“One of the biggest curses from which India is suffering — I do not say that other countries are free from it, but I think our condition is much worse — is bribery and corruption. That really is a poison. We must put that down with an iron hand. . .” These words were not addressed to crowds near India gate in the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption campaign last month. Instead, they were spoken by Muhammad Ali Jinnah addressing Pakistan’s constituent assembly in August 1947.
The countries of South Asia, with their British-inherited centralized bureaucracies, have long been marred by entrenched political corruption. Indeed, despite clearly unacceptable levels of corruption, India still consistently ranks as being the least corrupt country in South Asia (except for Bhutan) in Transparency International’s annual corruption perception index.
Now India is no model for fighting corruption, but the drafters of the current Lokpal bill should consider why India outperforms its neighbours. Paradoxically, it is in large part because other South Asian countries have more unabashedly prosecuted their corrupt politicians, frequently with disastrous results.
Take Bangladesh in 2007. In what sounds like a dream come true for some of India’s anti-corruption advocates, Bangladesh’s newly empowered anti-corruption commission systematically placed hundreds of leading politicians behind bars on corruption charges as the Dhaka middle-class cheered on. Bangladeshi democracy was to get a new lease of life. The unburdened economy would take off to new heights.
And yet, the campaign quickly turned destructive. The anti-corruption commission had been a central platform to the military-backed caretaker government’s good governance reforms. However, Bangladeshis soon realized the military was using it to dismantle the political class for their own ends.
The middle class’s concerns deepened as they increasingly found themselves the target of prosecution and the economy began to ground to a halt as a result. Today, the civilian political parties are back in power, but anti-corruption efforts stand delegitimised and Bangladesh is arguably further from tackling corruption then before.
Nor is the use of corruption charges for political, and frequently anti-democratic, purposes new to the region. Musharaff used corruption charges to marginalise and exile Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and their political parties in Pakistan. An initially pliant Pakistani judiciary largely went along until corruption charges were levelled against Chief Justice Chaudhary when he and other members of the judiciary became too questioning of Musharaff's rule. In Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa’s government jailed retired General Fonseka for improper military tenders after Fonseka ran an unsuccessful campaign for President against Rajapaksa, leaving opposition politicians fearing that they could be next.
Of course, India is not Pakistan, Bangladesh, or even Sri Lanka. It has a 60 plus year democracy, with relatively strong institutions, a vibrant media, and a civilian controlled army. Yet, that does not mean that corruption charges cannot be used as a political weapon in India as well. Nehru has been criticized for not more strongly prosecuting corruption in the country’s early years, but arguably part of India’s success has been to keep corruption charges from dominating its politics as much as its neighbours. As a result, institutions like the judiciary have not been seen as taking political sides in corruption disputes making them a credible pillar for Indian democracy, and the basis for more modest anti-corruption efforts.
The theoretically independent Lokpal could become corrupted by the same corrupt political environment it is suppose to police, or it might simply become blinded by its own internal ideological biases. Many Indian politicians were elected because they represent the aspirations of caste, religious, and ethnic communities. If they are prosecuted for corruption en masse the Lokpal can easily be painted as a democratically unaccountable institution representing emerging middle class interests targeting politicians the middle class can not beat at the ballot box.
And how will the Lokpal decide who to go after? Large numbers of politicians — along with huge numbers of citizens — have bought land at least partly with black money. Indeed, this was one of the most common charges in Bangladesh in 2007 along with the disproportionate assets it created. Given the culture of lawlessness that currently exists not only in Indian politics, but in India more generally, the Lokpal will have to slowly build its credibility and pick fights it can win, choosing the most egregious instances of corruption or those where it knows it has strong backing from a broad cross section of the Indian people and media.
This agenda may sound less ambitious and more incremental then for what many had hoped. It may even seem disillusioning. It should not. The great strength of Indian democracy and movements like the Lokpal one is that they reach out to a wide group of the population and gradually and systematically create new political consensus. Any future Lokpal should be careful not to align itself with political parties or ideologies, but it needs to be cognisant that it is helping lead an ongoing political movement to reduce the bane of corruption; a goal that must compete with other interests in Indian society. A successful Lokpal will be part of the Indian political process, not above it.
India needs a savvy Lokpal that sensibly prioritises corruption charges, while strategically building a political constituency to support its efforts. It is vital that it succeeds because just as unaccountable and politically unrealistic anti-corruption institutions can undermine democracy, so can the corroding effects of corruption itself. If one needs convincing on either count, just ask India’s neighbours.
Nick Robinson is an Assistant Professor at Jindal Global Law School and a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi