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Intervention required at several levels

A politician who is poor is a poor politician. This statement by Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a former mayor of Mexico City, captures the social acceptability of political corruption.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2006 00:32 IST

A politician who is poor is a poor politician. This statement by Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a former mayor of Mexico City, captures the social acceptability of political corruption. The Enron scandal, Oil-for-food scam, gross violations of campaign finance rules in the US, Germany, Japan and South Korea, and bribing of our MPs – tell a global tale of bribery, corporate influence, abuse of power and corruption.

In India, where there is widespread poverty and a distinct deficit of development, corruption eats into critical resource allocation and delivery of services. Hence, domestic corruption and its international dimensions necessitate immediate intervention at various levels. Changes required include comprehensive internal political party reforms and the effective institution of global checks and balances to curb bribery and movement of ‘dirty money’.

Abuse of power by politicians and bureaucrats has an adverse impact on the operation of interest groups and lobbyists. In 1977 the US enacted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that prohibits bribing of foreign government officials in order to get business, which is also the focus of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.

Many countries have taken regional initiatives like the Council of Europe’s Civil and Criminal Law Conventions, OAS Inter-American Convention against Corruption and the African Union’s Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Corruption. These efforts have set the precedent for the UN Convention against Corruption. (See box)

However, charity begins at home and Indian political parties need to first set their house in order. In the absence of strict disclosure laws and all-encompassing legislations, large and undisclosed contributions to politicians and public servants almost legitimise corrupt practices. We also lack the legislative tools to make the business process of influence peddling more transparent.

Campaign finance is an issue of wide debate all over the world. Funding of political parties in most countries is based on the combination of public subsidies and private donations. Whereas the US provides no public support for candidates to its legislature, the Scandinavian countries provide subsidies to political parties, and France, Germany and Italy provide extensive public funding. In practice, none of these systems is perfect, though transparent procedures have led to improvements at most places.

Illegitimate sources frequently fund illegal and wasteful activities like bribery, vote buying and corrupt electoral practices. Honest funding of political activities through legitimate sources can restrict such abuses. An important lesson is to be learnt from Malaysia, which has banned large-scale election rallies, deeming the activity wasteful.

In India, ambiguity or absence of laws pertaining to corruption is combined with ineffective punishment for the corrupt. Huge backlogs and legal loopholes delay prosecution and light punishment encourages repeat offenders. Although Indian civil servants facing criminal proceedings are placed under suspension until cleared by the courts, the same yardstick is not applied to our politicians.

The absence of a whistleblower protection law makes citizens reluctant to publicly speak out against corruption. In the UK, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 protects whistleblowers from victimisation. It is clear that a mere law is not enough. What we need is consistent monitoring of statutes and policies through well-defined legal mechanisms and democratic institutions. Some of the initiatives listed in the box can help make a difference.

The road ahead

* Legal protection to whistle-blowers

* Stronger intra-party democracy. Effective checks and balances

* Greater transparency; strict disclosure laws and auditing; soft money regulation

* Limited state funding to parties for elections

* Simple procedures for sanction and implementation of new projects

* Shorter campaigns. Ceiling on advertisements and rallies

* New, all-encompassing anti-corruption legislation

* Empowered regulators like CVC and CEC for swift prosecution and quicker redress

* Harsher punishments. Disqualification for those convicted of corruption and criminal activities