Corruption is not a new phenomenon in India; its history can be traced to the beginning of a formal administrative system in which individuals were vested with discretionary powers. Nevertheless, the nature of corruption is not similar across historical times. In different political and economic conditions it has undergone changes to take advantage of different administrative practices. During the feudal rule, for instance, proximity to the ruler was an enabling factor of corruption. The colonial rule provided an entirely different type of opportunity to the bureaucracy, as the common people could neither understand the language of administration nor its procedures. In collusion with a class of middlemen who mediated between the government and the people, the members of the bureaucracy was able to dispense favours for a price. The scope for corruption in these conditions was rather limited, because transactions were rarely very large to admit of enormous gratification.
Corruption in Neo-Liberal conditions
The corruption really became rampant during the post-independence era, particularly after the adoption of neo-liberal policies when the privatization of public undertakings and massive projects for infrastructural modernization involved huge amounts of money. The essence of liberalization was the transfer of public assets to private coffers. The politicians and bureaucracy manipulated these funds in a manner that a part of them went into their own kitty. It is popularly believed that the black money thus generated is either slashed away in Swiss banks, and hence cannot be assessed, or invested in real estate and mega commercial establishments in metropolitan cities. In these cities corruption has given birth to a neuvo riche class, to whom there are no limits for extravagance.
The revelations regarding the disinvestment of public undertakings, transactions in telecom industry, organization of Commonwealth games, illegal mining operations and so on underlined the extent to which the ruling elite is mired in corruption. But corruption is not confined to that stratum alone. In fact, what is really alarming is that it is a much wider phenomenon, which has seeped into all levels of administration. For common men it is not possible to get any work done in public offices- be it an electricity connection or a driving license or admission to school- without illegal gratification. As such almost every body is corrupt-either by giving or receiving bribe. The corruption has assumed gigantic proportion of a monster, threatening to bring the entire society under its vicious grip. It is this condition which has stirred the middle class to raise their voice against corruption. The liberal intelligentsia has now come to recognize corruption as the single most socially and politically debilitating force in Indian society. This realization has made the middle class upfront in highlighting the political and moral implications of corruption.
The anxiety of the middle class about corruption, however, has an element of hypocrisy. For the middle class has in the past condoned corruption, even indulged in it, for its own comfort and advantage. A major beneficiary of corruption in developing countries has been the members of the middle class, who have a say in the management of economic development. Their indulgence in corruption ranged from ensuring petty comforts to large scale monetary benefits. It is common knowledge that in all developing countries the greed of the middle class has adversely affected the economic growth and social improvement. In India the middle class has cornered all advantages of modernity . Yet, campaign about corruption tends to isolate the political class alone as responsible for corruption, whereas there is hardly any section of society with access to power which is not corrupt.
Politics and Corruption
The current manifestation of corruption has been a popular theme of discussion in the media, but it generally confined its focus on the misdemeanors of the political class. The members of the middle class being the opinion makers of society took the discussion to the public sphere, often with self-righteous indignation and comparison with the honest past. The reputation of the old guard of freedom fighters and social activists for honesty and public weal has placed the new generation in poor light. One of the consequences of this development has been a general distrust in politics and politicians who are universally believed to be corrupt. Corruption is considered as a necessary evil of politics. The bureaucracy is also believed to be equally dishonest and in cahoots with politicians. The opinion of the middle class is reflected in the work of the Non-governmental organisatons which claim to undertake development work without political considerations. They have spread the notion that politics is a dirty game and the reason for all ills in society is corrupt politics. However, the campaign against corruption has not been adequately sensitive to the criminal manipulation and private appropriation of public funds.
The role of the state in preventing corruption and punishing the corrupt has been very unsatisfactory. Innumerable instances of corruption have occurred during the last sixty four years in which politicians and bureaucrats were directly involved. Very rarely they are subjected to prosecution and punishment. Instead of taking action against them state tried to protect them, and if forced to proceed against them, they are handed out very mild punishment like transfer or suspension. This is not because there is no provision in law to punish them. There are a plenty, but what is lacking is political will to act. As a result, many leadng lights of society have a finger in the pie.
