India's Anti-Corruption Protests: All Sound and Fury

Indian reformers miss an opportunity to address the real causes of corruption.

As the Arab Spring blooms in the Middle East, India has been experiencing a summer of rage. The whole country has been engulfed in anti-corruption protests rarely seen since Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India movement to boot out the British. But corruption might prove to be a more tenacious foe than the Brits.

Even though Anna Hazare, the septuagenarian leader of the movement, has brilliantly mobilized mass sentiment, this might unfortunately turn out to be one big missed opportunity.

Protests are like morning ablutions in India’s cacophonous democracy: routine and purgative. One can’t sneeze without running into a demonstration by some interest group fighting for some special benefit. But the Hazare protests were not about government handouts. They were about government oppression. Hundreds of thousands rallied around him in New Delhi, where he launched a 12-day hunger strike to shame the obdurate ruling party into accepting his anti-corruption bill. Remarkably for a society riven with caste, class, and religious divisions, the protesters came from all walks of life—young and old; rich and poor; lower castes and upper castes; Bollywood celebrities and fans; bribe givers and bribe takers—to collectively register their revulsion against a system that, like polluted air, is dirty but inescapable.

Corruption pervades every facet of life and every rung of society in India. It is impossible to conduct government business—obtain birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, driver’s licenses—without bribing petty bureaucrats who can otherwise bury simple requests beneath their voluminous rulebooks forever. But the current protests were triggered by a series of corruption scandals involving officials at the highest levels. The organizers of the Commonwealth Games debacle skimmed funds. Ministers in the southwestern state of Karnataka shipped millions of tons of iron ore to China at throwaway rates for kickbacks. The last straw was the scandal last year in which the telecom minister sold 2G broadband access to a billionaire at a tenth of its actual value, costing the public treasury $40 billion.

The genius of Team Hazare lay in tapping public disgust at its peak to engineer a major cultural shift: Politicians will no longer be able to count on Indians’ legendary “whatever” attitude to get away with bloody murder. But Hazare’s corruption-fighting proposal itself might do more harm than good.

Its core demand is that the government create a Lokpal (an ombudsman’s office) accountable neither to courts, legislature, or voters and give it total discretion to identify, investigate, and prosecute any public official (including the Prime Minister, MPs and judges) suspected of corruption. The office would be made up of civil society leaders—not politicians — with a track record for honesty.

The logic of the office is easy to understand: It can’t rid the system of corruption if it has to hew to it. But power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is unimaginable that an office with so much unchecked power wouldn’t eventually become corrupted or tyrannical or both.

Even some of the good elements in the Hazare proposal are unworkable. For example, it wants “citizens’ charters” prominently displayed in government offices notifying citizens of the time it would take to fulfill their requests. In the event of delays or demands for bribes, citizens could complain to the Lokpal that would punish officials in charge. But one agency can’t effectively deal with the volume of grievances it is likely to receive. Alternatives to the Hazare proposal suggest creating mini-Lokpals at the municipal level. But all of them suffer from a fatal flaw: They treat corruption like an enforcement rather than a policy problem.

The depressing thing about India is that after it liberalized its economy in the 1990s, corruption actually increased—not decreased. That’s because deregulation only applied to a few industries. It never extended down to the self-employed poor: rickshaw-wallas and street vendors continued to face shakedowns by the police and other functionaries of the License Raj. Nor have irrational laws—such as registration fees that allow the government to confiscate up to 10 percent of the sale price of a house—ever been reformed, breeding wide-scale cheating and tax evasion. What’s more, the post-liberalization economic surge has increased the value of the resources that the government owns, vastly increasing the volume and scale of the deals that politicians and industrialists illegally cut. No surprise, then, that more than half of India’s Members of Parliament now are millionaires—and a quarter have criminal records.

Eradicating corruption will require more than simply adding yet another layer of bureaucracy, however. So long as government officials have too much to gain from dishonesty—and citizens have too much to lose from honesty—corruption will remain a fact of Indian life. Reversing those incentives will require completing India’s liberalization through further deregulation, a rapid divesture of state assets under strict transparency, and ongoing tax reform. But Team Hazare has no plans to tackle much of this.

