Trap and punish

AAP must think through its anti-corruption ideas. Crowdsourcing sting operations could be dangerous.

Published: January 10, 2014 1:20 am

AAP must think through its anti-corruption ideas. Crowdsourcing sting operations could be dangerous.

The Aam Aadmi Party is built around a single, powerful idea, that corruption is a denial of citizens’ rights. It was mobilised around the primary cause of transparency and integrity in decision-making. But some of its chosen solutions are not only superficial, they could be dangerous. The idea of sting operations against public officials and a government helpline to act on these reports seeks to make vigilantes out of citizens, and misunderstands the nature of corruption. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has asked people to play along, when asked for a bribe, surreptitiously record the meeting, and submit the clip as damning proof.
Sting operations are an ethical minefield. They are based on lies and entrapment, even if in the service of a larger cause. They are easy to manipulate at several levels, including editing to convey the desired impression of a meeting. This unease about the subterfuge and distortion of using undercover cameras is the reason stings are not admissible as legal evidence. How can they be the basis of prompt government action, then? It is one thing to “strike terror into the hearts of bribe-takers”, as Kejriwal has promised, but it is equally important to give public officials a fair hearing, and assess the motives of the complainant, and the nature of what transpired. A 24-hour turnaround time does not suggest that will be the case. In fact, the possibilities of misuse in these crowdsourced sting operations are mindboggling. Corruption is often visualised as a matter of put-upon citizens being denied services they are owed by the state, being asked to pay for their rightful due. But a bribe is also a way to bend a rule, to get a service faster or out of turn, to exert pressure on a burdened and constrained system to act in your favour, or influence policy outcomes.
A harassment bribe, like the former, is much easier to fix — the very fact that it is a political issue now, and likely to be vigorously acted upon, could inhibit these transactions. The AAP’s receptivity to the issue may make it harder for officials to seek such bribes. Changing the incentives, by decriminalising the bribe-giver, as has been controversially suggested, might have a far greater impact on harassment bribes. But that would still leave us with the larger problem of corruption, which comes out of unaccountable power not disciplined by institutions that reflect citizens’ rights, and the disproportionate influence exerted by wealth. The AAP has so far shown little interest in the political economy of corruption, or offered any systematic solutions towards reducing official discretion in various sectors, or introducing open processes. Instead of reforming government towards transparency, it has chosen the easier, attention-getting route of sting operations and threats, and outsourced its responsibility to angry citizens.

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