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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 50, December 3, 2011

Corruption-free Good Governance

Friday 9 December 2011, by P R Dubhashi


The Quality of Government—Corruption, Social Trust and Inequality in International Perspective by Bo Rothstein, Professor in Political Science, University of Gothenburg; University of Chicago Press; p. 285.

The UN Millennium Declaration identifies good governance as a requirement to foster economic development to reduce poverty. The quality of government is closely related to economic progress and social trust in any country. If the government is characterised by a dishonest, corrupt and inefficient civil service and administration, it cannot put into effect programmes for welfare of the people, for eradication of poverty, ill-health, disease and ignorance and for protection of environment and natural resources. It cannot reduce glaring inequalities nor provide universal services like education, health and energy to all its citizens.

It is sometimes stated that open market can solve all those problems. But that is not correct. If there are gross inequalities the poor are marginalised while the market forces are manipulated in the interest of the wealthy and the powerful.

Nor is it correct to say that the way to reduce corruption is to reduce the scope of state activities and public expenditure. Corruption in government often makes people argue that rather than pay taxes to a corrupt government it is better to retain the money in the hands of the taxpayer. He should avoid paying taxes by any means, fair or foul. But this still leaves the problem unsolved of reducing poverty and inequality and providing the common where-withal of living to the common people. If the market marginalises the poor and the corrupt government fails to implement the progress of welfare and development, then the poor are destined to lead a miserable life.

It is not correct to assume that the government necessarily has to be corrupt. Better-performing, impartial and not discriminatory governments, such as those of Nordic countries, collect high taxes and do spend large amounts on universal social welfare programmes and provide a minimum standard of living to every citizen. The challenge before the poor developing countries is to ensure clean, good government which can scrupulously use public funds for universal programmes of development and welfare.

It is not true that a government in a representative democracy can necessarily solve all these problems and provide social welfare. There may be regular elections. But if the elections are influenced by money and muscle power, or if the election machinery itself is corrupt, the elected may not truly represent the people. Even assuming that the elections are free and fair, representative government will not be seen as legitimate unless it honestly works in favour of public interest, that is, in the interest of the common people in general and not just a few privileged. or in sectarian interests. An elected government should be efficient and incorruptible and seen to be so in the day-to- day experience of the common people. If this is not so, the representative government and elective institutions will lose legitimacy. It will not create social trust. Good government is not possible without social trust.

Social trust requires that everyone feels that others in the society will behave according to the law and rules and be honest in their relation-ship with others. Likewise the government administration should be seen as honest, impartial and not discriminatory in dealing with all citizens. Reciprocity is the basis of social trust and social trust the basis of universal programmes of welfare and development.

Instead of universal programmes, if a representative government delivers programmes for only a section of the society (such as reser-vations in India), it will lead to mutual distrust in society and create a sense of unfair treatment by the government and other authorities.

It is not that corruption takes place because people lack ethical or moral values and approve of corruption. They may totally disapprove of it and yet offer bribes to civil servants and Ministers, if they feel that offering bribe is the only way of getting things done. They start looking upon corruption as a normal practice. (This was called ‘Mamool’ in old Mysore.) And they have to fall in line.

REPRESENTATIVE democracy by itself cannot be assumed to deal effectively with the problems of the people. On the other hand, a government, authoritarian in nature, and hence low in scale of democratic velues can give good governance —efficiently delivering programmes for meeting public needs like health, education and public transport on a universal basis. The first scenario is exemplified by Jamaica and the latter by Singapore. Jamaica had been an excellent Westminster model of two-party democracy, the parties being the People’s National Party and Labour Party. On the other hand Singapore has a one-party government (People’s Action Party) with Lee Kuan Yew of the helm of political affairs for many years as the Prime Minister (and now as the Mentor Minister), and thanks to his political will and strong leadership, corruption was eliminated. In mid-1960s Singa-pore was in a worse condition than Jamaica. It had few national resources. It was ethnically divided. But thanks to Lee Kaun Yew’s ‘good government’, the GDP per capita of Singapore has increased more than six times compared to 25 per cent in Jamaica in the first 10 years. But then Jamaica stagnated with per capita GDP less than it was in 1972, despite its natural assets including wonderful beaches to attract tourists.

Nordic countries—Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland—are recognised as models of universal welfare state. The effective implementation of these programmes required an effective good government with incorruptible civil service. Not that Sweden had always had these attributes. In fact in the early 19th century the Swedish Civil Service was not based on merit but influence—connection with those in the Royal Court. Civil and Military officers could buy and sell official positions. But with a series of reforms, in a short period from 1849 to 1889 the situation totally changed and Sweden was able to establish good government.

Rothstein speaks of the “vicious and virtuous circles of governance”. If corruption is deeply entrenched in the social system and the economy and social trust is lacking, no institutional reforms can work. Civil service, judiciary. audit—all these institutions instead of honestly delivering service would themselves be corrupted and create widespread social distrust. On the other hand, in a country where social norms do not permit corruption, institutions can play their role honestly and efficiently. Institutional defence collapses in the absence of social norms and trusts.

India has much to learn from the above analysis. Independent India began with a patriotic leadership at the helm of government and a meritocratic civil service known for its efficiency and incorruptibility. The tradition lasted over the first few years and the foundations of parliamentary democracy and good government were well and truly laid. But soon the situation started deteriorating. Policies became corrupt and the influence of politicians on administration corrupted the civil service as well. Measures in the name of administrative and civil service reforms did not lead to positive results. This has increased social distrust.

People have started feeling that everyone, from top to bottom, in the government is corrupt and nothing can happen without offering bribes to people in authority. Major scandals, which erupted in recent years, the latest being the 2G spectrum scam and Commonwealth Games scam, have shaken the foundations of people’s trust in the Indian democratic and government institutions.

It is in such a surcharged atmosphere that Anna Hazare’s fast on the issue of Lok Ayukta (Commission for Measures against Corruption) evoked a nationwide response. But the lack of trust between the government and so-called ‘Civil Society’ seems only to have increased and there is a stalemate. What is required is a series of measures which the government should take to restore social trust and confidence. If this does not happen, the situation may deteriorate and the future of Indian democracy may be endangered.

Formerly Secretary to the Government of India and Vice-Chancellor, Goa University, Dr Dubhashi is currently the Chairman, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, Pune Kendra. He can be contacted at e-mail: dubhashi@giaspn01.vsnl.net.in

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