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More corrupt,more accountable

Despite the new scale of our corruption scandals,fierce political opposition and an energetic media now keep the government in check

Written by Dinsha Mistree | Published: January 2, 2012 2:16:34 am

Though Anna Hazare gets much of the credit for focusing the national spotlight on corruption,India was only too aware of the problem even before his agitation. According to a Pew Research poll in October 2010 (six months before Hazare emerged on the national scene),98 per cent of Indians indicate corrupt political leaders as a “very big” or a “moderately big” problem. Hazare’s campaign did not attune Indians to the corruption problem as much as offer them a chance to rally around a solution.

To understand the supposed rise in perceived corruption,it is necessary to make a distinction between corruption in its petty form — small-scale bribery that a low-level government official collects every day — and grand corruption,where larger sums of money are involved and higher-level government influence is sought. Petty corruption seems to be nothing new: while officials may be asking for slightly larger bribes,it is,and always has been,a volume business. This is not to say that Indians should tolerate petty corruption — they shouldn’t — it is just that small-scale bribery is probably not why Indians think their government is suddenly so afflicted by corruption.

Instead,the answer most likely has something to do with grand corruption. Grand corruption in India appears to be reaching unprecedented levels. Projects that were supposed to encapsulate the best of modern India — the Commonwealth Games,the 2G auction,and the Adarsh Housing Society — have gone spectacularly wrong. Even greater cause for concern is that these scandals have implicated top-level officials from across the government,including the IAS and Indian military. Worse,several of the accused appear to be beating the system,not just in terms of avoiding jail sentences,but also by keeping their jobs.

But for all of the problems that these scandals present,there is a bright side — their emergence suggests that India’s democracy is developing stronger mechanisms of accountability. Grand corruption scandals such as these usually emerge when someone gains by revealing them. In a democracy,this responsibility usually falls on opposing politicians and the press. The scale of grand corruption was doubtless under-reported in India’s early years due to a limited political opposition and the weakness of India’s press institutions. To draw out this point,let’s examine two of the rare exceptions in India’s history where large-scale scandals were brought to light. Consider one of independent India’s first major scandals,when a stock trader named Haridas Mudhra bribed LIC officials to invest in his companies in the 1950s. At the time,the Congress party occupied almost every seat in government,and so when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to handle the scandal quietly,he did not expect much trouble. Unfortunately for Nehru,Congress Party member (and son-in-law) Feroze Gandhi decided to publicise the scandal. Gandhi’s persistence became a serious slap-in-the-face to Nehru’s government,leading to the resignation of the finance minister,T.T. Krishnamachari.

While one can only guess at the reasons why Gandhi decided to challenge his party,contemporary India no longer has to rely on a snubbed in-law to check an all-powerful ruling party. This is because India enjoys a far more competitive political landscape. Today’s Congress must depend on fragile alliances with other political parties. The opposition BJP is preparing to make corruption a hot-button issue during the next national elections. Political contestation has increased,and with those in the opposition incentivised to uncover scandals,the politicians in power will become more accountable.

The second boon to India’s democratic accountability has occurred as India’s press has come into its own in recent years. Many may recall the infamous Bofors Scandal in 1989,which was uncovered by two journalists,Chitra Subramanian and N. Ram. While that was a high watermark for India’s press,one must also remember that Subramanian’s newspaper,The Hindu ,faced such intense political pressure that they dropped the story. Subramanian was forced to resign,although she eventually shifted to The Indian Express . Today,India’s press institutions are much stronger. Newspapers have thrived as literacy has spread throughout the country,resulting in more protection from government interference. Newly-established political magazines publish in-depth exposés. And this is to say nothing of the round-the-clock news reporting supplied by television channels,a far cry from the days where programming was dominated by the state-run media. With so many private outlets competing for the next big story,it is difficult to imagine a scandal staying quiet for long. It also bears mentioning that reporters,as well as opposition politicians and private citizens,are taking advantage of the Right to Information Act,one of the strongest commitments to transparency ever taken by any government.

The unprecedented spate of grand corruption scandals has resulted in the public’s perception of corruption reaching an all-time high. To be sure,Indians must be concerned with the scale and frequency of these scandals,but it is important to also recognise that these scandals are coming to light because of enhanced political opposition and because of stronger press institutions. So even though these scandals have exposed the deplorable scale of grand corruption in India,they concurrently highlight how India’s democracy is making serious strides towards greater accountability.

The writer is a PhD candidate in politics at Princeton University and a visiting scholar at the Ravi J. Matthai Centre at IIM-Ahmedabad

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