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Mainstream, VOL XLVIII, No 50, December 4, 2010

India United on Corruption?

Sunday 12 December 2010

by Vidhu Verma

As India emerges as an important player in the restructuring of the world economic order, it is faced with challenges related to corruption, transparency and accountability in its methods of governance. Indian democracy seems terminally ill, weakened by internal corruption and unsus-tainable spending even as it enjoys technological progress, economic prosperity and political stability.

The recent reports on corruption linked to the Delhi Commonwealth Games, Adarsh housing society in Mumbai and sale of 2G cellular licenses run by the Telecom Minister have not only cost the public exchequer billions of dollars but also focused on the manipulation and fabrication that are resorted to by public officials and representatives of the largest democracy in the world. The corporate fraud committed by Satyam resulted in the arrest of its promoter, Ramalinga Raju, even as the professional service headed by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), facing multiple inquiries in this scam, is planning to invest another 100 million dollars in India in the next three years. An espionage ring involving corporates and IAS officers, that compromised state security secrets, has been exposed. A recent report by Global Financial Integrity has shown that India lost more than 200 billion dollars in illicit financial flows or illegal capital flights that were the product of corruption, bribery, kickbacks, criminal activities and efforts to shelter wealth from a country’s tax authorities. High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) and private companies are found to be the primary drivers of illicit flows out of India’s private sector.

Although there is widespread consensus on eliminating such illicit activities, there is little understanding on how to define corruption. Most social scientists argue that corruption is a behaviour that deviates from normal duties of a public role because of private-regarding status gains. It is seen to violate rules in the exercise of behaviour such as bribery, nepotism and misappropriation of public funds for private-regarding uses. Secondly, corruption defies public interest when a power-holder is induced to favour those who give rewards. Lobbying falls under this category because for personal benefit the office-bearer devotes time and effort in assisting someone for evading rules for extra income. For some scholars even the process of democracy that we are so proud of involves vote-buying, campaign financing and even statistical manipulation of election results.

Apart from this story of corruption, there is also the story of how the Indian state has failed to provide basic public goods such as water, electricity, roads, education, health—vital indicators of human development. Although high levels of identity mobilisation are noted against upper- caste dominance in employment and education, political freedoms have not been channelised to question the mal-distribution of public goods or pilfering of public money for private gain. Implementation of many public policies is marred by corrupt officials as target groups rarely receive the grants allocated to them. Instead amongst the middle and upper classes of urban India, there is high tolerance to deficit in public goods; private solutions to buy water, electricity, health care and even sewerage and garbage disposal are widespread.

SEVERAL questions come to my mind as an ordinary citizen who tries to connect the two stories of private (illicit) behaviour in corruption and the state failure in providing public goods. One of them is related to the sheer scale and magnitude of corruption in our democracy. In most cases individual response to private gain is sheer helplessness bordering on apathy to the political process around or a general view of politics as a dirty game. How corruption of public officials that goes unpunished causes systemic damage in that it undermines the expectations of the populace in the legal system and public institutions, is not sought to be understood.

But liberal democracy is not just about free and fair elections but also active participation as standing for elections, voting and engaging in the public domain in vital matters related to our lives as citizens. I have the right to ask why tainted politicians are voted to power and officials nominated to oversee public funds in the first place. By raising this question I am assuming that there is the impact of democracy on processes leading to or curtailing corruption. Even if the market marginalises sections of society and denies public goods to people at large, the government run by elected representatives of this country are accountable to the public. The problem is that while tainted politicians face the public in times of elections, bureaucrats, public officials, judges and CEOs in the private sector unfortunately do not and the nexus is sustained. However, as we enter an international system of production, distribution and exchange it is no longer possible to limit the process of determining policy directions in the power-blocs within the country as these are bound to be subjected to increasing global scrutiny.

A second question is whether corruption is about our perceptions, social mores and our overall acceptance of it as a way of life, or even as entitlement? As citizens we raise a hue and cry about state policies to combat discrimination and disadvantages, but we retreat to our inner selves in the face of the greed of public officials.

One reason could be that those involved in callously intended consequences, as the recent building collapse in Delhi shows, are also middle class office-bearers in the MCD. Are our standards of acceptance of corruption and tolerance of deficit in public goods somewhere intertwined with the lower standards of conduct shown by those in public positions? Another reason could be that bribes to a person in a country like India are not clearly differentiated from gifts given during festivals and private occasions. There is no public record of how public officials have accepted gifts or given them out; there are no limits on presents that they can accept while in office. In many ways we remain a traditional society that does not know how to clearly differentiate between gifts given to a public person from the special obligations to give a favour at a social level.

One of the often cited reasons for corruption since the time of Plato is the vicious circle of greed that encircles those in power. Is there something wrong in the economic model that we have chosen for in this country? What the USA and Europe achieved over two hundred years, we are attempting to compress in two decades. Lying behind this urge for accumulation of wealth is a reactionary, behaviourist view of human nature: that we will inevitably act selfishly and against the common good unless coerced to do otherwise.

There is a need to remove key players in the covert acquisition and distribution of public services, through what I refer to as private ‘illicit behaviour’ that threatens to undermine our key governing institutions. There is also a need to reconstruct an altruistic culture with social capital for community action and high levels of trust for representatives and co-citizens. The nexus between corporate leaders, politicians and bureaucrats in our polity that is giving rise to fraud and deception can only be broken by redefining public interest that is bereft of corruption.

The author is a Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. New Delhi, and can be contacted at

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