The British left India 64 years ago this month. India no longer needs a revolution to clean out the rulers. It needs a revolution to clean up the rules.

Reason Foundation Senior Analyst is a columnist at The Daily, America's first iPad newspaper, where this column originally appeared.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    Exactly. The only way to prevent a politician from abusing power is to not give him power in the first place.

  • Suki||

    +1
    Good morning heller

  • Vake||

    I think it was some dude in the WSJ who said "only in India can you solve too much unwieldy bureaucracy with another layer of unwieldy bureaucracy.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    ... and the DHS is then?

  • ||

    OT: Reactive aluminum alloy yields twice as much kilowatt hours as coal and is abundant and re-usable.

  • Suki||

    I am holding out for the transparent variety.

    What is wrong with coal anyway? It is organic and renewable too.

  • Suki||

    After checking the link, heller proves to be SugarFree.

  • Amakudari||

  • Suki||

    +2

  • ||

    search for 'magnesium and the sun' on youtube.

    I'm completely enthralled with this solar-pumped laser concept.

  • BigT||

    You know how the Aluminum is made don't you? Electricity. So you use electricity to get...electricity. The 2nd law requires that some energy will be lost as heat, so not such a great idea.

  • Sinic||

    more than half of India’s Members of Parliament now are millionaires

    About the same as the U.S. Must just be a coincidence.

  • Suki||

    Is that millions in real money or Indian money?

  • Sinic||

    The US Dollar hasn't been real money for a long time.

  • Suki||

    I did specify real money.

  • guess who's back, back again||

    City-Statist Fibertarians are corrupt City-Statists too.

    Unless you embrace the freedom of Non-State society.

    How's that non-contradictory thinking going lately?

    * NON-STATE AND STATE SOCIETIES
    faculty.smu.edu/rkemper/cf_3333/Non_State_and_State_Societies.pdf

  • I'm a hunter-gatherer!||

    You are getting really bossy lately -- and your fear tactics are a little bit too much.

  • Intent on Reinvent||

    For more than 99 per cent of human history people have lived in groupings that social scientists call "non-state societies."

    Historically, people in non-state societies are relatively autonomous and sovereign.

    They bow to no external political leaders. Nor are they routinely exploited by outsiders.

    Many people living in non-state societies enjoy lifeways that a number of Americans seem intent on reinventing.

    NON-STATE AND STATE SOCIETIES

    [adapted from Elman R. Service (1975), Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. New York: Norton.]
    http://faculty.smu.edu/rkemper.....ieties.pdf

  • Sinic||

    Who invited the loud fugly drunk chick?

  • The Internet||

    No idea, but the British perfected it.

  • Golden age - learn from it||

    We can still learn a lot from Hunter Gatherers.

    The complete sharing of the hunter gatherers does provides some interesting benefits.

    A band of people in an intentional community might want to try such sharing while supporting themselves through permaculture food production and other sustainable methods of gaining income from the outside world.

    Dozens of other "new tribalism" communities come to mind as good possibilities to put these ideas to work, and I'm sure you can think of some ways to incorporate hunter gatherer ideas into your passion.

    Hunter Gatherers And The Golden Age Of Man
    www.raw-food-health.net/HunterGatherers.html

  • Suki||

    Is this where the dumpster divers fit in?

  • nanda||

    golden age, we'd love to see you try that. Try it on a small scale. create a community where everyone shares everything equally. start out with everyone totally equal in terms of possessions, house size, savings, etc. make it diverse with every race and religion represented. see how it works. if you can create a peaceful cooperative happy group of people with no crime, the world will eagerly follow you.

    liberals love to romanticize hunter gatherers. those folks will in small groups, max 50, where everyone is the same racially, religiously, value wise, and is related by blood or marriage. even then there is plenty of conflict. some groups are very violent, and murder is a matter of course. in many instances, the women do most of the physical work and the men hunt sporadically and rest and play games. it's funny that liberals think that is a model we should be following. nor is there equality. some have more status than others and get more meat and more respect. there is war between groups. a group that can't secure an area for itself may be starved out of existence.
    much of liberalism is based on fantasy about the nature of life.

