Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Roots of India's Antigraft Churn

The country has changed in the last 20 years. But neither the government nor civil society gets it.

India is undergoing a political upheaval. Anger over high-level corruption has become widespread in the past year, adding to Indians' frustration with everyday petty corruption. In an environment where no political figure seemed credible, activist Anna Hazare stepped in earlier this year and led a campaign for an anticorruption watchdog. Last month, he used a 13-day hunger strike to get his way for legislation to create this watchdog.

That doesn't mean the tumult has ended. The elites in power are misdiagnosing the situation, throwing up tired answers to graft. But the alternative solutions offered by the likes of Mr. Hazare are out of touch too. Neither side seems to understand the kind of change India has experienced in the last two decades.

In the past, India's government ruled in relative secrecy and was ensconced in a rigid hierarchy. Even though New Delhi was accountable at the end of the day to the electorate, it presumed that the millions of files that documented the minutiae of regulations and ministerial actions would remain hidden from public gaze. It also presumed those affiliated with the central government wouldn't challenge it.

Twenty years ago, moreover, India's middle class was firmly allied with the state. These professionals held positions in the higher bureaucracy or in other state institutions.

The first tectonic movement is where the middle class stands today. They have been the biggest and most immediate beneficiaries of liberalization in the last twenty years. They have no reason today to stick up for the state. In fact, Mr. Hazare is joined by middle-class professionals, who have made the anticorruption movement savvy and media-friendly.
The watchdog Mr. Hazare is asking for would have the ability to go after almost any public official for wrongdoings: essentially one single institution, with a vast bureaucracy at its disposal and with overweening powers. This idea presumes that concentration of power is going to be more effective. But divided power is already generating better incentives for different institutions to hold each other in check. What's worse, Mr. Hazare makes no mention of economic or administrative reform, which would reform the role of the state in problematic sectors like telecom and mining.

This suggests that the battle against corruption is far from over. In fact, the great churning in Indian governance, as people search for better representatives to deliver growth without graft, has just begun. The movement Mr. Hazare galvanized may have erred in the direction in which it moved, but the sentiments underlying it are genuine.

The big risk here is that the likes of both Mr. Singh and Mr. Hazare will not understand the roots of this churning. India now has a government without credibility and a civil society offering non-solutions. At this rate, instead of artful reform, India will get draconian legislation.
Bhanu Pratap Mehta in Wall Street Journal. Here

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