Tackling Corruption in India Requires Discussion Before Reforms
The issue of corruption received plenty of attention in India during 2010. IPL, financial irregularities in CWG, Ardash Housing society scam, 2G spectrum allocation scam, alleged nexus of media, corporate lobbying and politicians exposed in the Niira Radia tapes - these were some of the more widely discussed corruption cases during the past year. The media expressed much disappointment on the report that India had slipped three places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2010. India is ranked at 87 among 178 countries. There is a spontaneous urge to suggest that India is a corrupt country. Or to state it more dramatically, India has become a corrupt country. However, the issue of corruption in India appears to be overtly generalized and ignores some important nuances which need to be highlighted if the problem of corruption is to be genuinely addressed. The concept of corruption is better understood if we make the following distinctions: 1) difference between perception and practice of corruption, 2) difference between corruption in society and government and 3) difference between corruption in the past and present.
What constitutes corruption? According to Transparency International (TI) corruption is operationally defined as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. TI further differentiates between “according to rule” corruption and “against the rule” corruption. Facilitation payments, where a bribe is paid to receive preferential treatment for something that the bribe receiver is required to do by law, constitute the former. The latter, on the other hand, is a bribe paid to obtain services the bribe receiver is prohibited from providing. This is a technical definition. As pointed out by Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati there are cross-cultural differences. Paying tip to the cab driver or pizza delivery boy may be the norm in U.S. but is viewed as a form of corruption in India. Giving boxes of sweets on Diwali to local bureaucrats by resident welfare associations may be viewed as a means of ‘building relationships’ in India but can be cited as an example of bribery by a Western observer.
Defining corruption is a complex task. Perception and practice of corruption need to be distinguished. For many Indians their perception of corruption is a rationalization for their practice of corruption. TI ranks countries according to Corruption Perception Index, which implies that India is ranked 87th not on the practice of corruption but on the citizens’ perceptions of corruption prevalent in government. Most citizens in India perceive corruption to be widespread thereby justifying their indulgence in corrupt practices. However, this should not imply that corruption simply exists in the realm of perception but perception undoubtedly reinforces the practice of corruption. Prof. Bhagwati once again makes a correct assessment in stating that, “even a blind man will tell Transparency International: “I saw him take a bribe with my own eyes.”
Corruption in society and corruption in Government are received differently. Paying bribe for school admission is considered to be a harmless aspect of corruption. Over-speeding or violation of traffic signal is usually followed by negotiations with traffic personnel. The general sense (which is also broadly correct) is that the reason for the traffic personnel’s intervention is not law enforcement but ‘rent-seeking’. Such aspects of corruption have come to be viewed as innocuous in India. The impression is that citizens indulge in such acts of corruption simply because they don’t have a choice. The same explanation does not apply to instances of corruption in the government, judiciary or corporate bodies. It is argued that though individuals may not be equipped to fight corruption in the system, public institutions can and should be distanced from corrupt practices. Here also perception plays an important role. Citizens see themselves as ‘givers’ of bribes and the government as ‘receiver’ of the same. The citizens are usually projected as naïve, as people who are forced into paying bribes while the government is painted in black. Thus there is talk of reforming the official process for making the government more transparent. Rarely is there any emphasis on addressing issues of corruption in Indian society. Visit to some of India’s famous temples and shrines will demonstrate the level of corruption prevalent in religious practices – a domain where the Government is not involved.
It is widely contended that India has become more corrupt. This observation is not entirely correct. Congress ministries were formed in six Indian states in 1937 following the provisions of the Government of India Act 1935. In 1939, in response to complaints of corruption in Congress ministries, Mahatma Gandhi said that he “would go to the length of giving the whole congress a decent burial, rather than put up with the corruption that is rampant.” The Mudgal case of 1951 highlighted the problem of corruption when the provincial Parliament was ruling India and the Constitution was still in the drafting stages. According to historian Ramachandra Guha, until the Mundhra scandal erupted in 1957-1958, the ministers of Nehru’s government were widely held to be found of power yet above financial impropriety. The Mundhra affair made the first serious dent in this image. The history of modern India is replete with numerous examples of political corruption, so why is India projected as becoming more corrupt? Two possible explanations can be suggested. First, replay of corruption cases and minute by minute update of corruption scandals by an activist media amplifies the nuance value of corruption in the country. Second, the economic pie has gotten bigger. India’s economic growth also implies that the money that exchanges hand in corruption cases will be larger than what it was previously.
Opposition to corruption in India is selective. The focus is on instances of corruption in public institutions and protest is registered by political parties, media and public intellectuals. The common people of India, christened as ‘aam adami’, is not perturbed by reports of ‘growing’ corruption; he is either too indifferent or has accepted corruption as a part of the India’s social and political milieu. Fight against corruption cannot begin with reforming the state practices or political process. It has to begin with a discussion on what constitutes corruption and what are its most unacceptable manifestations. It is pompous to declare that ‘India needs to get rid of corruption’. Some degree of corruption in perception or practice has and will continue to exist in society and state apparatus. Acceptance of this fact can lead to a realistic deliberation on tackling the most adverse dimensions of corruption. TI is correct in observing that corruption “is a matter of degree: there are limits in all cultures beyond which an action becomes corrupt and unacceptable.” India needs to define this limit. Until then the country will be embroiled in useless arguments to prove that the state is more corrupt than the society, the Government is more corrupt than the Opposition, the present is more corrupt than the past.
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