  • stockholm syndrome||

    Cinic loves him some City-STATISM, even while you sometimes rage against it.

    How's that Stockholm Syndrome?

  • Siku||

    Suki: What is wrong with coal anyway? It is organic and renewable too.

    What is wrong with plutonium anyway? It is organic and renewable too.

    How's immediate emergency high amputation at the shoulder if you get a speck of it in a little cut on your finger?

    What is wrong with menstrual blood. It's organic and renewable too.

    Now get licking.

    It's all natural.

  • Suki||

    I like Plutonium too and it should be deregulated.

  • Chemistry||

    "What is wrong with plutonium anyway? It is organic and renewable too."

    Nope.

  • R||

    Plutonium is not "organic" in either the scientific or trendy senses of the word.

  • NotSure||

    The tragic thing about India was that after they gained independence, they looked around what system the country should follow. Britain was starting its experiment with socialism after WW2, many Indians like Nehru saw this and believed that the wealth of Britain somehow was correlated to this. Only during the early 90's did India adopt free market reforms, the preceding decades were crushing on the economy and created the huge and corrupt bureaucracies that they are suffering from today.

  • rsi||

    Thank the Gods we don't have this problem here! We just have Campaign Contributions.

  • Suki||

    If only we were allowed to freely donate to the candidate of our choice . . .

  • Fiat Feminization ||

    City-slicker men havn't been real men for a long time.

  • Privation Land enTitle-ment||

    The only way to prevent a capitalist from abusing privation property power is to not enTitle him with Land Title rights from big-government in the first place.

  • I'm a hunter-gatherer!||

    By lethal force, right!?

  • hippy||

    The tragic thing about America was that after they gained independence, they looked around what system the country should follow. Britain was starting its experiment with the crowding into cities, many Americans like Hamiltion saw this and believed that the wealth of Britain somehow was correlated to this. Only during the 60's did America adopt free love reforms, the preceding decades were crushing on the economy and created the huge and corrupt corporations and bureaucracies that they are suffering from today.

  • City = Corruption||

    When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.

    ~Thomas Jefferson

  • Against the Grain||

    Fibertarian all sound and fury.

    He no likee Statism he say.

    He likee agricultural City-Statism he say.

    Not even understand what make State.

    Stupid as retard who no likee alcohol but keep drinking girly drinks, blame his mommies panties for getting hangover.

    "Agriculture creates government." ~Richard Manning, Against the Grain, p. 73

  • Fluffy||

    I certainly agree that the real problem in most Third World societies is the bureaucratic burden itself, and that problem cannot be solved by trying to prod the bureaucrats into behaving "honestly".

    That being said, I disagree with the criticism Shikha directs at the idea of a Lokpal.

    It was my understanding that the ombudsman had unlimited authority to prosecute, but still had the prosecute inside the standard Indian court system. Am I wrong about that?

    Because if that's true I don't see how it will have unchecked power that will either become corrupt or tyrannical.

    Actually, I think we need that 4th branch of government ourselves - a special prosecutor's office in perpetuity. It's a critical missing part of our own current system.

  • Name Nomad||

    I'm 100% behind your idea as long as they are required by law, upon entering a room, to loudly state: "Nooooooooobody expects the Political Inquisition!"

  • Fluffy||

    I think they should walk into a room, fire an automatic weapon into the air, and when everyone is shocked into silence yell, "That's right! That's what I thought!"

  • ||

    Who prosecutes the prosecutors?

  • Fluffy||

    Treat 'em like our regular plain old criminal prosecutors.

    Of course, our regular plain old criminal prosecutors are themselves dangerously unaccountable - but it's not like we're creating a new or unique problem by adding a relative handful of men to their ranks.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    Considering how corrupt our prosecutors are - hiding evidence, etc - I would think that this would corrupt the process only further.

    Firing guns into the air? How about just a random drive by instead. The political class is corrupt. Lets randomly cull the herd. The new blood will be an improvement - until they become corrupt. The trouble is the system. The institutions of Democratic government are about the worst imaginable, until one observes the other systems in action.

