The utter rout of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) in the recently concluded legislative assembly elections in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively, is clear proof that contrary to popular punditry, abatement, if not elimination, of corruption in government is a live and important issue in Indian politics. Regrettably, during the past 60 years since independence, under a succession of greedy cabals disguised as political parties at the Centre and in the states, the Republic of India conceived with noblest impulses, is rapidly morphing into a hollow democracy in which the rule of law — the gold standard of a true democracy — is being incrementally suborned with institutions of public governance being emasculated and/or transformed into private fiefdoms and treasuries.
Yet fortuitously, universal adult franchise has survived the best efforts of free India’s reckless and déclassé politicians enabling the largely illiterate, neglected and poverty-stricken people of India to fully exercise this quinquennial right, often with a vengeance. That the cabals which have dominated the political discourse of independent India have not suborned the Election Commission of India is perhaps their only saving grace.
Against this backdrop it’s astonishing that despite a mountain of evidence indicating that hundreds of millions of ordinary, lay citizens of the republic have cruelly been denied basic food, clothing, shelter, education and healthcare by the country’s 18 million politicians and bureaucrats at the Centre and states openly practicing collusive extortion and graft, the great majority of political pundits still seem to believe that corruption is not a major issue in national politics. Hopefully the crushing defeat of the CPM — which during the 34 years of uninterrupted rule it enjoyed in West Bengal (pop. 91 million) had outsourced governance of this once-prosperous state to its corrupt and autocratic party cadres who arbitrarily auctioned all government services — and the DMK in Tamil Nadu which practiced family rule with an effrontery that would have embarrassed a mafia clan, will persuade them to appreciate the reality that corruption in governance weighs heaviest upon the poorest and most deprived sections of the population, as confirmed by several Transparency International India studies.
However it’s important to note that the electoral defeat of these heavyweight political parties is unlikely to serve as a sufficiently strong incentive to the nation’s political class and dynasties to clean up their augean stables. The rot has permeated too deep to permit voluntary action. Therefore the best available option to the citizenry is to support individuals (including Anna Hazare) and NGOs working to strengthen institutions of governance including Parliament, the judiciary, Central Bureau of Investigation, the police and proposed Jana Lok Pal. Foolishly over the past 60 years the Indian electorate has reposed its faith in charismatic individuals rather than institutions of governance. It’s high time the citizenry and particularly the nation’s intelligentsia, acknowledged this erroneous priority and reversed it.
Addressing corruption analysis paralysis
Against the backdrop of pervasive and accelerating official corruption which prompted Anna Hazare, the reclusive 74-year-old Gandhian social reformer to emerge out of his self-imposed exile in the rural hinterland of Maharashtra and undertake a fast-unto-death, forcing the Congress-led UPA-II government to establish a joint committee of civil activists and government ministers to draft a new enabling Lok Pal Bill, the novel proposal of economist Dr. Kaushik Basu to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 to place bribe givers and bribe takers on unequal footing deserves careful consideration. In a working paper (www.finmin.nic.in/www.kaushikbasu.org) written earlier this year, Basu argued that complainant payers of “harassment bribes” should be granted immunity from prosecution while recipients thereof meted stringent punishment and made to return such bribes.
Yet this suggestion which would undoubtedly abate the incidence of official corruption inasmuch as it would instill the fear of discovery and prosecution in the growing community of harassment bribe takers, has provoked intemperate and hostile criticism in the media. In particular P. Sainath, a senior correspondent and edit page writer of the respected Chennai-based daily The Hindu, has ridiculed the proposal castigating it as “simple-minded”, “obscene” and “perverse”. “To ask a people burdened with it to accept bribe-giving as legal is to demand they accept both corruption and the existing structures of power and inequity it flows from. This is a perverse idea,” wrote Sainath in an unwarrantedly ad hominem op-ed essay in The Hindu (April 20). Not entirely convincingly, he argues that the votes-for-cash scandal in Parliament and the 2G spectrum allocation pay-offs could also be construed as harassment bribes.
Although leftists such as Sainath in the eternal search for perfect solutions will never agree, there’s considerable force in Basu’s argument. Indeed there is a strong case for individuals forced to pay bribes for routine official services being regarded as victims of extortion rather than accessories to a crime. In this context it’s pertinent to note that s.383 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 defines an extortionist as: “Whoever intentionally puts any person in fear of any injury to that person… and thereby dishonestly induces the person so put in fear to deliver to any person any property or valuable security… commits extortion.”
By threatening to withhold entitlements or services unless they are paid “speed money” or “office expenses”, millions of petty bureaucrats are extorting money with menaces from hapless citizens every day. Therefore encouraging them to blow the whistle ex post facto by amending the Prevention of Corruption Act, which makes the payment of extorted bribes as much a criminal offence as accepting them, is an intelligent first step towards addressing the ballooning nightmare of petty and gigantic corruption which threatens to stoke revolution against the republic. Admittedly it isn’t the perfect solution and may have unforeseen and unintended consequences. But unknown and anticipated apprehensions shouldn’t justify analysis paralysis.