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There Is Reason For India's Corruption (And It's Not Us Or Even The Politicians)

07/05/2016 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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India's political system is inherently corrupt and it's destroying our society's moral fibre. People don't live in a vacuum; the system in which they live shapes them. Sure, culture affects the system, but it's the political system that nurtures society and can change it. As former US Ambassador to India Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, the truth is that "politics can change a culture and save it from itself." When generations of Indians have seen nothing but depravity and debasement, how can we expect righteousness in return?

Corruption is innate in India's system of government because it fails to balance powers. This system began to break down almost immediately after Independence, because the powers of its two top officials--the President and Prime Minister--were poorly defined. Governance of our country has deteriorated ever since. Today, this system is severely and irreversibly out of balance. Powers in it are so extremely concentrated that governments have become unresponsive and corrupt.

When generations of Indians have seen nothing but depravity and debasement, how can we expect righteousness in return?

History has shown that the taming of power is behind every good government. When powers are unfettered, governments become abusive and corrupt. Lord Acton, who said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," also said that "great men are almost always bad men." But power can corrupt only when the system allows it. In an article titled "The Psychology of Power", two university researchers concluded that "power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve it." In other words, people in high office are not innately corrupt; they become so because the system gives them 1) an elevated sense of their worth, and 2) opportunity. It is no use, therefore, to blame politicians; it is the system that is to blame.

When it came to prescribing powers, the Indian system got nothing right. It concentrates powers in the central government, farthest away from the people. It centralizes them in one institution, Parliament, giving it supremacy. And there it hands all powers to party bosses, creating an oligarchy. On the other hand, the Indian system diminishes the powers of state governments, the organs closest to the people. This makes them not fully accountable, and governance on the ground suffers. What makes matters worse is that the parliamentary system's design is ill suited to separate powers to begin with, because it doesn't have separate institutions. With no separation of institutions, the question of giving one body power over any other, in order to check and balance it, has no meaning.

People in high office are not innately corrupt; they become so because the system gives them 1) an elevated sense of their worth, and 2) opportunity.

Without oversight, governments under this system run amok. Their arbitrariness is limitless because India's Constitution doesn't place any restrictions on government's role. In addition to some 140 enumerated powers, it authorizes the central government to enter in any area. On top of this, the system is fundamentally unfair. Only one faction governs at a time. The others sit in opposition for five long years, only biding their time. The ruling party or coalition controls all executive decisions: which programs to launch and which bids to accept. The opposition can only make speeches or ask questions, but has no teeth. This builds resentment and bitterness. Bureaucrats, contractors, and citizens form political affiliations so that they can get even when their turn comes.

All this doesn't make for responsible governance. When Ambedkar made his famous "stability versus responsibility" speech in India's Constituent Assembly, he failed to show how this system was going to be responsible. He declared that a government behaved responsibly only if it was always fearful of being thrown out of office. So powers were fused into one centre to ensure that the entire government fell if it misbehaved. The legislature exercised a daily check. This "daily assessment of responsibility," he said, "is far more effective than the period assessment [of elections] and far more necessary in a country like India."

[T]he whole notion of responsibility in the Indian system is absurd. Responsibility here means a government can be removed, not that it can be held accountable.

But what makes governments responsible: insecurity or oversight? Is it practicable, or fair, to judge a government each day based on the passing or failure of legislation? Who exactly would bring government to account for misbehaviour when it held a majority? Which majority will throw itself out of power? These questions Ambedkar never raised nor was he asked.

The truth is that a system with a single centre of power and no oversight is a free-for-all for corruption. The outcome should have been obvious. Within three decades of the Constitution's adoption, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi declared, "The fence has started eating the crop."

Year after year, global indices rank India as one of the most corrupt nations. In 2011, Transparency International's Corruption Index dropped India 11 places, ranking her 95th in the world. And by 2013, author and columnist Meghnad Desai declared, "Politics is the highest profitability business in India."

Fundamentally, the Indian system cannot be responsible, for it breaks two basic tenets of the parliamentary form. First, power is not held by people's representatives, but by party oligarchs. Second, supremacy is not held by Parliament, but by government. In such conditions, how can MPs possibly hold a government accountable?

The system... must empower the opposition to stop governmental actions; to deny funds; to begin investigations; to hold public hearings; and to subpoena government officials.

In fact, the whole notion of responsibility in the Indian system is absurd. Responsibility here means a government can be removed, not that it can be held accountable. The absurdity is not only that our system expects a government to be removed by those who are in power, but that this would somehow make the next government more responsible. And it relies on finding incorruptible politicians for all time to come.

Corruption can be checked only when there is genuine oversight. The system of government must empower the opposition to stop governmental actions; to deny funds; to begin investigations; to hold public hearings; and to subpoena government officials. It must prevent corrupt actions, instead of only penalizing them when and if caught. It must not give politicians carte blanche to begin with.

So when the aam admi in India says, "What can I do, our system is so corrupt?" He is absolutely right. The politician, however, would have him believe that it is he who is to blame.

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