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India’s Election: Pivoting To Real Democracy

By Keshar Patel

India is more than halfway through its five-week election process—the largest in terms of turnout, expenditures, and candidates. And election fever has never been so fierce. Early opinion polls indicate a strong lead for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is seeking to win an absolute majority of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. For the nation’s 815 million eligible voters, India’s graft-ridden government and Congress’s inability to mitigate corruption, make this election a pivotal opportunity to establish true democracy.

An emerging economic power, India is still playing catch-up as it tries to manage critical and urgent political challenges. If India is to find a semblance of progress, economically and politically, the next government and the party that leads it must establish an effective path to transparency. This may mean reforming the judicial system, formalizing economic transactions, and subverting the myth of cultural corruption.

Any official or government entity that engages in illicit behavior does so because it’s easy. For many politicians, getting his/her way comes down to a simple process of bribery. Accepting bribes to complete government transactions rids the state of much administrative work—which helps explain why bureaucrats tolerate it. 

Philip Oldenburg, a political science professor at Columbia University, argues that while corruption in India is a serious problem, there are whole huge parts of the political system where corruption is not a problem. He states the “Reputation for corruption is much larger than the fire of corruption.” And while this may be true, India still ranks 74 out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Enforcement 
Deterring a cycle of corruption seems like a hopeless feat. However, if the new leading party has a strong political willingness to transform the judicial system and free its vulnerability to graft, India will find its clearing to an upright democratic institution.

Professor Oldenburg states “India’s judicial system is jammed up and in itself corrupt.” An accusation this past year of harassment against a federal judge and a report indicating India has the largest backlog of cases in the world, further indicts the country of an inefficient justice institution. Laws such as the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act were meant to curve corruption, but have often proved fruitless due to weak enforcement. When chances of perpetrators actually being caught and convicted are so minuscule, how can these laws serve as sufficient deterrents?

The judicial system, by international standards, is underfunded and understaffed, and as a result, prone to illicit behavior. According to a TI poll, 45 percent of people who had contact with any tier of the judiciary between 2009 and 2010 had paid a bribe. A former chief justice in India, stated in an interview that almost everything comes with a price; saying there were “fixed” rates on matters of quick divorce, bail, and various procedures.

Professor Oldenburg suggests that much of the corrupt behavior is rooted in police informants who make false testimonies, and by witnesses who are paid off to testify a certain way. For this reason, the judicial system must have the ability to prosecute false witnesses as an effective and immediate step towards eradicating graft within the court.

Technology 
Intermediaries benefit greatly from illicit transactions between bureaucrats and the general public–they receive a sizeable cut. By using computerized forms of payment, as opposed to paying in cash, buyers are able to make a transaction without middlemen who have traditionally controlled the deal. So far, this new method has proved successful in India’s online railway ticket reservations by making the process more transparent. Basically, technology greatly reduces the chance for bribery and fraud, while increasing efficiency.

A hopeful sign for India’s campaign against corruption includes an IT initiative Aadhaar. The initiative was created to eliminate the intermediary and create direct exchange of payment between buyer and supplier. The program allows anyone to sign up for a digital identity which they can then use to gain access to services such as the formal banking systems and various other services provided by the government and private sector. As a global IT nexus, why aren’t there more technological initiatives in India?

A prime example of how formalizing transactions would prove effective is the Right to Information Act of 2005. The act not only allows ordinary citizens to request government information, but also includes social audits that encourage the public to question officials on how and why sizeable portions of money were spent. However, due to weak enforcement, penalties are slim for those who fail to comply with requests.

The BJP, if elected, must strive to transform economic transactions on the national and local level. Much of India’s corruption stems from local institutions where business deals slip under the radar. The purchasing system and distribution of contracts, licenses, and taxation remain unpredictable. Such uncertainty has scared away foreign investors from setting up camp in India’s most underdeveloped regions. This may be just as well, as investors have invariably been prey to middlemen.

As a result, villages–and the most rural of areas–have lacked the funds and resources to develop technology, proper infrastructure, and economic stability. It’s a familiar cycle that seems to continuously stifle the poor.

A Mindset 
Corruption in India is often said to be ingrained within culture as simple instances, such as traffic violations and construction rights are notoriously synonymous with bribery. It is assumed that if you receive a traffic violation, you must pay a bribe. Before a ticket is even issued, the violator will often pay off the officer who stopped him. In many instances, the ticket itself is cheaper than the amount of money the person fined pays in bribery.

Corruption is not embedded within India’s culture, but persists because of a mindset among government officials and their citizens. It may be true that culturally India suffers from nepotism as caste, clan, religious, and family relationships are valued before competence and quality in business and political relationships. However, this reason alone has not perpetuated illicit behavior. It is a mindset where the status quo suggests bribery equals the only way of getting things done. Remove the mindset of inherent corruption through new regulation and leadership, and India will free itself from structural barriers.

India must seek a starting point in the cycle of corruption to deter and prevent further escalation. The nation can have transparency within its government, but first the new leading party must demonstrate a strong political inclination to challenge the current state of affairs.

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Keshar Patel is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Hendrick Terbeck, Thomas Leuthard and Flickr]

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