  • Fluffy||

    BTW -

    The troll has so overreached himself that even I can ignore him now.

    Even I - infamous lover of trolls and voracious consumer of troll products.

    It's like when they make you smoke 100 cigarettes at once and you don't want any cigarettes at all any more after that.

  • Yuno Hoo||

    I think we need that 4th branch of government ourselves - a special prosecutor's office in perpetuity.

    "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another ...."

  • Moaaaaarrrrrrrrrrr Government!||

    we need that 4th branch of government ourselves

    Fibertarian luvsem some bigger government.

    TROLOLOLOLOLOL!

    Oh god, I'm dying laughing here. Fluffy, you are one funny little furry pussy!

    WE NEED YET ANOTHER FIFTH COLUMN OF GOVERNMENT!

    Edward Khil - original Trolololol
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=32UGD0fV45g

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    How do hunter-gathers have so much free time to spam Internet discussions?

    I would think finding edible plants and stalking caribou would leave one with less free time.

  • Fluffy||

    Shhhhhhhhhhhh!

  • ||

    I get 3bars on my smartphone where I go caribou stalking.

  • ||

    also,

    Caribou Stalking: There's An App For That.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Are you kidding, HM? Look at the abundant game available on the Internet!

  • MJL||

    Ha Mulatto! Reminds of Inuits I saw on television. They demanded their ancient right to hunt narwhals. Cracked me up to see them using snowmobiles, motorized boats and high-powered rifles to do it...

  • Onion News Network||

    With Fluffy the Corruption Slayer proposing a 4th branch of government, fellow fibertarians have now set a ceiling of 7 branches of government as a reasonable limit.

    Fibertarianism has become a parody of itself.

  • broken window fallacy? LOL||

    I would think finding edible plants and stalking caribou would leave one with less free time.

    That's because you're a halfwit Fibertarian.

    In reality, a hunter-gatherer's work week is short enough to make you drool in envy. Work a couple hours per day, and not suffer Diseases of Civilization.

    Unless you don't get the broken window fallacy of 18.2 million people spending billions of dollars a year taking care care of their diabetic bodies.

    And diabetes is just one of the many Diseases of Civilization.

    Krugman loves him some hospitals, just like you do. All broken window fallacy.

    Cuz hunter gatherers just don't get diabetes. Or any other diseases of civilization.

  • NotSure||

    They don't get diabetes, because they usually starve to death or die from a minor infection first.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    Feeding the Trolls is now punishable with a fine, imprisonment and possibly death. Cease and desist or you will suffer.

  • Real Deregulation||

    I like gamboling across plain and forest too and it should be deregulated.

    Deregulate Privation Property Land Title, the biggest of big government entitlements!

    Officer, am I free to gambol across plain and forest now?

  • Fibertarians lie lie lie lie||

    they usually starve to death or die from a minor infection first.

    Incorrect, Fibertarian.

    Health and the Rise of Civilization
    Mark Nathan Cohen
    Yale University Press
    www.primitivism.com/health-civilization.htm

    In this book, the author challenges the popular assumption that "primitive" societies are poor, ill, and malnourished, and that progress through civiliztion automatically implies improved health. Cohen reviews the major prehistoric social and technological transformations that resulted in the emergence of civilization, and evaluates the impact of these transformations on health and nutrition through the ages. Using findings from epidemiology, anthropology, and archaeology, Cohen provides evidence about the actual effects of civilization on health, concluding that primitive populations, whether in prehistory or in the modern world, have surprisingly successful health records compared to many prehistoric and historic civilizations and to some populations of the modern Third World. He argues that some aspects of "progress" create as many health problems as they prevent or cure. ~Amazon review

  • NotSure||

    Another "noble savage" study, diabetes is a sign of plenty of food, not having food is not good for health.

    You may want to live like a savage, most people don't. Since you actually have never suffered real hunger, perhaps you should try it first before endorsing it. Do you think a loser like you will actually be the one surviving in the society you want to achieve. If you are a loser now, it will not magically transform you into a winner in your ideal society, you will be one of the first ones to perish you moron.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    Please Stop.

