I recently had this piece appear on Outlook India online about what lessons India might be able to take away from the history of other South Asian countries’ anti-corruption efforts. Despite the unacceptable levels of corruption in India it still consistently ranks as the least corrupt country in South Asia, which begs the question what is India doing right, or as I focus on, what are other countries in South Asia doing wrong. After all, the other countries in South Asia arguably have been much more zealous in prosecuting corruption, particularly corruption in higher office. Yet, ironically this is partly why they are more corrupt today.
Corruption charges, particularly in young democracies, can be both politically destabilizing and empower undemocratic elements. The military has leveraged corruption charges in both Pakistan and Bangladesh as almost a trump card against civilian leaders – the population of each country can always agree that their civilian leaders are corrupt and so it gives the military a ready pretext to take over. In Sri Lanka you can recently see a similar, but slightly different phenomenon, of Rajapaksa putting former General Fonseka in jail on grounds of corruption after he challenged Rajapaksa for the Presidency. Corruption charges are the language of regime change in much of the developing world, including South Asia. However, this politicized use of corruption charges has arguably helped undermine the credibility of institutions that could more slowly and systematically tackle corruption in these countries. The more zealous prosecution of corruption in higher office can therefore potentially frequently lead to more corruption, not less.
I want to make a few points clear though as I feel the argument is easy to misconstrue. First, as I point out in the article I am not saying India is Pakistan or Bangladesh – a strong lok pal will not lead to a coup in India. It has a long democratic history and relatively strong institutions. Still, corruption charges can still be hijacked in India as a tool to achieve political ends. Some of which might be more dangerous than others.
Second, I am not saying that we should turn a blind eye to corruption. The entire reason that the military can use corruption charges to take over in a place like Pakistan or Bangladesh is because corruption is a very real phenomenon amongst civilian political leaders in these countries (it’s also very real amongst the military, but because of their guardianship role this can’t be pointed out as explicitly in these countries, or most countries, which tend to hold their militaries in reverence). The presence of corruption is not only an injustice in itself, it not only hinders economic growth, but it also threatens democracy. Still, I think it is dangerous to view corruption charges as a trump. In other words, there are many competing interests in a society and we have to understand that trying to combat corruption, especially where there aren’t strong institutions, can lead to politicization of such charges and a further undermining of institutions that could more systematically tackle graft. This is a very real danger other countries have experienced and we ignore it at our peril.
Third, and this is something I am still unsure about, but I don’t think I’m making an argument about sequencing. Some have criticized Nehru for not more actively prosecuting corruption early in India’s history to “nip it in the bud”. I suggest that perhaps Nehru’s was a smart move, especially when we see where high profile corruption charges in India’s neighbors led. One could read this to say that in a new fledgling democracy one should first build strong institutions and then go after corruption. Going after corruption too early threatens the stability of the young country’s institutions. One could say India now has such institutions in place and so is in a position to go after corruption more aggressively, but it wasn’t twenty or thirty years ago (think Indira Gandhi). I’ don’t think I’m convinced by this argument. I think one could potentially zealously go after corruption while building one’s institutions from the very beginning. The point is that I don’t think one could do this successfully (or without a great deal of luck) without realizing the dangers involved in this strategy and taking a number of precautions.
The specific policy suggestion of this piece to the lok pal debate is one that many other commentators have made. Mainly that the lok pal, if it comes into existence, will have to be responsive to and a part of the Indian democratic system, not outside or above it, and that understanding it as completely removed from the political process is dangerous. I do hope a comparative analysis though adds some texture to where that danger might lie as I think it’s important to think as concretely as possible about where or how the lok pal might go wrong, just as one should do when planning any institution.