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India's Fight Against Corruption

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
August 22, 2011

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India's government is reeling from a populist anti-corruption campaign (NYT) led by Kisan Baburao Hazare, popularly known as Anna Hazare, which has united tens of thousands across the country in the fight against graft. The protests highlight a deficit of governance (FT) in the world's largest democracy, even as it seeks a greater stake in international affairs. "Just when the world starts to think of us as the major power we've always fancied ourselves to be, we have made ourselves increasingly unfit to take on the role" (Outlook), writes former diplomat K. Shankar Bajpai, noting the general decay in governance.

The newest challenge to the Congress-led coalition in New Delhi comes at a time when the government is under fire for a spate of high-profile corruption scandals implicating senior officials, party president Sonia Gandhi (Indian Express) is receiving medical treatment in the United States, foreign investor confidence is waning, and inflation is growing. How India fares in its fight against corruption will determine the fate of Asia's third-largest economy: its economic growth, its poverty-alleviation efforts, and its ability to deliver social goods to its 1.2 billion people. The United States, which sees India as a natural ally (NPR) in its fight against global challenges like nonproliferation, energy security, climate change, and regional peace and security, also has much at stake in an India that prospers.

The missteps in handling Hazare, who has become the focus of millions in India frustrated by widespread corruption, has not only damaged the government's already fragile credibility but undermines Indian democracy, say analysts. "Unfortunately, both the state and civil society (Indian Express) are in a 'if you are not with us, you are against us' mood," writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi based think-tank the Center for Policy Research. "That does not augur well for Indian society."

Hazare, now on a fifteen-day hunger strike (BBC), demands that the parliament pass his version of a new anti-corruption bill (PDF) by August 30, which seeks to create a powerful ombudsman to investigate wrongdoing by government officials. He rejects the government's version of the bill (PDF). Some analysts criticize both versions of the bill. The government's draft does too little (Tehelka), they say, while Hazare's seeks an authoritarian institution that would only add another layer to the government in a country suffering from too much bureaucracy (Telegraph). Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a sign of compromise, said the government is open to debating the issue (AFP).

But Singh and others argue the country needs more than a stronger anti-corruption bill. BBC's Soutik Biswas writes that tackling corruption will "require ending many of the discretionary powers of ministers and officials, sweeping electoral reforms, cutting red-tape, streamlining subsidies, and making existing laws work to punish wrongdoers swiftly."

What India needs is economic reforms (DailyPioneer), argues Indian policy analyst Nitin Pai. "Societies with greater economic freedom have lower corruption," he writes. The Economist notes the reforms that began in 1991 are half-finished. It argues for greater reforms in factor markets--those for basic inputs like land, power, labor, and, to a lesser extent, capital. Without more roads, ports, and factories, India's short-term growth figures as well as its long-term capacity would be reduced, it adds.

Additional Analysis

Paul Beckett, Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief, explains why India's anti-corruption movement is not like the uprisings that have swept across the Middle East.

The Indian government's actions against Hazare has added "strength to the anti-corruption movement (Outlook) by bringing in even those who had some reservations regarding the overarching legislation proposed by Team Anna," writes Madhu Kishwar, a professor at Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.

Background:

The Wall Street Journal provides a comparison of the two versions of the law being proposed by the government and by Hazare and his supporters.

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