walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: August 29, 2011
Corruption In India: Not Finished Yet

The government of India announced this week that it “agreed in principle” to the anti-corruption plan put forward by Anna Hazare, a modern-day civil disobedience campaigner in the mode of Mahatma Gandhi.  Hazare’s  twelve-day fast gripped the imagination of everyone in India who follows politics and was the culmination of weeks of demonstrations against corruption and graft at the highest levels of government. Government spokespeople and MPs pointed to many serious flaws in the Hazare plan, and flawed it very much is.

Nevertheless, the politics of the hunger fast left the government no choice and it accepted the “Team Anna” program in exchange for Mr. Hazare’s agreement to call off his fast. A statement from Parliament reads:

The House agrees in principle on the following issues for a strong and effective Lokpal [a powerful new anti-corruption body]. (A) Citizens’ charter. (B) Lower bureaucracy to be brought under Lokpal through an appropriate mechanism. (C) Establishment of Lokayuktas in state, and further resolves to transmit the proceedings to the department related standing ommittee for its perusal while formulating its recommendations on the Lokpal.

The enthusiasm over the announcement is widespread. As one Indian journalist wrote in the WSJ: “Thank you Team Anna. Thank you for uniting and inspiring a nation…Thank you for showing the power of democracy…Thank you for showing us that this is possible.”

Others echo this sentiment, not excluding Mr. Hazare. “It was victory for Anna Hazare and a triumph for people’s power at Delhi’s historic Ramlila Maidan,” Hazare said. “This is a victory of the people.”

Anna Hazare (Wikimedia)

But what happens if you look under the hood at Mr. Hazare and the program he advocates? Two articles in the Economist do just that:

Mr Hazare and his followers could end up doing more harm than good. The man is no saint, and his movement displays a whiff of Hindu chauvinism. The activists’ slogan—“Anna is India, India is Anna”—is absurd. Their campaign is tinged with nostalgia for a golden age before economic liberalisation when government was, in their view, clean and decent.

This is a dangerous misdiagnosis. Corruption was rife even before liberalisation: the Bofors scandal in the 1980s brought down the government. The economic liberalisation of the past 20 years—in particular, the dismantling of the “licence Raj”—has vastly reduced the scope for corruption, not increased it. Mr Hazare’s proposed cure is equally mistaken. India already has anti-corruption bureaucrats, who have failed to solve the problem. Creating another huge bureaucracy, which a Lokpal would be, is not the answer…

Mostly sceptics bristle at Mr Hazare’s methods….Hunger strikes, a form of blackmail, might have been justified against the British, but not against elected leaders.

Frankly, hunger strikes don’t bother me.  A highly visible and completely peaceful act of civic protest, a hunger strike can be both a dignified and effective way of making a powerful point.  At a certain point, when faced with something as intractable as corruption in India, the normal political process fails. Something drastic, popular and urgent is necessary. The cult surrounding Anna “Elder Brother” Hazare, while troublesome and potentially dangerous, is the natural culmination of widespread anger against ingrained corruption: when one man stands up against powerful selfishness in government, people are going to admire him.  Yet the uncritical mass adulation of a single human being with his fair share of flaws is not, in itself, the sign of an emerging mature civic consciousness.  That adulation is probably also not good for Mr. Hazare’s political judgment and emotional balance.

The nature of the oversight bodies Hazare supports is also a concern. As the Economist says, another huge bureaucracy is not the answer. Giving it enormous power could just exacerbate current problems with corruption. Taking power from those who pay bribes and giving it to those who extort them is almost never a recipe for reducing corruption.

The Economist wants to blame all this on the Gandhi dynasty that has directly or indirectly ruled India for most of the time since independence.

All this requires the commitment of a strong leader. As the loyal retainer to Congress’s family dynasty, Mr Singh lacks real power. But the dynasty’s matriarch, Sonia Gandhi, is unwell, while her son, Rahul, has run away from the Hazare controversy—hardly reassuring, since he is the presumed next prime minister. Given such a vacuum, it is no wonder the public does not trust political parties to clean up the system and prefers to join Mr Hazare’s crusade. The Gandhis’ hold over India is doing the country no good. If Indians want to clean up government, they need to get rid of dynastic politics.

I would put that another way.  India’s problem is that its mores and culture remain feudal and clientelist from top to bottom.  There are some pockets of modernity, but they float uneasily in a feudal sea.  The enduring power of the Gandhi dynasty is more the symptom of wider problems than the leading cause of India’s governance crisis.  And by providing the country with a unifying focus (and by being civilian and committed to civilian rule) the Nehru-Gandhi family has done much to create a modern civilian nationalism in India — an achievement buttressed by their support for economic reform in recent years.

