It may take a Gandhian figure to unshackle India once again. In April, Anna Hazare, a 73-year-old activist and ex-army driver known for his calm demeanour, flowing white garb, and kind smile, evoked Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience by fasting in demand for social change. But instead of fighting for freedom from a colonial power, Hazare’s target was the endemic corruption that currently infects many parts of Indian society. From Mumbai to Lucknow, thousands responded to Hazare’s call to “fill India’s jails” in protest, fasting with Hazare, and organizing candlelight vigils. Even Bollywood stars took part, and supporters mobbed the Jantar Mantar monument in central Delhi, where Hazare was striking.
This Tahrir Square-style moment arose from frustration over what Indians are referring to as a “season of scams”—a recent wave of news about corruption. Though graft is nothing new in the world’s largest democracy, analysts say it is now more ubiquitous than ever: opportunities for fraud have blossomed with India’s rapid economic growth. “The enormous influx of money into India,” says Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “has led to an enormous amount of corruption.” And if India is held up as an example of an Asian democracy whose spectacular economic boom has rivalled only that of authoritarian China, such scams threaten to stifle not only the economy (estimates put the black market at 50 per cent of GDP, or $640 billion in 2008), but also the country’s moral fabric.
In November, there was the discovery that Mumbai apartments allocated for war widows were being taken by retired army officers. That was also when the “mother of all scams” was revealed: the telecommunications minister, Andimuthu Raja, resigned over revelations that some $40 billion in government revenue had been lost because he was selling 2G mobile-phone licences for far below market value to select firms in exchange for bribes.
Most embarrassingly, perhaps, India’s anti-corruption chief P.J. Thomas was forced to step down in March on the grounds that he himself was facing corruption charges (namely, conspiracy to defraud the state government for importing palm oil at inflated prices). That month, the aforementioned scams, as well as new corruption revelations in cables released by WikiLeaks, prompted calls by opposition parties for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to resign. (The U.S. diplomatic cables said officials from Singh’s ruling Congress party showed an American envoy two chests of cash that would be used to bribe opposition MPs ahead of a confidence vote in 2008.)
Indians were also recently shocked to find out that a number of pilots for the country’s airlines were using fake licences. And then there was the debacle that was last year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. According to the nation’s Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), the games’ construction and infrastructure was shoddy due to “large-scale corruption, usage of substandard material and repeated delays.” The CVC released an internal report last July noting that there was some $1.1 billion to $1.8 billion of misappropriated funds for the most expensive Commonwealth Games ever held.
The public’s frustration over this sleaze has reached a fever pitch. “We have had enough,” Peta Singh, an 18-year-old student, told the Guardian newspaper. Even the wealthy, commonly thought of as the main beneficiaries of endemic corruption, are beginning to speak out. Azim Premji, chairman of the software services giant Wirpo Ltd., described the spate of scandals as a “national calamity” and, along with some of India’s most prominent citizens, wrote an “open letter to our leaders,” which implied that graft gets in the way of India’s wealth trickling down to the poor. “It is widely acknowledged that the benefits of growth are not reaching the poor and marginalized sections adequately due to impediments to economic development,” the letter read.
Indeed, in November, the American think tank Global Financial Integrity issued a report that concluded that since independence, India has lost over $460 billion due to illegal financial flows, mostly through corruption. In a country where poverty remains a huge problem, that only feeds the frustration. Although the country has an economic growth rate around eight per cent a year, and the McKinsey Global Institute has forecast that India will be the fifth-largest consumer market by 2025, the World Bank estimates that about 40 per cent of Indians live below the global poverty line. So while those at the top of the food chain gobble up luxury goods, millions of others go hungry.
There are other issues as well, among them censorship. According to The Economist, newspapers that show the reality of Kashmir—a disputed territory divided between Pakistan and India—are frequently shut out from Indian consumers. A new biography about Gandhi, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle, prompted efforts to ban it. The reason: its suggestion that Gandhi’s relationship with the German-Jewish bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach was homoerotic. Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar, called the ban a form of “draconian censorship” that would be “a greater insult to [Gandhi] than that book or the author might have intended.”
The ban was in fact lifted—only after the national law minister spoke to the author, Joseph Lelyveld, who clarified that he didn’t intend to draw any conclusions about Gandhi’s sexuality, notes Nilanthi Samaranayake, an analyst at the U.S.-based think tank the Center for Naval Analyses. “But the reason they shouldn’t ban the book is because India is a democracy,” Samaranayake says. “In our exuberance for advancing relations with India, we sometimes neglect the reality that India still has a way to go on civil society issues.”
Corruption, of course, looms large among those issues. And part of this has to do with the fact that India only gained independence from Britain very recently, in 1947, and its move to a free-market economy came after many decades of strict government control. As Cohen explains, “Indian government regulation was so constrictive that corruption was functional. It was necessary to be corrupt because the bureaucracy was so overpowering that unless you bribed somebody, you couldn’t get water, couldn’t get a telephone.”
But while part of the problem may be rooted in India’s past, the shift to a market economy only brought new opportunities for graft. Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, says India’s move from a Soviet-style centrally planned economic model to private-sector expansion in the 1990s is similar to the transformation of the former U.S.S.R., where the sale of state enterprises to private businesses produced oligarchs with the powers to challenge any authority. “Everyone complained that insiders got the edge and became super rich,” says Nawaz. “But that’s what happens when you start something new, and it’s what’s happening in India.”
For the activist Hazare and his supporters, the road to a more equal society would come with the adoption of a law that brings the most powerful in India under the purview of an anti-corruption ombudsperson, the lokpal. Though previous lokpal bills have been pending in India for decades, never moving through the upper house of parliament, the government agreed to set up a committee to finally draft effective lokpal legislation within 96 hours of Hazare’s strike.
Since Hazare’s apparent coup, however, he has become entangled in controversy. Opposition politicians and the government have levelled allegations of unethical behaviour against him and his advisers, in particular relating to land deals involving Hazare’s two top lawyers—the former law minister and his son, who are both on the lokpal bill committee. There are, of course, suspicions that this is part of a cooked-up campaign to derail the anti-corruption movement.
But the government has attempted to respond to the pressure to deal with India’s corruption in other ways. There have been investigations into the mismanagement of funds for the Commonwealth Games, and this week three top officials were arrested on corruption charges, including the chief organizer of the October event, Suresh Kalmadi. As well, the cabinet minister implicated in the 2G telecom scandal and five others involved were arrested. Despite the continuing problems, for Cohen these moves highlight the difference between India and its less democratic neighbours. “India has a public conscience about these things, which sets it apart from countries such as China, where the repression is very brutal.” He adds: “Democracy is noisy and chaotic, and corruption occurs in every society, but how a country deals with it tells a lot about the nature of the people, of the state.”