threadbare. In India, the recent massive economic reforms and restructuring programs were implemented with very little or no consultations with the Parliament and member states of the Union Republic.

Governing systems in European countries are basically not much different from that of USA. They have, in addition, a system of industrial democracy that ensures the participation of workers in corporate management. Possibly, that is why EU countries, in general, have a better transparency score than USA. It may be noted from the table that, apart from Hong Kong and Cuba, even mainland China were assessed by TI, as more transparent and less corrupt compared to India. All these facts simply exposes the hollowness of Dr. Singh’s argument that, democracy and corruption go together and that nothing much could be done other than waiting for deliverance by the UIDAI, an authoritarian project and institution, conceived by our elite classes with the support and blessings of IBRD and other related institutions.

Despite the federal character of our constitution, our Government in Delhi has transformed itself into an all powerful Central Government, that is turning less and less transparent in policy making and project implementation, under the influence of monopoly capital and global finance. Recommendations for recasting the present Center-State relations on more rational and democratic lines, by several commissions and reform panels, including the latest one dedicated for the purpose, were simply shelved by Dr. Singh & Co under advice from the elite classes that support him. Worker participation in corporate management is a directive principle of Indian constitution from the days of Indira Gandhi. But successive governments have ignored its implementation with the exemption of the short-lived VP Singh Government. A bill drafted for this purpose is pending in the Rajyasabha for more than two decades waiting for its final disposal. Democratic decentralization of governance as well as participative management of corporate institutions will dramatically improve the transparency as well as the efficacy of the Indian State and also bring down the incidence of corruption in a big way. That is what should learn from the historical experience of developed countries.

The vast scope for minimizing or eliminating corruption with the help of democratic reforms is indicated by the comparative corruption indexes, compiled for various states by the Transparency International India (TII). Results of this corruption study done with British assistance, some six years ago, are summarized in a second table. Bihar with an index of 696 was found to be the most corrupt state in 2005 and Kerala the least corrupt with an index of 240. Kerala is far advanced compared to other states, not only in the empowerment of local governments, but also in literacy, penetration of media, incidence of class and mass organizations, and awareness democratic rights among the people. There are plenty of lessons to be learned or simply copied from each other by the Indian states, in order to prevent or minimize corruption at various levels of governance.

Unfortunately, the eminent citizens, non-resident Indians and those of the elite classes that have come together and launched the India Against Corruption Movement of Anna Hazare are not bothered about the possibilities of democratic reforms, that could contain and minimize corruption at various levels, but also strengthen the developmental role of the Indian state. The proposed omnipresent and omnipotent Lokpal institutions proposed by by them are closer to the fascist dreams of disciplining the societies under their hegemony. It has nothing to do with the democratic aspirations of our people and may turnout to be a mirage of little social significance.
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* Published as part of the book titled, Perestroika Glasnost and Socialism, ISBN 978-1-4828-1353-1 published by Partridge India.

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