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[Shashi Tharoor] Anti-corruption contest in India

NEW DELHI ― India ended 2011 amid political chaos, as the much-awaited “Lokpal Bill,” aimed at creating a strong, independent anti-corruption agency, collapsed amid a welter of recrimination in the parliament’s upper house, after having passed the lower house two days earlier. The episode, which leaves the bill in suspended animation until its possible revival at the next session, raises fundamental issues for Indian politics which will need to be addressed in the New Year.

The need for the bill ― Lokpal loosely translates as “ombudsman” ― was first mooted in 1968, but eight subsequent attempts to create one had never reached a parliamentary vote. The credit for imparting urgency to an issue that had become a hardy perennial of Indian politics goes to the mass campaign that coalesced around a Gandhian leader, Anna Hazare, who insisted that a “Jan Lokpal Bill” (“People’s Ombudsman”) drafted by his followers had to be enacted in toto.

Two well-publicized fasts by Hazare, attended by hundreds of thousands and breathlessly covered by India’s news channels, pushed the government to expedite preparation and consideration of a bill. The draft differed in many respects from Hazare’s, but it retained what most people sought ― an independent agency with its own investigative resources and prosecutorial powers.

After parliamentarians were summoned back to work after Christmas in an unprecedented extended winter session, the bill passed the Lok Sabha (the lower house), where the ruling coalition commands a narrow majority. But the government’s attempts to entrench the law in a constitutional amendment, thereby elevating the authority of the office, failed to command the necessary two-thirds support. Still, the bill’s passage after 43 years of stalemate was little short of historic.

The action then shifted to the Rajya Sabha (the upper house), where the government lacks a majority. After a session lasting until midnight, punctuated by the introduction of 187 amendments (most by the opposition but some by coalition allies of the ruling Congress Party), the government pleaded incapable of processing all the amendments in time. Agitated members shouted their dissatisfaction (one rather melodramatically tearing up the draft bill), and the Rajya Sabha’s chairman, Vice President Hamid Ansari, halted the proceedings without a vote.

All sides have flung accusations at each other. Some allege that the government’s bill, by requiring a similar ombudsman in each of India’s states, was an assault on Indian federalism. Others claim that the government colluded in the disruptions in the Rajya Sabha, because it knew that it could not win the vote; some, preposterously, suggest that the government did not want the bill to pass; still others claim that it would have created such a “weak” Lokpal that it was not worth passing. The government has grimly suggested that it would go back to the drawing board with a view to reviving the bill during the parliament’s budget session, due in March.

Whatever happens, the need to tackle corruption is undeniable. In a recent survey by the anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International, 54 percent of Indian respondents said that they had paid bribes in the last two years, in interactions with police, bureaucrats, and even educational institutions.

While the media have tended to focus on big-ticket corruption, such as that revealed by ongoing scandals concerning on the allocation of spectrum to telecom companies or the organization of the Commonwealth Games, petty corruption has often affected people more directly. The mass outpouring of support for the quirky Hazare reflected the genuine frustration that most Indians feel over the corruption that assails their daily lives, rather than a clear understanding of Hazare’s proposals to combat it.

Every time a poor pregnant woman must bribe an orderly to get a hospital bed (to which she is entitled), or else deliver her baby on the floor; every time a widow cannot get the pension that should be hers by right, without bribing a clerk to process the papers; and every time a son cannot obtain his father’s death certificate without greasing the palm of a petty municipal official, Indians know that the system has failed them. They are right to vent their anger at endemic graft.

Indeed, corruption in India is far broader and deeper than the headlines suggest. The Lokpal will not be a panacea. It is one instrument among many that are needed, along with reforms to increase transparency, protect whistleblowers, prevent tax evasion, clean up campaign financing, and reduce officials’ discretionary power, which allows them to profit from the power to permit.

Inspectors and prosecutors can catch only some criminals; India needs to change the system so that fewer crimes are committed. Corruption isn’t only high-level governmental malfeasance; overcoming it requires nothing short of a change in Indians’ mindset. For every Indian bribe-taker, there is a bribe-giver looking for a shortcut or an undue advantage. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, we need to be the change that we wish to see in India. Corruption will not end until Indians stop giving bribes as well as stop taking them.

As an elected politician, I am well aware that Hazare’s campaign has sparked the imagination and enthusiasm of many young people in my country. India’s parliament must continue to debate all the options available. It is important that we do not betray public expectations; but nor can we act irresponsibly. We must do the right thing, but we must also do the thing right. 

By Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor, a former Indian minister of state for external affairs and U.N. under-secretary general, is a member of India’s parliament and the author of a dozen books, including India from “Midnight to the Millennium and Nehru: the Invention of India.” ― Ed.

(Project Syndicate)