Modern capitalism and feudalism inevitably clash; ultimately successful capitalism demands more transparency and meritocracy than traditional family oriented hierarchical societies can comfortably live with.  This is what India is trying to deal with today, and it isn’t easy.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (Wikimedia)

India’s addiction to feudalism is more than a manifestation of “backwardness”.  It is also about how resources are parceled out legitimately in a society composed of so many different subgroups divided by language, culture, geography, caste and religion.  Networks of clientelism and patronage may be necessary to India’s ability to work at all — but modernizing those networks and limiting their drag on the country’s efficiency is necessary for India to flourish.

India’s Gordian knot of corruption can’t, unfortunately, be hacked through with one swift blow of Hazare’s sword; it will have to be patiently unpicked.  The need is urgent, but the work must be careful and slow.

India is going through a process of social and economic change every bit as wrenching and disruptive as the Industrial Revolution was in Europe 150 years ago.  Nobody knows how best to steer the country through this, and it is very unlikely that India will sail through it in elegance and style.

The fight against corruption in India is a fight for a total social transformation.  It is a good fight, and Via Meadia wishes India every success from the bottom of our heart, but Mr. Hazare’s victory in Delhi this week is not even the end of the beginning.

show comments
  • WigWag

    From what I’ve read about corruption in India, the problem is far more severe at the state level than at the federal level. India’s political system is highly decentralized and a good deal of the corruption that individuals face in their daily lives involves things like the registration of property, bribery demanded by judicial bureaucrats or law enforcement agents, or bribes to get electrical hook-ups or treatment at public hospitals. Even getting children admitted to school can require the giving of a bribe. All of these problems are more pertinent to Indian states than to its national government.

    The situation that India faces is not totally dissimilar to the situation faced by the United States prior to World War II. Just as many Indian states today have not yet escaped feudalism, the American south was a semi-feudal society prior to the Second World War.

    It took the blue state model and a massive expansion of the federal government at the expense of state governments in the United States to at least partially alleviate the problems of local American corruption; perhaps it will take the same thing in India. One thing we do know is that as citizens become increasingly educated and wealthy, corruption seems to diminish.

    I couldn’t help but giggle when I read this sentence penned by Professor Mead,

    “…ultimately successful capitalism demands more transparency and meritocracy than traditional family oriented hierarchical societies can comfortably live with.”

    Hasn’t the Professor spent weeks informing us in post after post why a “meritocracy” in the United States is more a part of the problem than of the solution? Hasn’t he endorsed the Jacksonian outrage at an American system based on credentials and on merit?

    Of course he has.

    One of the major victories of the New Deal and the blue state model was to improve “transparency” in the United States, especially in places where it was most deficient like the American South. Weren’t the securities acts of 1933 and 1934 (made possible by an expansive reading of the commerce clause) aimed at improving transparency for investors? Didn’t they succeed in a powerful way?

    Perhaps Professor Mead can explain to us why he thinks relying on a “meritocracy” and improving “transparency” is good for Indians and bad for Americans.

  • J R Yankovic

    A remarkably balanced and (overall) sympathetic portrait of the WHOLE Indian polity today, and of the difficulties it faces on either side of the reform divide. As well as a refreshingly fair-minded assessment (NOT, as I understand it, a defense) of the Gandhi dynasty over the past few decades. I mean, look at the modern marvel of India. Here we find an increasingly prosperous and entrepreneurial society actually having the nerve – or could it even be the wisdom and foresight? – to demand something other than the routine government+business-as-usual corruption that so often accompanies rapid growth in poor countries. So what does the ever-patronizing Economist have to say by way of encouragement? Little other than to dismiss it as mostly a fit of misguided nostalgia. Mind you, this “Economist” is the same keeping-abreast-of-world-affairs magazine supposedly most widely read and respected by global leaders for over two decades running. Which, if true, no doubt says volumes about the present general state of the world and its leaders . . .

  • Fred

    Wig Wag, I don’t believe Mr. Mead objects to merit but to the substitution of credentials for merit. Having a Yale degree in Political Science and having the ability, temperment, and experience to actually govern are two very, very different things. Only the latter counts (or should count, the former too often does) as merit.

