Narendar Pani

How not to deal with corruption

Updated on: May 04, 2011
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The way forward is to reform the electoral practices that make it virtually impossible for a clean politician to be elected. The solution is not to give an unelected, and potentially unscrupulous, group veto power over policy.

The recent interest in corruption has focused almost exclusively on its legal dimension. This is understandable when political and industrial luminaries find the law knocking at their door. But the tendency to be preoccupied with the legal has gone far beyond those with such immediate concerns.

Social reformers like Anna Hazare have made the ability to decide who will be on the committee drafting an anti-corruption Bill the cornerstone of their campaign. Such a preoccupation with the law in addressing a social issue suggests an effort to clap with one hand. Indeed, the tendency to ignore the social dimensions of corruption makes this law-centric approach a part of the problem rather than its solution.

Once we take the debate away from the environment of high-pitched righteousness it is obvious that a meaningful solution can only be found if we can first identify the reasons we are now in this mess. A purely legalistic approach suggests that this is essentially a matter of the laws not being strong enough. The sub-text of the arguments of the civil society groups is that both the judiciary and the political class have failed us, and the way forward is a Lokpal who is appointed from outside the usual political process.


In the highly charged milieu in which this argument is made one question has not been adequately addressed — who will ensure that the Lokpal does not develop into a moral Frankenstein who is vindictive, if not completely corrupt? If this is to be done by the existing judicial and political processes we are back to square one. And if she or he is beyond such scrutiny, the consequences can be even more frightening. It is of course possible even within the law-centric approach to look beyond an all-powerful morally superhuman Lokpal. The well-regarded economic theoretician and Chief Economic Advisor to the Finance Ministry, Kaushik Basu, has come up with an argument that tries to divide the corrupt.

His expertise in game theory leads him to focus on the bribe taker and the bribe giver sharing a common interest in preventing detection. His solution is then to absolve the giver of what he calls ‘harassment' bribes from any guilt. The bribe giver would then have an interest in reporting the bribe taker, especially if the bribe taker is forced to return the bribe.

There are a number of problems with this argument. The basic objective of introducing a difference between the interests of the bribe taker and the bribe giver could be just as easily achieved by absolving the bribe taker from any guilt. Implicit in the Mr Basu's argument is a belief that the bribe giver has the moral edge since she is being harassed. But it is not impossible to build a moral case for a traffic policeman working long hours for a less-than-adequate salary to supplement his earnings with an occasional bribe from persons who can afford to pay. If Mr Basu can build a moral case for bribe-givers he may be familiar with in his social group, it is not impossible for others in social groups more familiar with bribe-takers to build a moral case on their behalf.

The role of such social group-specific moral choices in the approach to corruption becomes critical in the context of the growing conflict between the elected and the unelected in India's governance structure. One of independent India's greatest achievements has been the consolidation of electoral politics.

This process has thrown up leaders from parts of India that would earlier have been considered remote. The demands of these leaders for a role in policy making threatens the unelected English speaking elite that has been deciding policy, often through the institution of the Prime Minister's Office.


The response of the unelected has been to come up with a series of steps that have the effect of confining the elected representatives to their constituencies. In the United States an elected representative can be assessed by her voting record on different policy issues. In India this has been made impossible by an anti-defection law that ensures that an MP voting against the party whip will lose her membership of the House. Along with this stick there is the carrot of the MP Local Area Development Fund. MPs are expected to be happy using this fund for their constituents without bothering about policy-making.

For those MPs and ministers who try to break out, the charge of corruption is always there. India's telecom revolution has the potential to transform one-sixth of humanity and will, no doubt, be the subject of academic scrutiny elsewhere in the world. But the ministers who made it happen will be permanently tarred by the brush of corruption. And this process could be institutionalised if an all-powerful Lokpal, set up by the unelected, is used to first taint and then remove from office any minister interested in policy.

None of this is to suggest, even remotely, that politicians are not corrupt. But the way forward is to reform the electoral and other practices that make it virtually impossible for a clean politician to be elected. The solution is not to give an unelected, and potentially equally unscrupulous, group veto power over policy by deciding who should remain in office.

(The author is Professor, School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. > )

Published on May 07, 2011

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