A reality check on why our society and politics can never be freed from corruption
The manner in which the Anna Hazare movement had captured the public imagination a few years ago and galvanised politics, many expected, not without reason, that it would force parties to substantially clean up their accounts. Though the Congress lost both the Centre and the Delhi assembly on the issue of corruption, the menace still plagues the country, with little optimism for future. Was it the failure of the movement? Or was the public outrage ephemeral? Veteran journalist N Ram, in his book, Why Scams Are Here To Stay, offers some crucial perspective. Popular movements like that of ‘Gandhians’ Anna Hazare and JP Narayan against corruption failed, as they were driven by outrage, and offered a simplified moral explanation and solution of corruption, instead of a comprehensive analysis of socio-economic and cultural factors that breed corruption.
For several decades, neo-liberal economists blamed the ‘permit-licence-quota’ system, which prompted rent seeking as the sole reason for corruption. The ‘ideologically-led reasoning’ failed, as liberalisation ensured an exponential increase in corruption. The real explanation for corruption then, Ram correctly notes, “is to be found deep in the heart and entrails of India’s political economy as it has evolved over the past quarter century”. Ram dedicates an entire chapter to “Political Corruption Through a Marxist Lens”, offering the Marxist perspective that “corruption has always been an inherent feature of capitalism”, and is not “an aberration” or “moral blight”. Yet, he does not overlook the case of China, a country with a “socialist Marxist economy” that is now marked with deeply entrenched corruption. In the absence of ever-vigilant institutional safeguards, corruption has the capacity to invade any system.
In a way, corruption in India is also the legacy of the British rule. Ram points out that the institutional arrangement, legal instruments and ingrained practices that have facilitated corruption in independent India owe a lot to the British Raj. Political corruption was recorded even at the most unlikely places. Historian Rajat Kanta Ray points at an instance in his book, Urban Roots of Indian Nationalism: Pressure Groups and Conflicts of Interests in Calcutta City Politics. After the Swaraj Party won the election to the Calcutta municipality in 1924, CR Das became the mayor and the young Subhas Chandra Bose its chief executive officer. The founder of the Indian National Army ensured that the municipal corporation accept a tender of a private company, which, in turn, contributed a hefty amount to the Swaraj Party accounts and also bore the expenses of its members who accompanied Das to a Congress session in Allahabad.
Over the decades, corruption has got deeply entrenched, as political rulers found little incentive in modifying the system. Ram mentions two case studies—Bofors and multi-layered corruption in Tamil Nadu—to confirm that the omnipresence of corruption is the most significant development of India’s political economy over the past 25 years. The game that begins with elections eventually percolates across the sectors. A study by Centre for Media Studies notes that over `1.5 lakh crore was spent on all elections between 2010 and 2014, of which half was unaccounted money. Corporate funding to political parties is yet another significant pointer. The latest figures released by the Association of Democratic Reforms show that of the total corporate donations of `965 crore in the past four years, the BJP got Rs 705 crore, which was 92% of the total donations it had received.
Its possible link with corruption demands separate analysis, but it confirms the prominence the corporate world now holds in the political sphere. Its implications need no guessing.
The problem gets aggravated by fast-receding investigative journalism, as compromised media can’t obviously play a significant role in exposing corruption. Ram’s book notes a sense of urgency, underlining that the country can no longer wait and action must be taken now. He prescribes a nine-point programme to check corruption, which includes action on the legislative front, strengthening enforcement capacity, ensuring effective regulation, greater vigilance of vulnerable sectors and first-rank investigative journalism. “Deep-going and radical changes to India’s political economy” are required to check the menace, in the absence of which the country’s slide in several spheres seems certain. Ominous signs ahead.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla