A Culture of Corruption? Democracy and Power in India
Introduction The political life and public institutions of India have been in a nervous state of flux following a series of damaging revelations during 2001. At a time when senior government ministers are seriously implicated in bribery and arms-purchase scandals, many would argue that corruption is embedded in the everyday functioning of India. What is puzzling is not the occurrence and frequency of such corruption, but that this is often taken to be the status quo--and sometimes quite blithely--by the media and the public at large.
In this article, Sumantra Bose, Ralf Dahrendorf fellow and lecturer in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, tries to unravel the reasons why corrupt practice appears to be routinised and widespread in India, especially when compared to the West.
March 2001, Internet journalism came of age in India in the most unexpected
of ways. A Web-based news site specialising in sensational scoops from
the worlds of politics and showbiz dramatically disclosed the results
of a sting operation it had been conducting over the previous seven
months. Two of its journalists had approached a variety of Indian politicians,
bureaucrats and military officers purporting to be representatives of
an arms-dealing firm called West End International, based in London.
On behalf of the non-existent company, they claimed to be interested
in selling to India's armed forces hand-held thermal imaging cameras
(a type of surveillance and detection equipment, which would be useful,
for example, in detecting guerrillas infiltrating the border between
Pakistani and Indian Kashmir).
The tapes also contain lengthy discussions with an Indian general and other senior army officers (contacted by the reporters through civilians known to operate as middlemen in defence deals), who describe with startling clarity--while consuming large quantities of whisky--the bribes and cutbacks apparently routine in weapons' purchases. Some of the taped conversations border on the farcical. For example, at one point a high-ranking military official enquires of West End's representatives where they are located in London and who their bankers are. The journalists' reply that the firm is located at 'Manchester United' and its bankers are 'Thomas Cook'. The official is visibly impressed.
dominated India's newspapers, television channels and other media for
a couple of weeks, and forced the resignations, among others, of the
BJP president and the veteran politician serving as defence minister.
It also triggered a predictable ruckus inside the national parliament,
as opposition parties like Congress sought to extract maximum political
mileage from an embarrassing situation for the government. Within a
few weeks, however, the scandal seemed to have largely blown over, as
media and public attention shifted elsewhere. It seems that the short-lived
wave of media and public interest was primarily due not so much to the
nature of the revelations as to the innovative methods used by the journalists
on the case.
In the past 10 to 15 years, Indians have been saturated with high-profile scandals, ranging from the infamous field-artillery deal with the Swedish arms company Bofors--for which former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi has been posthumously indicted--to the case for which another former prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was convicted in 2000 (this involves money given to parliamentarians of a small political party in 1992 in exchange for their support to Rao's government, which lacked an outright parliamentary majority). Both Gandhi and Rao were Congress prime ministers, leading the current BJP prime minister to openly warn agitating Congress members in parliament that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Indian politics is a moral wasteland, and a career in politics is commonly viewed as a typical resort of the scoundrel. But the tentacles of corruption radiate outward from the political class to affect, and implicate, society as a whole.
From everyday experience, Indians know that acquiring a job, a place in medical or engineering school, or even a telephone, gas or electricity connection frequently entails a bribe to someone on the 'food chain'--the municipal councillor, the local political leader or legislator (or his agent), or some other official with the capacity to deliver opportunities and services. Corruption is endemic in all levels and spheres of public life, and has become deeply embedded in Indian society and the way it functions on an everyday basis.
The reasons for this situation are multiple and complex. A survey of the major factors at work reveals similarities as well as differences--some of substance, others of degree--between India's democracy and those of the West. The differences may help to explain why corrupt practice may be relatively more routinised and widespread in India compared to Euro-Atlantic states.
The nexus between the Indian political elite and a handful of 'big business' houses, with the bureaucrats as essential intermediaries, is a longstanding one. For decades, the prospects of Indian big businesses have depended on their degree of cosiness with the decision makers (politicians) and administrators (bureaucrats) of the licence-permit system. India's most successful big business of the last 20 years, the Reliance Group of companies, owes its phenomenal growth to the owning family's perfection of the art of cultivating politicians, bureaucrats and other useful conduits to corridors of power such as influential journalists. For decades, Indian big businesses also secured captive markets for their frequently substandard and overpriced products in some sectors (for example, automobiles) by relying on the state's power to exclude foreign competition. This system has only begun to be dismantled following the adoption in the early 1990s of an alternative economic strategy, emphasising domestic de-regulation and openness to foreign investment. A deep nexus between government and big business is also found, for example, in the United States, but in India the traditional role of the state in the industrial economy has been even more direct and intrusive.
Taking that comparison further, access to large amounts of money is perhaps even more essential to political success in the US than in India. In most instances, it is simply not possible to run successfully for political office in either country without access to substantial campaign funds--the higher the office, the greater the need for cash. Contestants in major races in the US routinely spend millions on television advertising alone. In India, with its hyper-competitive political arena, elections are similarly very expensive propositions. Unlike the US, however, India does not possess even the rudiments of a regulated system of campaign financing.
The system in the US may be heavily loaded in favour of the big fish in the pond, and not entirely transparent, but in India there is no system at all. Most party funds, including campaign finances, therefore have to be secured through non-transparent channels, in so-called 'black' money, from friendly (read 'obliged' or 'expecting favours') corporate interests--or through cutbacks secured on defence deals. Indeed, taking money from such sources to finance legitimate political activities is considered not just acceptable but almost honourable by the standards of public life in India. Some figures caught out by the website exposé defended themselves by saying that while they had taken money, it was meant for party expenditure and not personal purposes. Less 'principled' beneficiaries of the system routinely spend ill-gotten money on conspicuous consumption for themselves and their families. In recent years, an increasing number of senior bureaucrats, for example, has been indicted by anti-corruption investigations in 'disproportionate assets' cases--that is, for possessing movable and immovable assets far in excess of known sources of income.
Chaos that works
The conflicts in Indian society and politics are legion,
but the system has a capacity to diffuse (and eventually, defuse) most
conflicts by multiplying the arenas of contestation, which simultaneously
act as arenas of brokerage. That means, however, that the system also
produces power brokers at all levels. The routinised corruption of the
higher levels has an obvious effect on the lower levels--the way to
get ahead and climb the greasy pole quickly is clearly to dispense with
was convicted, but he escaped actual imprisonment. It has taken the
CBI's investigators in the Bofors' case over a decade to compel the
Hinduja brothers--transnational tycoons based in London with high political
'connections' in both India and the UK--to come to India to be interrogated
(the Hindujas are suspected of being the principal conduits and launderers
for bribes paid by Bofors to Rajiv Gandhi and other Indian officials
of the time). This is primarily because the Hindujas have exploited
every possible legal means and loophole to avoid cross-examination in
India, but political obstruction in India is also said to be a factor.
lecture was delivered at the London School of Economics on November
9, 2000. Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.