Political corruption in India is intractable, new book argues

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In a new book, Why Scams Are Here to Stay: Understanding Political Corruption in India, eminent journalist N Ram breaks new ground by presenting an original and devastating analysis of political corruption in contemporary India and its near intractability.

Ram, former editor-in-chief of The Hindu newspaper and editor of Frontline magazine, is now chairman of Kasturi & Sons publishing house in Chennai. Among his other achievements, Ram was recipient of the Asian Investigative Journalist Award in 1990 given by the Press Foundation of Asia.

His well-produced 200-page book is comprehensive, unsparing and compelling in its persuasive rigor. It is also detailed, richly documented, lucid and highly readable.

Political corruption in contemporary India, Ram says, is an “endemic and deep-seated disorder” constituting an ineradicable problem.

In addition to an introduction and a conclusion, the book has eight chapters divided into three sections.

Section I, with three chapters, begins by dealing with the story of corruption in India in its pervasiveness, omnipresence and multifariousness against an international background. It examines the phenomenon of corruption as Indians have known it, including its folklore. It looks at the reality of corruption and the issue of measurement.

It goes on to examine the diverseness of corruption and the significance and implications of the distinctions it makes between grand corruption, petty corruption, centralized and decentralized corruption and the large-scale corruption of political and electoral finance. The third chapter examines  India’s anti-corruption laws and their “notoriously poor implementation”.

Section II begins by focusing on the historical, conceptual and theoretical issues. It addresses the question of historical causation and culpability relating to corruption in modern India. It critically views the idea of “Asiatic corruption” in the context of the “scandal of empire”.

The challenge of conceptualizing and defining corruption is scrutinized. The Marxist understanding of political corruption is appreciated for the radical alternative it offers to mainstream approaches. Contrary to the predictions of neoliberal economic theory, the Marxist alternative helps bring out that corruption has grown exponentially after liberalization.

Section III has two chapters with case studies that speak to a “much larger reality”. The first study relates to Bofors, India’s defining grand political-corruption scandal. The insights presented here are drawn from the author’s experience of leading The Hindu’s protracted investigation of the Bofors scandal in the late 1980s.

The second case study hypothesizes that several Indian states have their own corruption systems, with well-established patterns, clear rules of the game, identifiable actors and regional and local specificities. Drawing on original material, it provides a sketch of Tamil Nadu’s “scientific system” of political corruption that has been developed over the past three and a half decades and has become virtually ineradicable.

It calls for focused empirical research to build up a composite picture of the systematization of corruption across India’s federal governance.

The conclusion provides an absorbing account of the intractability of political corruption under India’s prevailing circumstances, which means that without deep and radical changes in the political economy, it is well nigh impossible to prevent and eliminate the “endemic and deep-seated disorder” of political corruption.

However, even without such radical changes, the author concludes that steps can be taken to minimize, contain and combat corruption. He makes detailed and welcome suggestions under the nine broad headings of laws, enforcement capacity, policies, institutions, regulation, vigilance, the corporate sector, journalism and politics, which need careful study.

Ram’s brilliant and unprecedented enunciation offers the diligent reader information, education and insight on the multifarious aspects of political corruption and scams in contemporary India and the measures that can be taken to deal with them even without the radical reforms that he sees as necessary.

In Chapter 1, the author cites a 2015 research study by Sandip Sukthankar and Milan Vaishnav, which provides a shortlist of 28 scams or mega-swindles for the period 2000-2013, involving billions and billions of dollars. The total “value” of these scams exceeds imagination.

In Chapter 3, the author discusses the way in which India’s existing anti-corruption laws have been delayed, diluted and defeated in achieving their their fundamental objective of fighting corruption.

The Prevention of Corruption Act of 1988 supplanted India’s first law to tackle corruption among public servants, the PCA Act of 1947. The Central Vigilance Commission was set up in 1964. The PCA 1988 now in force came up when the Rajiv Gandhi government was facing big political trouble from the emerging Bofors kickback scandal.

The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill of 2013 and two other anti-corruption laws came up at a time when the Manmohan Singh-led government was facing a number of major corruption scandals involving huge kickbacks.

It was said that India’s ratification of the United Nations Convention against Corruption of 1975 was the reason for the proposed amendment. After the completion of the legislative process, it became clear that three key provisions of the UN convention would not be included. In significant respects the original anti-corruption law was being diluted. This revealed the lack of seriousness of the government, the political establishment and Parliament in delivering on the earlier anti-corruption promises.

Similarly, foot-dragging by governments led by both the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party was witnessed on the whistleblower-protection law, which led to the dilution of the Whistleblowers Protection (Amendment) Bill 2015, which is yet to be ratified.

After the lack of seriousness about the whistleblower law, an enormous delay was witnessed in the setting up Ombudsman-like laws, the Lokpal in the central government and the Lokayukta in the states, to inquire into allegations of corruption against certain public functionaries. This reflected poorly on the entire Indian political system.

It has been pointed out that the operationalization of the Lokpal and Lokayukta is handicapped by two problems: one, the lack of seriousness of the government and most political parties in giving effect to the concerned legislation; and two, the frequent hijacking of the adjudicative process by defense lawyers and the failure of the judiciary to adhere to strict timelines.

Despite the massive scale on which flagrant corruption takes place in India, very little has been done to go after the big fish.

Observers have noted that the underlying drivers of corruption in India are lack of enforcement capacity and regulatory complexity. Two proximate causes are poor regulation of political finance and the shortcomings in public-sector recruitment and postings.

Other studies have found that the political system is apathetic to the investigation of corruption cases.

In the concluding chapter, the author observes that political corruption in India in all its pervasiveness, omnipresence and multifariousness is a problem of political economy in its profound sense. Without deep and radical changes in the political economy, it will not be possible to prevent and eliminate corruption.

Ram states: ”Corruption, while it is bad and unacceptable, is a normal, not abnormal, condition within the political economy of capitalism. Cronyism exacerbates the condition but corruption, as an integral part of the omnipresence of private interests in the public sphere, including political life, is endemic in all forms of capitalism.”

However, combating corruption is decidedly a challenge of the here and now. Since the challenge is on many fronts, it must be responded to strategically and in stages. A hierarchy and sequence of anti-corruption initiatives and action are the keys.

Keeping this in view, the author goes on to suggest a series of key steps under nine different headings, to tackle corruption here and now. They need immediate consideration.

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