  • J. Ram Ray

    Currption in India is not unlike the dowry system – it’s part of the social fabric. Municipal officials in Hyderebad, for example, routinely permit builders to build up to 25% more than the permitted square footage – the “unofficial” but “official” limit before the courts would order demolition, in exchange for the usual pay-off. The Passport office in Chennai recently asked my son for a Rs. 40,000 ($900) bribe to issue a passport. Earlier, my wife had to pay a few thousand Rupees to obtain a duplicate of her lost birth certificate…
    so, corruption is not something a law can eradicate by executive order –

    The main reason for the ramped up corruption is the rising expectations of middle classes – small time clerks want to earn enough to send his children to IT schools, lower level bureaucrats want cars and their bosses expect the same lifestyles as multinational IBM or Microsoft executives. Given the size of the Indian middle class, this process is far from over.

  • teapartydoc

    Wig Wag needs to explain to us why an academic meritocracy where advancement is dependent on ideological purity is superior to one based on performance in the private sector, and why he lies about what Mead means when he criticizes the one we have.

  • vic

    as a Us citizen originating from India, I certainly agree w the the authors premise. Hazare is delusional, the foundation of this massive institutional corruption in India’s body politic is too much government.
    The net result of the LOkpal business will be one more layer of corruption.

    Corruption is the sypmtom of having too many regulations( the licence- quota – permit Raj), and even more enforcers of the regulations who alwyas have a lot of arbitrary discretionary powers that can be used to benefit theuir cronies.

    The answer to crony capitalism is not more rgulations – it is the dismantelling of the same.

  • icc

    Easy to fix. Don’t call them bribes, call them campaign contributions and earmarks.

  • Preeti Gupta

    Mr.Walter Russell Mead,
    Aug 30 2011
    I am an American Citizen, Non Resident Indian. In the interest of Indian Americans, and Indians and non Indians around the world, I am quite disappointed with your Article on Corruption in India in Business Reader and in The American Interest. I request you to look at the latest report on India politicians holding thousands of Corores (worth $1.3 Trillion) in Swiss Bank accounts. This black money has direct link to Terrorism as well as impact on Global Economy. So please do not discard it, as it’s been proven fact.
    The economic liberalisation of the past 20 years—in particular, the dismantling of the “licence Raj”—has not reduced corruption. If that was the case, 2G and Commonwealth scams would not have happened. The cost of total scams is Rs. 910603234300000/- I can provide you line by line details on all the scams. Mr Hazare’s proposed cure is not mistaken. And India does not have independent anti-corruption bureaucrats, and India does not comply to United Nation Convention Against Corruption, that’s why even in G8 Summit last year, President Obama and other G8 Members, pressured Indian PM to ratify UNCAC treaty by enacting a Anti Corruption Bill. Indian Govt created a lip service bill which did not comply to UNCAC requirements and did not cover any local, state, Parliament, PM, Judicial Official under the bill to be ever prosecuted and had reverse clause that any whistle blowers can go to Jail if they can not prove the allegations. The same Indian Govt had beaten 100,000 civil non volient sleeping people in Ram Lila Maidan who had been fasting since few days with plead to bring back $1.3 Trillion dollars of black money sititing outside India. That was death of democracy and voilation of human rights. With respect to JanLokpal Bill, more on why its needed? Here are the flaws in current system:
    1. No politician or senior officer ever goes to jail despite huge evidence because Anti Corruption Branch (ACB) and CBI directly come under the government. Before starting investigation or prosecution in any case, they have to take permission from the same bosses, against whom the case has to be investigated.
    2. No corrupt officer is dismissed from the job because Central Vigilance Commission, which is supposed to dismiss corrupt officers, is only an advisory body. Whenever it advises government to dismiss any senior corrupt officer, its advice is never implemented.
    3. No action is taken against corrupt judges because permission is required from the Chief Justice of India to even register an FIR against corrupt judges.
    4. Nowhere to go – People expose corruption but no action is taken on their complaints.
    5. There is so much corruption within CBI and vigilance departments. Their functioning is so secret that it encourages corruption within these agencies.
    6. Weak and corrupt people are appointed as heads of anti-corruption agencies.
    7. Citizens face harassment in government offices. Sometimes they are forced to pay bribes. One can only complaint to senior officers. No action is taken on complaints because senior officers also get their cut.
    8. Nothing in law to recover ill gotten wealth. A corrupt person can come out of jail and enjoy that money.
    9. Small punishment for corruption- Punishment for corruption is minimum 6 months and maximum 7 years.
    I would greatly appreciate if you take time to read the facts and then present your views. I am also working on organizing nationwide Panel Discussions on this topic starting with Executive clubs, Universities, and Media Houses, so Indians get fair chance of their voice being heard.

