Democracy slowly confronting corruption?

It happened almost synchronously. On Wednesday, July 26, in the Indian state of Bihar, Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar resigned as chief minister. On the issue of corruption charges against his deputy, Tejashwi, he cited irreconcilable difference with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). 

Mr Tejashwi is also Mr Prasad’s son. Two days later, on Friday, July 28, in Pakistan, the Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding office over corruption allegations. Following the judgment, despite having reservations on the verdict, Mr Sharif resigned.

Like most other major developments in South Asia, there are conspiracy theories attached to both the developments. In the case of Bihar, Mr Nitish Kumar joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and formed a government within 24 hours. This has fuelled speculations that the “caged parrot” of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had been unleashed to file corruption charges against Mr Prasad’s family only to destabilise the JD(U)-RJD coalition. 

In the case of Mr Sharif’s removal, some maintain that the Pakistani military is averse to civilian rule. It ruled the country for 30 years. Whenever a civilian government came to power through democratic means, it destabilised such governments before the expiry of its full term. Mr Sharif’s removal is a case of a “legal coup” by the all-powerful Pakistan army by digging up the Panama Papers.  

Beyond the conspiracy theories, the developments in Bihar and in Pakistan could also signify that democracy in South Asia, particularly India, is slowly confronting corruption at high places. Democratic institutions and politics make corruption easier to discover and publicise, allow citizens and political oppositions to make it an important issue and take recourse to judicial redress. The threat of an electoral backlash against an alliance with the “perceived” corrupt may have deterred Mr Nitish Kumar.

It is important to note though that the menace of corruption at high places has been an important topic of public discussion in India almost continuously ever since Independence. Stanley Kochanek, a veteran India observer, had commented, “Nowhere in the world is corruption as widely discussed as it is in India.” 

Corruption was discussed in the early 1950s, when, from example, Rao Shiv Bahadur Singh, a minister in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet and the father of departed leader Arjun Singh, was convicted and sent to jail for taking bribes to issue a forged document for a diamond mining firm. Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s setting up of the Santhanam Committee to address its growing menace and the Partap Singh Kairon scandal in Punjab kept the discussion alive in the 1960s. In the 1970s, there was the Pondicherry scandal involving import licences under minister L N Mishra, followed by his mysterious death in a bomb attack, and the shadowy Nagarwala case. The A R Antulay scam and the Bofors scandal agitated the 1980s. It continued as a hot topic in the 1990s with the St Kitts controversy, Jain Hawala Case, the Sukh Ram telecom scam, and Lakhubhai Pathak cheating case involving godman Chandraswami and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. It thrived with the scams relating to Coalgate, 2G spectrum allocation, the Commonwealth Games and Vyapam in the first decade and a half of the 21st century. 

Illustration by Binay Sinha
The heated discussion on corruption at high places, however, seldom produced concrete results. In raking up the muck, the media seemed to be only following journalism’s golden rule: “Bad news makes good copy.” Most read them only to confirm what Kautilya said almost 2,500 years ago, namely corruption at high places was as irresistible as honey placed at the tip of the tongue, and detecting misappropriation of funds by public functionaries is akin to detecting when a fish is drinking water. 

There were pious declarations from the highest in the land as well.  In 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi assured the nation that “The war on corruption will go on without let or hindrance.”  Even if there was a war, the casualties were practically invisible. 

On his campaign trail before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced “Na khaunga, na khane dunga” or “I will not accept a bribe nor allow anyone else to do so”. So, is democracy slowly confronting corruption in India now only because of a change in leadership? 

Leaders matter, but it will be too simplistic to attribute the change only to a change in leadership. Unlike in an autocracy, leaders in a democracy are constrained by the Constitution, Parliament, bureaucracy and judiciary. Furthermore, leaders in a democracy reflect what the people or the voters want. The saying that people get the leaders they deserve has more than a kernel of truth. In a democracy, the electorate are the principals and the elected politicians only their agents.

Indian democracy may be confronting corruption because of a transformation of the principals – the voters – from widespread poverty, illiteracy, and lack of information. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the respondents in a survey mentioned corruption (almost 12 per cent) as the most important concern, next only to inflation (19 per cent). 

Kautilya may have been right 2,500 years ago, but now in the information society that is India, there are better ways of detecting when the big fish is drinking water. Tolerance of misdemeanour at high places has gone down with the erosion of feudal culture. Not tasting the honey of public money placed at their disposal may be tough, but that is what people increasingly expect politicians to do for continuing in office and avoiding imprisonment.

Missing as yet though is the phenomenon of “voting the scoundrels out” with all its fury. For example, even after the CBI unearthed a mind-boggling booty in his house, Sukh Ram, the erstwhile telecommunication minister in Narasimha Rao’s government, won the 1998 Himachal Assembly election from Mandi with a thumping majority. In spite of serious allegations of corruption, J Jayalalitha continued to win elections for AIADMK in her home state of Tamil Nadu.  In Bihar, Mr Prasad, in spite of conviction in the fodder scam, managed to steer his RJD, and several of his family members, to victory in several seats.  Hopefully, this will also change in the next Lok Sabha election.

The writer is an economist

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