The presence of unaccounted money in civil society impacts upon social and political life in a variety of ways. The breeding ground of politics is corruption, as unprincipled politics can not be pursued otherwise. The democratic practice in India is a domain of the affluent and those who aim to be affluent. The majority of the members of the Parliament are either millionaires or multimillionaires, at least some of them acquiring that status by their association with the Parliament. No ordinary citizen can afford to contest an election, unless he or she or party she represents receives money from sources which are not always clean. In order to retrieve the money invested in election people’s representatives are forced to indulge in a variety of corrupt practices. Many of them have connection with organized gangs dealing illegally in real estate, mining, education, and so on. The criminalization of politics is a consequence of black money generated by corrupt practices. The politics and corruption have become complimentary to each other; corruption emanates from politics without idealism and politics without idealism gives rise to corruption. Indian democracy therefore faces the peril of succumbing to the power of money. This tendency gained ground from the time of Indira Gandhi, who did not hesitate to dispense idealism in favour of remaining in power. Subsequently Rajiv Gandhi was involved in Bofors scandal and Narasimha Rao is known for political corruption for staying in power.
The impact of corruption is not limited to the economic or political spheres alone, but embraces the social and cultural life as well. The enormous amount of money generated through corruption, particularly during the liberalized regime, has accumulated in the hands of a miniscule section of society, has given birth to a section of cultured middlemen.who have emerged as the custodians and promoters of a cultural zone in which a new way of life is being nurtured. This zone is preserved like a hot house in which the most advanced and most sought after cultural activity takes place. Those who inhabit this zone has a consumption pattern divorced from the rest of the society. there is aThe sudden mushrooming of cultural events and festivals during the last two decades draw sustenance from the money flowing out of corruption. The cultural life presented in such events is idealized by the neo-liberal affluent sections in metropolitan cities and have the support of the avant guard of the social and intellectual life. Understandably younger generation is attracted to this way of life. Many of them end up as rudderless boats in the open sea. The promotion and maintenance of such cultural islands have been possible because of the money generated by corruption.
The overwhelming power of corruption in public life has led to a general perception that it constitutes the most serious problem Indian society is currently facing. All other issues like poverty, caste oppression, gender discrimination etc have been pushed to the back foot. In doing so corruption is viewed in isolation, treating it either as a political or an economic issue, in the process overlooking its moral dimension. The definition now adopted both by the government and the activists are not adequate to deal with its comprehensive and social character. It only addresses corruption at the political or bureaucratic level and does not embrace the criterion of justice which should necessarily inform public conduct. For instance, if a lawyer charges fifty lakhs of rupees for a single appearance would it constitute corruption in a country in which about seventy percent people live with twenty rupees a day? Similarly does it amount to corruption if a business tycoon has a fourteen storied building to himself when majority of citizens live on the foot path? If they do the struggle against corruption has to be imbued with a moral dimension.
Impact on Democracy
The present campaign against corruption led by Gandhian activist gives the impression that the state and the middle class are at logger heads with each other. In fact, both the state and civil society share considerable interest in suppressing corruption. The proliferation and scale of corruption threaten to undermine the authority of the state, as the corrupt has occupied the corridors of power. At the same time concessions and privileges enjoyed by the middle class are also under threat. As such it has resulted in the convergence of interest of the state and the middle class.. Both the state and civil society are therefore engaged in finding a solution. The response of the state to Anna Hazare’s fast and the acceptance of the idea of a joint drafting committee of the government and the civil society are symptomatic of their shared interest.
The steps initiated by Anna Hazare in the name of civil society have a variety of implications for the functioning of democracy. The methods Anna Hazare and his team have adopted tend to impinge upon the legislative powers of the Parliament. In order achieve their objectives, which are indeed laudable, they have adopted means which are coercive and anti-democratic. While undertaking a fast unto death Anna issued an ultimatum to the government in a very dictatorial mode about the formation of a drafting committee of the Lokpal bill. He even conducted a referendum. His entire demeanor was authoritarian to which the government initially succumbed in panic, fearing the possibility of a mass movement. The government thus invested respectability to a small time NGO activist who was jointly sponsored and supported by obscurantist and communal forces. It took time for the government to realize the mistake and to assert the supremacy of the Parliament in legislative matters. Every citizen has a right to protest, suggest changes in the legislation and influence public opinion through legitimate means of mobilization of opinion. At the same time no citizen can arrogate to himself the function of the Parliament which is the representative institution of the country. The comparison of Anna Hazare’s protest with the Gandhian movement is totally misplaced. Gandhi was organizing passive resistance against a colonial government which did not have any representative character, whereas Anna was dealing with a democratic system, whatever its weaknesses are. Gandhiji was fighting for democracy, whereas Anna Hazare’s movement tends to undermine the legitimacy of democratic institutions. While the government had hastened to compromise with Anna at the first instance, his ‘second coming’ has been handled in a high handed manner. The government imposed several restrictions on his fast, including the number of participants and finally arrested him and his followers. If the manner in Which conducted his agitation had the potential of undermining democratic values, the government is equally guilty of adopting authoritarian ways which would affect the principles of democracy.
