In India, corruption is the great leveller - Hindustan Times
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In India, corruption is the great leveller

Dec 16, 2021 07:58 PM IST

The nature of the corruption may vary, but the ‘deal-making’ is in-built into a well-entrenched system of localised political-bureaucratic networks

Here is an intriguing question: Has corruption declined, increased or remained the same in seven years of the Narendra Modi government? After all, “na khaoonga, na khane doonga” (neither will I take a bribe nor will I allow anyone to take a bribe) was the rousing message from Prime Minister (PM) Modi in his first Independence Day address after taking over in 2014.

On a global bribery risk index, India made a big leap forward from rank 185 in 2014 to 77 in 2020. Digitisation and the use of technology in several government processes have reduced the scope for misuse of discretionary powers, be it in tax collection or public services (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
On a global bribery risk index, India made a big leap forward from rank 185 in 2014 to 77 in 2020. Digitisation and the use of technology in several government processes have reduced the scope for misuse of discretionary powers, be it in tax collection or public services (Shutterstock)

Ask this question now to the Karnataka State Contractors Association, which has written to the Prime Minister’s Office last month claiming that they have to cough up around 25-30% of tender amounts to elected representatives before even starting any public works in Bengaluru, with a further 5% being paid to get their bills cleared. Or mention this to government employees in Goa, where a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA has accused his public works department minister of taking 25-30 lakh as a bribe for every departmental posting. Or indeed to police officers in Maharashtra, where a former top police officer has accused the state’s now arrested home minister of seeking 100 crore “vasooli” per month from the police force.

Karnataka and Goa are ruled by the BJP. Maharashtra is an Opposition-ruled coalition. The evidence suggests that corruption remains the great leveller that cuts across the political divide. Recall that in the build-up to the 2014 general elections, the image of being a fierce anti-corruption crusader was key to the Modi persona. The 2014 poll slogan “Bahut hua bhrasthachar, abki baar Modi sarkar” (enough of corruption, this time Modi government) was targeted at an effete Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-2 government that stumbled along from one corruption allegation to another. But an anti-corruption slogan on the campaign trail is so much easier than effecting genuinely transformative change on the ground. So what’s the reality beyond the stirring soundbites?

In January, India slipped six places on the Transparency International’s annual corruption index to the 86th rank, but it was still a marginal improvement from being ranked 94 in 2013. On a global bribery risk index, India made a big leap forward from rank 185 in 2014 to 77 in 2020. Digitisation and the use of technology in several government processes have reduced the scope for misuse of discretionary powers, be it in tax collection or public services. The Modi government says that unlike in the UPA years, there is no major corruption scandal that has hobbled the government. The argument is that a domineering chief executive has ensured greater ministerial scrutiny, unlike the UPA years when the compulsions of coalition politics led to routine compromises when tackling graft.

But exposing big-ticket corruption is also often a consequence of robust watchdog institutions or an independent media that investigates wrongdoing. In recent years, there are signs of institutional collapse that make it that much easier for an all-powerful government to ensure a veil of opacity over its decision-making. Fewer Right to Information applications get answered satisfactorily. Comptroller and Auditor General reports are no longer the subject of heated public debates. After all, the hullabaloo, the anti-corruption watchdog, the Lokpal, has been a virtual non-starter. When there is an occasional solid media investigation in a corruption case, it is rarely followed up.

Then there are the controversial electoral bonds that lie at the heart of the country’s vast and mostly unregulated election funding system. The figures for a key election year of 2019-20, for example, reveal that out of the 3,249 crore received by political parties, the BJP received 2,606 crore, or more than 75% of the electoral bond money, confirming the wide disparity in access to resources. Even more troubling is the non-transparent information asymmetry with only those in the ruling party having access to the source of the monies. This creates the suspicion of potentially widespread cronyism and collusion of interests with little oversight. That the Supreme Court has procrastinated over the electoral bonds case only exposes how the few institutions, which can act as a check on any misuse of power, have also failed to perform their constitutional duty.

Elections, after all, lie at the heart of the democratic setup and money oils the election machine. Routine elections every year, from gram panchayat upwards, demand a constant flow of cash. If the major parties rely on funding from the big corporates, those down the line need their own poll financing from local “syndicates”. In effect, there is a “decentralisation” of corruption that co-exists with a centralisation of power: The nature of the corruption may vary, but the “deal-making” is in-built into a well-entrenched system of localised political-bureaucratic networks.

Which is why the NDA’s anti-corruption pledge now seems more like a well-spun election narrative that doesn’t quite stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Why not act in BJP-ruled states such as Karnataka and Goa against those who are misusing their public office? Or will central enforcement agencies be only used in Opposition-ruled states, as Opposition parties claim? And how long can one blame “sinful” governments of a previous era? Interestingly, Karnataka’s contractors claim that while a 10% commission was demanded in the previous Janata Dal(Secular)-Congress government that “rate card” has now spiralled to 30%. Corruption too, it would seem, is hostage to inflationary pressures!

Post-script: Last month, I interviewed the outspoken Meghalaya governor, Satya Pal Malik, who candidly claimed that in his previous tenure as Goa governor, the BJP government in Panjim was “fully involved” in corruption even during Covid-19 relief and that he had written to the PM to complain about it. So what happened, I asked? “Well, I was removed and sent to Shillong,” he sighed ruefully.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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