  • I'm a hunter-gatherer!||

    Everything is true if you can find a book about it!

  • Intelligent Design Fibertarian||

    Another "evolution" study, sin is a sign of plenty of needing GOD, not having GOD is not good for health.

    Good grief, "NotSure," do you fuckwits just spout this shit and still think you are engaging in anything close to reason?

    I've got the science. Epidemiology, anthropology, and archaeology.

    You've got nothing but....evangelical fibertarian mythological bullshit from Hobbes.

  • NotSure||

    No you do not have science, because without agriculture you cannot have surplus to do any of these things in the first place, all you would be doing to trying to make it through another day without starving.

    You may cite outdated anthropology studies from the 1960's, if you actually read a bit more instead of doing google searches you would know that life in primitive societies was short and shit.

    Like I said, an utter loser like you would be the first to die, if you want to perish than hang yourself or if you really want to live the primitive life, there are tribes in the Amazon without any contact to the outside world, they only problem is that they would probably kill you as soon as contact is made though.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    Pretty Please.

  • Banality||

    I've managed to keep myself from reading the comments at Reason for quite some time, assuming they would be like this. I'm surprised at how disappointed I am to finally confirm my assumption. I don't understand why some people gleefully search for an elevator when they are feeling flatulent.

  • you may cite outdated||

    You may cite outdated anthropology studies from the 1960's.

    You may cite outdated gravity studies from the 1960's.

    You may cite outdated aerodynamic studies from the 1960's.

    You may cite outdated libertarian studies from the 1960's.

    Just like a evangelical fundamentalist dimwit arguing.

    No reason given why they're outdated. It's just axiomatic.

  • NotSure||

    They are outdated because they are wrong, because real studies about primitive societies shows that life is short and shit. The ideal of the noble savage is outdated, it does not reflect how people really lived, it reflects the views of an affluent westerner who thinks that he will get more unrestrained sex if only he lived in a primitive tribe.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    Gadzooks!! Where have you been! This guy makes Toni look like a noble laureate super genius. Stop feeding him. Or prepare to die.

    I will get my friend Inigo Montonya, and I will tell him you killed his father.

  • Untermensch||

    The logic of the office is easy to understand: It can’t rid the system of corruption if it has to hew to it.

    MInor editing issue: to what does the highlighted it refer? I tried to figure that out and could not. There is no obvious referent. I'm guessing this was edited down and something was deleted that would make that clear.

    Also, when did White Injun start to make up over half of the comments on everything? This must be a new variety of genetically modified subsistence troll that is able to grow big and strong on a limited amount of nourishment, because we aren't feeding it that much.

  • jacob the barbarian||

    Think Tribbles. Born pregnant, brainless, and does the same shit over and over and over and over again, and again.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    A mass anti-corruption movement that may well peter out without accomplishing anything?

    Thank God nothing like could happen in *this* country!

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    A mass anti-corruption movement that may well peter out without accomplishing anything?

    Thank God nothing like could happen in *this* country!

  • Noble Savage||

    real studies about primitive societies shows that life is short and shit

    Fibertarian Liar.

    Anthropology and archeology is showing exactly the opposite. Your "noble savage" racist strawman is what is old and decrepit.

    Yeah, it's racist, along with being old.

    The term “Noble Savage” first appears in English in John Dryden’s 1672 play...The term “Noble Savage,” as we have it today, was a straw man concocted by white supremacists in order to take over the British Ethnological Society...

    “The Savages are Truly Noble”
    by Jason Godesky | 10 May 2007
    http://rewild.info/anthropik/2.....uly-noble/

  • A fan||

    At least White Indian is now commenting on real Indians.

    For that moron it is a step towards sanity.

  • J Prism||

    Under India's Special Marriage Act, 1954, notice needs to be given to the marriage registrar 30 days in advance so that if there are objections to the marriage, those can be investigated. This leave scope for monetary inducement.

  • العراق||

    Thank you

  • kicksneakerboxes||

    good

  • ftth construction||

    I guess the most problem in running a country is having that corruption problem, How I wish and would like to see how a country run without this corruption thing. But I guess this I think would really do need much attention to take over.

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