The attitude of the state to the adoption of legislative measures for the prevention of corruption has been vacillatory. It has not shown any urgency in the matter. The legislation, undertaken by fits and starts have been pending for more than forty years. All attempts during this period to get legislative approval for an act to prevent corruption have fallen on the wayside for one reason or the other. Moreover, even the existing laws like the anti-corruption Act of 1988 have not been strictly implemented. The conditions have now come to such a pass that the government had to take some steps to pacify the middle class. Anna Hazare’s initiative provided a convenient opportunity to pilot a legislation which would earn popular support, without substantially affecting the interest of its social base.
Fundamental Questions and Solutions
A comparison between the Jan Lokpal bill drafted by Team Anna and Lokpal bill presented by the government understandably several common features. The difference is not in the basic character of the bills, but only related to certain provisions like the inclusion of the judiciary within their purview. The civil society activists believe that the government is not sincere in dealing with corruption as it has far too many skeletons in the cupboard. According go them the government is more concerned with shielding the corrupt rather than bringing them to book. The main weakness of the bill is that it does not mark a qualitative improvement in tackling corruption. The prevention of corruption, rather than the punishment of the corrupt are the key issue. Both Jan Lokpal and Lokpal have overlooked this question. The government bill has even left out the words ‘prevention of corruption’ from its preamble and has replaced them with the words ‘contain corruption’. As such the bills do not address systemic issues, but aims to deal only with superficial matters. It is, therefore, clear that these bills would not be able to prevent corruption. For punishing the corrupt there is no need for any new legislation, there is already sufficient number of laws to take cognizance of it.
There are certain tendencies in the agitation sponsored by Anna which have raised some disquiet among the liberal and secular intelligentsia. The movement is supported by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and Sadhus and sants are in the forefront. The crowd at the Jantar Mantar during the fast was a curious mixture of affluent middle class and activists of the RSS. A retired bureaucrat lke Kiran Bedi and former minister like Shanti Bushan who were part of the corrupt system are in the leadership. Anna Hazare is under the delusion that his movement is a second freedom struggle and he would symbolize the energy of the nation as Gandhiji did.
The prevention of corruption requires entirely different remedies. Two steps are particularly important in this context. The first is a fundamental change in the administrative procedures. At the moment administration is conducted with utmost sense of secrecy and the process of decision making is not known to the public. It gives considerable space to the bureaucracy and the political class to manipulate the system to their advantage. This should be replaced by a transparent system so that public could come to know about the processes and procedures, not after the event, but during the event.If people could know the terms of the disinvestment of public undertakings when the deal was being struck by Arun Shourie, the corruption involved in it could have been prevented. So would have been the case with telecom and Common Wealth Games.
Secondly, decentralization of power and decision making, so that responsibility becomes collective and not individual is a necessary pre-requisite for preventing corruption. The discretionary power vested in the individual is at the root of corruption. In other words, deepening of democracy is the only remedy. Neither the Jan Lokpal nor the Lokpal bill addresses these fundamental problems.
The weakness of the proposed legislation by the government is not limited to its failure to address basic issues; it is inadequate to achieve even what it is attempting to do. For instance, Lokpal is supposed to be an autonomous institution, capable of taking independent decision, without being influenced by the state. It is doubtful that in actual practice such an expectation would be fulfilled. On the contrary it might turn out to be a wing of the state. An indication for such a contingency is inherent in the mode of selection of the Lokpal. The committee for selecting Lokpal mainly consists of the representatives of the state, with only a symbolic presence of civil society.
The second drawback is its highly centralized structure, with an investigation and prosecution wings, vested with overriding powers. The centralization of authority is the principle the central government has been following in all its reform measures n recent times. The powers thus vested with the state can be a prescription for authoritarian rule, along wth the exception granted to the Prime Minister, higher judiciary and the members of Parliament from the operation of the Lokpal. Another implication of the centralized structure is that it will remain inaccessible to the common man. The remedy is to have a multi- layered structure reaching down to the level of the Panchayat. After all, Lokpal is meant to empower the common man.
The proposals of both the government and civil society members which are now in the public domain are not likely to prevent corruption. In fact, they share considerable common ground. The nature of proposed legislation, both Jan Lokpal and Lokpal do not challenge the structure of power which enables corrupt practices. Their proposals do not go much beyond some cosmetic changes. What they are quibbling over are only superficial matters. The Team Anna against whom allegations of corruption are being leveled, have trivialized the possible opposition of the people, by collaborating with the state on the one hand and side stepping pressing issues facing the people like poverty, rural insurgency and communalism.