Confronting corruption

Confronting corruption

Civil society to the fore

Among a host of countries that gained independence post World War II, India is among the very few which have remained democracies throughout their existence. We should be justifiably proud of this since it has been accomplished despite the play of a large number of centrifugal forces within our country.

It must also be acknowledged that this democracy of ours has not been a sham cloaking a single party rule or involving the participation of only a thin elite crust of the population.  In fact, it is amazing how despite a legacy of monarchy, feudalism and colonisation  stretching back tens of centuries, India has in just the last 64 years as a sovereign nation, pushed the notion of democracy down to the remote hamlets through the mechanism of Panchayati Raj.

Thanks to the maintenance of a fairly even balance among the four pillars of democracy – legislature, executive, judiciary and the press -- we have enjoyed by and large freedom of expression and mobility which would be the envy of mature democracies the world over. In fact, we have even created a fifth pillar, the civil society, whose strength is slowly but surely rising to rival that of the other four. Not many older democracies can boast of this.

There are those who claim, particularly the members of the legislature pillar, that civil society in India is getting too big for its boots and that it is flexing muscles without being elected. But if that was the case, politicians, who claim to truly represent the public, should be able to ignore the tantrums of civil society.  That they dare not, shows that this new pillar of democracy has inherent strength.

However, India’s vibrant democracy, is threatened by a virus whose spread and malignancy has increased exponentially from year to year. No, it is not the Maoist insurgency, as prime minister Manmohan Singh would have us believe. That virus is corruption.  Insurgency is an outcome of corruption .

 Our politicians have for long tended to make light of this debilitating disease, stating that in a democracy some corruption is to be expected and that it can be found even in the most developed democratic nations. Their knee-jerk reaction, when the civil society recently raised the matter to confrontation level, was to try to shoot the messenger. All means have been employed by the ruling coalition at the Centre -- denigration of the civil society leaders by creating false evidences of graft against them, hounding Ramdev by letting loose investigating agency dogs at his operations and aides, sowing fear among the supporters by rough police action that did not spare children and aged women etc.

Fragmentation and chaos

What the complacent politicians fail to realise is that by brushing the disease under the carpet it does not disappear. If they open their eyes they will see that the blight of corruption has started prejudicing the common people against democracy itself and that is a very dangerous line of thinking to be allowed. For a country of such immense diversity as India today, the alternative to democracy is fragmentation and chaos, the type of milieu that existed between the Mughal and British empires.

While civil society is perfectly within its rights and in fact, ought to be thanked for raising national consciousness on the issue of corruption, it must also not project the Lokpal as a magic wand that will wish away corruption. The Lokpal’s task comes at the end of the line, in investigating and prosecuting the corrupt. Effectively tackling corruption will have to attempted simultaneously all along the line on several factors that drive corruption such as need, greed, opportunity, ease of performing corrupt operations, system of justice, scales of punishment etc.

To some extent, this is continuously being done. Economic liberalisation and decontrol, introduction of computerisation in public administration, electronic voting in elections, Internet-based transactions such as railway seat reservations, appointment of regulatory boards for various activities involving the public such as the stock market etc. have all put paid to a lot of corruption opportunities for politicians as well as administrators and reduced  the need for the general public to be at the giving end of corruption.

As more and more administrative operations are computerised and interconnected, economic liberalisation is extended and public policy determination becomes more transparent, opportunities for corruption will be further eroded. For example, the minute the prices of petrol and diesel are decontrolled, the oil mafia will be crippled. Open donation to political parties could reduce graft  for election funding.

Not that deterrence has no value in curbing corruption. To that extent, pushing for a powerful Lokpal and speedy corruption trials is necessary. If even one or two major politicos or top administrators are swiftly tried for corrupt acts and given stringent punishment,  others who might be considering leveraging their positions to make some side money will think twice about it.

But deterrence can only do that much. In China,  corrupt officers are swiftly tried and even executed. Yet,  corruption is rife in that country and the difference in ranking of the two countries by Transparency International is not much:  78th rank for China and 87th for India. Which is why, corruption needs to be  confronted holistically.  

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