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At the front of the queue

The letter from India Inc to the government suggests the need for wholesale changes.

india Updated: Jan 18, 2011 22:38 IST

Thirteen men and a woman have taken it upon themselves to articulate the angst of a nation against corruption. Collectively they happen to represent an elite that a scam-tainted 'system' has thrown up - corporate chieftains, bankers, judges - although individually their integrity is beyond reproach. Having seen the beast up close, their suggestions for cleaning up merit a consideration beyond what would normally be available to those of a bunch of boy scouts. The first, and most telling point, in their charter is institution building. The consistent corrosion of the judiciary and the executive by the legislature is a foregone conclusion; we all wish it wouldn't happen, but it does. The League of Extraordinary Citizens, alas, does not tell us how to ensure the independence of institutions our Constituent Assembly equipped the nation with at Independence. For a country that has neatly side-stepped the checks and balances proposed in the Constitution more checks may not lead to greater balance.

The other, interlinked, issue raised by Messrs Premji, Parekh and Variava is ad hoc decision-making. Again something we wish didn't happen, but it does. Discretion is at the core of democracy, asking for structures that curb it will be suppressing plurality. Admittedly, some decisions - like taxes - are common across capitalist democracies and can be codified, but there is no one-size-fits-all style to governance overall. For a country that has turned to capitalism barely two decades ago, India still has large patches of its economy - like agriculture - where markets will not work without causing grave harm to millions of people. We must first sign up for capitalism in its widest terms before we can transplant rules of economic behaviour from advanced economies.

The rest of the charter reads a bit like a pre-budget memorandum to the government with thinly veiled references to industrial projects being delayed on environmental grounds rubbing shoulders with a call to break the stalemate in Parliament over allegations of corruption in the award of radio frequencies to telecommunications companies. While every voice raised against graft is welcome, the signatories to and the timing of this particular citizen's charter will undoubtedly raise quite a few eyebrows in political and corporate circles. The subtext of this message - greater economic reform - should not be ignored. However, Indians seem more prone to jumping queues because there are so many of them around. Take out the queue, and the need to bribe one's way to the front disappears.