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Quiet revolution against corruption in India June 1, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Guest author: Vidya Sharma, Melbourne

This article was first posted in East Asia Forum on 27 May 2011.

A plethora of commentary has recently appeared in the Western media about the extent of corruption plaguing India. Typical of such work was a piece, ‘India hobbled by heavy weight of corruption’ by ex-foreign minister Jaswant Singh and a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader.

Singh failed to mention that last year, Outlook magazine found the BJP-led Karnataka state government to be the most corrupt in India, but he is broadly correct. Economic deregulation has made corruption all pervasive in India. Perhaps the worst example of alleged corruption is what has come to be known as the 2G spectrum scam: the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found that ex-Communications and Information Technology Minister Andimuthu Raja may have undersold 2G spectrum frequencies by as much as US$39 billion.

The more interesting side of the corruption story is the one that Westerners are not familiar with – the way in which India is using the strength of its institutions to fight this scourge. This is not a story of revolution, nor of a political movement. Rather, it is the story of many honest individuals or small groups, greatly assisted by the Supreme Court of India and an independent media – comprising retired or active politicians, senior civil servants, judges, investigative journalists, brave whistleblowers, social activists and ordinary people – who feel suffocated living  with corruption and wish to see the various government departments do the job they were set up to do.

Raja, his Department of Telecommunications Secretary Siddartha Behura, and the Chief Minister of Maharashtra state Ashok Chavan, have all been recently forced to resign. Many officials involved in the 2010 Commonwealth Games are being investigated. Some, such as games chief Kalmdi, have been arrested to prevent them from tampering with the evidence. The Principal Secretary of Uttar Pradesh state’s Chief Minister’s Department has been imprisoned for four and a half years for relaxing land sale criteria to favour her friends. Several public servants have filed statutory declarations against the BJP’s Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, regarding his role in the 2002 communal riots which claimed about 2000 lives.

Even five years ago, none of the above developments would have been possible. They are early signs of a promising trend: India, in its characteristically chaotic and uncoordinated fashion, is ending the culture of corruption. This change is rooted in a few key social and political factors.

First, it is happening despite a lack of political will at the top. Politicians are being dragged or shamed into action. Second, some institutions are helping the cause in meaningful ways. The very powerful electoral commission has been responsible for eliminating a great deal of corrupt activities and actors. The Supreme Court has become increasingly activist and has forced agencies to investigate corruption scandals such as the Commonwealth Games and the 2G Spectrum sale thoroughly and promptly.

Second, the Indian media, always ferociously independent and intensely competitive, has been responsible for uncovering and publicising many scams. Third, agencies like CAG are taking their mandate seriously and refusing to bend to political pressures. Fourth, the 300-400 million strong Indian middle class is fiercely opposed to corruption. Politicians increasingly see votes in running on anti-corruption platforms, as seen in the 2010 Bihar elections.

Lastly, Indians are more connected. They regularly travel abroad, and have access to all the media platforms of Western consumers. Subsequently, they are rightly asking why, despite its economic growth and global intellectual contributions, India’s government departments do not work as well as those of other countries.

Indian society has, at last, concluded that if it is to achieve its rightful place in the international community, economic and military growth will not be enough. The ending of corruption, and the development of good governance will be essential.

Vidya Sharma is a Melbourne-based advisor on country risk management, inter-country joint ventures, and market penetration strategies.

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