    Appreciate your support in this matter,
    Preeti Gupta

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Preeti Gupta: I didn’t say that corruption in India was unimportant or that nothing should be done about it. But it will take a long time and a lot of work to change practices so deeply woven into the country’s political life. Good luck with your efforts.

  • willis

    “The fight against corruption in India is a fight for a total social transformation.”

    Meanwhile, U.S. society fights to transform itself into the model of Indian corruption. And not slowly or carefully. At the moment we have in the works Gunrunner Fast and Furious, rampant crony capitalism evidenced by such tradeoffs as healthcare waivers, refusal by the DoJ to prosecute intimidation of voters at the polls, and raids by the justice department of a legitimate business that donated to the opposing political party. It is amazing the progress one can make when properly motivated.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Monopolies all suffer from corruption, waste, feather bedding, and empire building. It comes from the lack of feedback, competition provides in the free enterprise system. So the Government Monopoly will always suffer from corruption, so the only solution is to limit the size of the Government Monopoly, and so reduce the corruption. The founding fathers created checks and balances, and a 2 party system, to divide up and limit the concentration of power. But we can see from the size of the American Government Monopoly, that after 230 years it wasn’t enough. We will see if the recent response of the American Culture based in the TEA Parties, will be sufficient to roll things back.
    For India with its less effective multi party Parliamentary system, getting rid of the corruption in the Government Monopoly, by limiting the size of the Government Monopoly, will be much more difficult.

  • Akash

    Frankly, I find Mr Meads comments on Hazare and his fast to be patronizing, and furthermore, his approving quotation of the Economist to be severely flawed. The Economist has not quite got over the fact that the Sun no longer sets on the British Empire and that the modern Indian could not give a whit for what the UK elite think of India and its policies. Everything in India which has anything to do with a resurgence of its local mores and ethos are dismissed by the Economist as “Hindu Chauvinism”. In the southern city where I am from, thousands of youth turned out in support of Hazare’s fast, and they were from all walks of life, religion, and social classes. His movement has wide support throughout India. In order to discredit the movement, the Congress tried its usual divide and rule by trotting out its usual coterie of crony politicians claiming to represent minorities or special interest groups. To am man, they were heckled by the commoners. Yes, India does not have one silver bullet for corruption and even the Jan Lokpal runs the risk of being ineffective or worse, complicit by being misused for political vendattas as the current Indian law is. But all said and done, Hazare is no Hindu chauvinist, he is proud of being a Hindu and an Indian and fully in synch with the national ethos that respects an elder statesman willing to stick by the correct path. The Economist’s drivel about Hazare won’t change the huge respect this man commands in India today. Go to any Indian website and see even the comments posted versus the crony articles by the MSM. You’ll see every group represented there, in terms of religion. Across the country, Hazare is supported.

  • Pertinent Observer

    I am late in commenting on this article, but I guess, its better late then never :)

    Reading this blog left me with mixed feelings. I completely agree with Professor when he says that Anna Hazare’s ‘solution’ won’t fix the problem.
    But I disagree with his explanation of the problem where he ties it to feudalism. This in my opinion is way off the mark.

    1) Brits were very bureaucratic in their governance and India has taken it a completely new level. This ‘red tapism’ i.e too many rules, too many bureaucratic hurdles coupled with socialism has bred corruption. Till 1991, corruption was a lot more. In the sectors where economic reforms were introduced, mainly telecom there is very less corruption at the common man level.
    To open a restaurant, it takes around 165 licenses.

    2) Two major scandals that occurred recently were Commonwealth games & Telecom licensing scandal. Here, bureaucratic rules were NOT the problem but lack of political will. The PM has failed in his job. It’s as simple as that. Again these two gigantic money swindling has nothing to do with feudalism.

    Lastly, I was mainly disappointed Professor giving too much credit to the Gandhi family and crediting them with “modern civilian nationalism”. This image of the Nehru/Gandhi family mainly persists in the West but IMHO that’s too much. Surely, you can’t credit the modern nationalism to one family, that family whose failed socialistic policies were the very reason India grew at 3.5growth rate for the first 40 years.
    India as a cultural entity existed for more then 2000 years and the constitution makers, esp. Dr Ambedkar, Nehru, Azad put in the system to accomodate all different groups. This accomodation coupled with education has led to “INDIAN” nationalism.
    Infact, the current congress government were in Mrs. Sonia Gandhi is the defacto power have gone back to the same pre 91 socialistic/status quo policies and completely ignoring economic reforms. Surely, keeping the people in poverty and playing vote bank politics doesn’t lead to ‘modern nationalism.


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