Corruption is neither new nor unique to India Why then has corruption suddenly become such an important issue? Why is it that large sections of the country’s population are angry at the government’s apparent inability to curb corruption? Why are so many people who were supportive of a government headed by a person whose personal integrity has never been questioned -- even if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s critics claim he is intellectually dishonest - today wondering whether the UPA coalition has a hope in hell of returning to power for a third term?
Perhaps the most important reason why the government is perceived to be steeped in graft is the sheer scale and the brazen manner in which a slew of scandals have taken place in recent times - be it the manner in which 2G spectrum scam was allotted or the way the Commonwealth Games were organized. Important politicians and bureaucrats are seen to have deliberately acted tardily despite the focussed media attention on the malfeasance that took place. There are other important reasons why corruption is the big issue that it is at present. Corruption cuts across most sections of society and does not respect caste, language, religion or region. More significantly, corruption has come at a time when the bulk of the country’s population is reeling from the debilitating impact of high food inflation which has widened the gap between the rich and the poor and which the government has been unable to check.
Long after the hype and the hoopla about the anti-corruption agitation led by Anna Hazare dies down, what will be remembered is how the government was literally forced to listen to the voices of ordinary citizens despite the arrogance and incompetence of some of its important functionaries. If Hazare has emerged as a superstar of sorts, as a person who, willy-nilly, was elevated to the status of a Jaya Prakash Narayan who, in the 1970s, united the political Right and the Left against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, much of the credit should go to the utter stupidity and overblown egos of a small coterie of ministers.
One obvious example was the silly manner in which Hazare’s “preventive arrest” was sought to be “blamed” on the Delhi police. To argue that the police chief of the national capital acted as an agent independent of his superiors in North Block where the Ministry of Home Affairs is headquartered, is to insult the intelligence of the people of the country. Arrogance, when coupled with stupidity, is a deadly combination, which is why the government had to backtrack in the face of overwhelming public pressure.
Dr Singh is concerned that corruption has undermined the very basis of his economic liberalization programme. During his August 22, 2011 speech on the occasion of the golden jubilee celebrations of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Kolkata, the Prime Minister said: “There are some who argue that corruption is the consequence of economic liberalization and reforms. This is of course completely mistaken…The abolition of licensing has eliminated corruption in these areas. But corruption has not disappeared from the system. It surfaces in many forms. The aam admi faces corruption when he has to pay a bribe to facilitate ordinary transactions with government… Wherever there is government discretion in the allocation of scarce resources, whether it be land, or mineral rights, or spectrum, if the method of allocation is not transparent, there is a possibility of corruption... (which) promotes inefficiency and cronyism which undermine the social legitimacy of market economics...”
The Harshad Mehta scandal was a consequence of, among other things, the government dragging its feet on adequately empowering the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI). We have an apology of a Petroleum & Natural Gas Regulatory Board. The Indian Bureau of Mines lacks teeth. The government has taken years to strengthen the Competition Commission, long after the Monopolies & Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTP) was done away with. A more proactive and independent Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) could have checked the spectrum scam.
Even as the government has opened up large segments of the Indian economy to the private sector, it has failed to strengthen regulatory bodies and packed them with pliable former bureaucrats. More significantly, the fountainhead of corruption in India emanates from illegal election funding and the corrupt nexus between politics, business and crime.