Corruption has emerged as a serious problem in many countries of the Third World and India is no exception. The main reason for the rise in corruption has been the political framework which includes the nexus of the political class with all types of business groups. Apart from this, the bureaucracy motivated and supported by the political class has been resorting to various forms of activities, both anti-social and unethical, which ends up in massive corruption affecting the socio-economicfabric of the country.
What brings relevance to the subject of corruption are the recent observations of Prime Minister Modi in his blistering attack on the new Opposition alliance, INDIA, which he called a coalition of convenience of corrupt leaders interested “in promoting their families and protecting themselves from being prosecuted for their crimes”. A few days back, Modi, in his virtual address, at a G20 meeting referred to Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, replacing IPC, that includes a provision for non-conviction based confiscation of properties of proclaimed offenders in India and overseas. That his government was waging a war on corruption was indicated in the fact that since enactment of the Economic Offenders Act (in 2018) assets worth over $1.8 billion (around Rs 15,000 crore) have been recovered from fugitives in addition to attachment of assets worth $12 billion (around 1 lakh crore) under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act since 2014.
Though figures may appear impressive, it is difficult to take the Prime Minister seriously on questions of graft and corruption. Before delving into the problem, it is well known that corruption cases have been manifest all over the country, whether it is Karnataka, Bengal, Delhi or Maharashtra. Sociologists and economists agree that elections require huge funds and political parties, even the regional ones, need these resources. As such, they try to get funds not just from business houses but also from the public by extending favours. In West Bengal, thousands of crores were taken to give jobs to school teachers, municipal employees etc.
In such a scenario, it is indeed necessary to do a stocktaking of India’s efforts in tackling the most entrenched and widely visible phenomenon that devalues governance and destroys the average citizen’s trust in the state. According to Transparency International (TI), India ranks very high (85 out of 180 countries) in the Asian region. Although the situation is better than that of 2013 when the country was ranked 94, India has a long way to go to tackle this perverse phenomenon. It is indeed distressing to note that as per the TI survey, India has one of the highest incidences of bribery and use of personal connections to access key public services such as health and education. According to the survey, state services, particularly police, revenue department, hospitals and even lower courts are the most corrupt bodies.
The roots of corruption in India date back to British colonial rule. The British administration, which systematically excluded much of the Indian population from key political and administrative processes, helped to institutionalise graft culture by enacting the crucial Official Secrets Act, 1923. This colonial act made it an offence for any public official to disclose state information or secrets. This act continues to play its role in sustaining graft culture in the post-Independence period, although India was mostly caught up in graft culture due to overzealous state regulation, particularly when it came to economic activities.
Surprisingly, even after the permit raj was abolished India’s culture of graft began with the commencement of economic reforms and liberalisation in 1991. Economic reforms led to the ending of licensing for industrial activities and the abolition of import quotas, thereby removing many corrupt practices. However, this did not reduce graft. On the contrary, the economic reforms and high growth expanded the spaces for high volume corruption in every segment of society.
While economic liberalisation ended many old types of corruption largely related to the license permit raj, the same phenomenon continues in some form or the other in several key sectors, particularly minerals, natural resources, and services. For example, the opaque and arbitrary allocation of coal blocks and the telecom spectrum (infamously called 2G) which hit the state exchequer, clearly points to the massiveness of post-reform corruption. In fact, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II (2009-14) had to spend most of its time fighting a series of allegations of graft.
After the NDA government came to power, corruption continued unabated with several high profile business leaders, reportedly close to the Prime Minister siphoning money from banks, inflating prices of stocks etc. Given the magnitude and pernicious nature of corruption affecting every aspect of society and economy, the Indian state has done very little to stop corruption though leaders talk of the need to curb this evil.
Though the Right to Information (RTI) legislation was enacted in 2005, this has failed to curb corruption. The current regime has curtailed the powers of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) via administrative changes and constitutional amendments, in recent years and restricted the scope of the RTI application too.
One needs to mention here that growing inequality in incomes and the rise of incomes of billionaires, even during the pandemic when poor people lost jobs and struggled for an existence, is manifestation of the fact that corruption has been increasing by leaps and bounds. The increase in corruption affects only the lower echelons of society and, in a way, benefits the privileged class and this is very much true in India.
The political parties are now like corporate entities with much attention on earning money for the next elections and for distribution among the cadres. Also, frequent campaigns, in a grand style, require a lot of resources which cannot be garnered through membership subscriptions and donations. Thus corruption has been increasing and has become a way of life in society and with increasing expenditure of the important parties, it is difficult to regulate graft.
A question has arisen whether young leaders entering in important positions would bring down corruption. This may not be possible as politics is big money and even the most committed may not be in a position to refuse graft when other contemporaries are involved in it. Moreover, the younger generation may be much better off but it may not be in a commanding position to effectively curb corruption.
While the educated youth are not quite eager to join politics but even if it is assumed that they enter, corruption may not be curbed. The sons and daughters of political leaders are believed to be honest though some activists, who have joined the political fray, are a bit more sincere and somewhat free from corruption.
Obviously, various measures to control corruption have been talked about. In the coming Lok Sabha elections, this would become a key issue as both the NDA and INDIA have been accusing each other of being enmeshed in corruption. In fact, the political system today is enmeshed in corruption at various levels as a result of which educated people do not join the political field. In this connection, state funding of elections has been talked about and may need a second thought. Meanwhile, as indicated by the Prime Minister, “zero tolerance against corruption” would become a reality that remains to be seen through leveraging technology and e-governance may make the system transparent. —INFA