Why won't Indians fight corruption?

India: Corruption as a System

A man who has taken the great Mahatma Gandhi as his model has in recent months not only caused an uproar in the Indian government but also in the entire subcontinent. Anna Hazare went on a non-violent hunger strike to protest the widespread corruption in India. With the support of his numerous supporters, he achieved tremendous media coverage and put the parties in parliament under considerable pressure. Even though “big brother” Anna Hazare ended his hunger strike at the end of August after the Indian government promised a new anti-corruption law, the movement continues unabated. Their demands include the establishment of an independent supervisory authority to oversee all ministers, MPs and officials, as well as the appointment of ombudspersons against corruption in all 29 states.

The request of the Indian anti-corruption movement is undoubtedly justified. India's economy is thriving despite inefficient governance and public mismanagement. At the same time, however, bribery and nepotism - in addition to great social and economic inequality - harbor high risks for India's global rise. Because they endanger sustainable economic development, scare off foreign investors and hinder the fight against poverty.

In the global corruption index 2010 of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Transparency International, India ranks 87th out of 182 countries - and thus far behind the other emerging economic powers Brazil and South Africa. However, this should not hide the fact that abuse of office, the shadow economy and corruption have long been a pervasive problem on the subcontinent.

The tradition of corruption

The British were already complaining about the corruption of their own authorities. Even after independence, every Indian government sooner or later found itself confronted with the issue. But both the New Delhi government and that of the states seem unable to bring corruption under control. Apparently all sides have adapted to the systematic bribery.

Today corruption pervades the entire society, politics, administration and also the judiciary. The parties, in particular, are traditionally considered to be deeply corrupt: Bribery scandals have repeatedly occurred in Gandhi's Congress Party or Jinnah's Muslim League during the independence movement. The political center of India is just as affected as the periphery, the city as well as the rural area. Corruption is now also penetrating the modern business world. The economic boom that resulted from the liberalization of the economy in 1991 only exacerbated the problem. Bribery and nepotism have long been part of the business in the new economic sectors such as telecommunications and information technology.

A number of high-profile corruption cases recently broke the barrel. In 2009 there was an uproar in the issuing of mobile phone licenses: 85 of the 122 licenses were sold illegally at the time. According to the Indian Court of Auditors, authorities embezzled tax money amounting to around 30 billion euros in this way. This corruption scandal led to the dismissal of the minister for telecommunications, Andimuthu Raja, but no effective countermeasures were taken. As a result, the governing coalition came under political pressure and in a tangible crisis. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the so-called father of the Indian economic boom, lost his image as a supposedly clean reform politician.

The Commonwealth Games in the following year were also ravaged by countless incidents of corruption, which severely damaged the country's international reputation. Police arrested several of the organizers for financial irregularities, including the head organizer of the Games, Suresh Kalmadi, who was expelled from the Congress party shortly afterwards. When the media also reported that Indian politicians and business people had shifted more than 1.4 trillion US dollars abroad, mainly to Swiss accounts, the fight against tax evasion and corruption became a central electoral topic.

"Popular movement against corruption"

Indian society has long been a thorn in the side of those in power because of the protracted lawsuits, the negligent investigations and the poor accountability of those in power. Larger corruption offenses are rarely rewarded with an appropriate penalty. Unclear laws and regulations as well as complicated administrative procedures also contribute significantly to the fact that employees in the public or private sector usually get away with mild sentences. Corruption is therefore a fairly low-risk issue in India. At the same time, ordinary citizens repeatedly have to pay special “taxes” when they go to the authorities to speed up their concerns, which increases the resentment in the population and leads to growing distrust of Indian democracy.

20 years ago Anna Hazare took all of this as an opportunity to set up the local “people's movement against corruption” in his community in Maharashtra. But it wasn't until the beginning of 2011 that he moved from there to Delhi in order to fight for the passage of a new anti-corruption law at the heart of Indian politics. The great public interest proved him right: within a very short time his campaign mobilized thousands of new supporters. They come primarily from the modern, tax-paying middle class, but can also be found among schoolchildren and students. The young supporters in particular carried Hazare's message to other major cities with the help of new media. A nationwide protest movement quickly emerged, which also found the support of other prominent social activists such as Medha Patkar and Kiran Bedi.

However, there was also opposition: Critics accused Hazare of not being a legitimate representative of the people and merely using populist sentiments. They also denounced the sensationalism of the heterogeneous following as well as the media, since public attention alone does not bring about any changes.

But in the end, the popularity was far greater than the criticism: various media sided with the protesters - also out of economic self-interest. Hazare even supported a Mumbai media company that was itself affected by corruption. The movement finally reached its climax in August of this year, when Hazare was arrested for his hunger strike and there were waves of protests across the country. These finally prompted the government to negotiate a new anti-corruption law (Jan Lokpal Act) with a committee - Team Hazare.

Fight against windmills

Despite this success, it is still completely open whether and how politics will act against bribery and nepotism. The political institutions and parties in particular have so far not proven their worth in the fight against corruption, on the contrary: they usually still stand in the way.

First and foremost, India needs a reform of the electoral law. Because the financing of the parties and their election campaigns is largely opaque, which invites corruption instead of preventing it. According to the Indian media, around 30 percent of parliamentarians have a criminal background and have been behind bars for various violations of the law.

As a result of a lack of transparency in political institutions, citizens receive only sparse information about the criteria according to which state authorities award public contracts, allocate land or acquire property from private hands.

Finally, there is also a lack of facilities to receive corruption complaints from the population and investigate suspected cases. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Indian equivalent of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), should play a decisive role in the fight against corruption. Its anti-corruption department, however, not only has outdated structures, it is also subject to political control and is massively understaffed. Compared to the more than 35,000 employees of the FBI, the CBI only has 5100 employees - with a total population of over 1.2 billion people, at most a drop in the ocean. The Indian government is well aware of the untenable conditions: CBI Director Singh has pointed out several times that there is a lack of accounting, finance and tax experts to successfully tackle crime in the financial sector and tax evasion. His predecessor Raghavan even accused the government of deliberately neglecting the reform of the CBI, as the inefficiency of the investigative authority was convenient for them.

Despite this critical situation, the first steps in the right direction can be seen, not least thanks to the movement around Anna Hazare. However, the latter still lacks a clear idea - and understanding - of the desired goal: Is the enactment of new penal laws enough or is it ultimately about an ethical reorganization of the deeply corrupt Indian society?

Previous supraregional anti-corruption campaigns usually led to a slide to the right in the political community in India - a danger that is currently being exacerbated by Hazare's orthodox approach, his mostly rather conservative supporters from the urban middle class and, moreover, from sometimes reactionary, religious circles. At the same time, the decisive shortcoming of the movement becomes clear here: So far, the protest has been driven primarily by civil society and the press. What is missing is the active will of politics and business to actually shed light on the dark corners of nepotism. But without a critical mass of politicians and business people who actively take action against corrupt actions and bribery, the institutions and ombudspersons demanded by Hazare will hardly be able to do anything against the sheer overwhelming corruption. Only when society breaks away from nepotism and the state actually combats corruption will the Indian anti-corruption movement be successful in the end.