India has turned Mahatma Gandhi’s ideal of honesty in public life on its head, and the maelstrom ignited by anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare is symptomatic of this malaise.
The country’s political leadership, whom the great man once inspired to higher purpose, has fallen into the hands of crooks and self-promoters, and they have spawned a culture of rampant corruption and self-aggrandizement.
Why is India so corrupt? Because the country’s politics have become a passage to quick riches and influence-peddling. Those who are good at nothing float regional caste-based parties just as entrepreneurs float ventures in the West to gain positions of power.
Not surprisingly, nearly 30 per cent of the MPs in India’s Parliament have a criminal record or charges pending against them – from murder to kidnapping to forgery to theft. There’s no way to throw them out because the overburdened legal system – where more than 30 million cases are pending – takes decades to produce verdicts.
So why do Indians vote for these people? Well, the culture is characterized by collectivism – not individualism – where the head of a family, clan, caste or group decides on the candidate. They will vote for someone of their own caste or group even if he’s a criminal.
Consequently, many regional political parties have sprung up around corrupt caste/clan leaders. Having entrenched themselves in their positions, these leaders run their parties as family fiefdoms, appointing only family members to senior positions. In fact, all political leaders – including the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who heads the ruling Congress Party – groom their sons and daughters to take over from them to keep power in the family.
Shockingly in a poor country such as India, many of these political elites flaunt a lifestyle so rich and luxurious that it could be the envy of any Hollywood star. Only in India do political leaders live free in multimillion-dollar government-owned palatial bungalows spread over two to eight acres in New Delhi.
The corrupt political elites have also made the Indian bureaucracy their partners in crime. And the politician-bureaucrat nexus has been extended to the business world. If corporate efficiency has propelled India to become one of the world’s fastest growing economies, then inefficient governance thanks to the politician-bureaucrat-business nexus has turned it into one of the world’s most corrupt nations.
Were India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who promised to “hang the corrupt from the nearest lamppost,” to return today, he would commit suicide after seeing that “black money” (income from illegal activities) accounts for almost half of the country’s GDP. Another $1.7-trillion is hidden abroad. Only 32 million out of more than a billion Indians pay taxes, and most transactions are carried out in cash.
Those who suffer the most in this booming black money industry are the masses of Indians forced to pay bribes to get a job or a driver’s licence or a passport or their kids admitted to school. So it’s no surprise that, in anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, the frustrated masses have found a new-age Gandhi – and they’ve taken to the streets seeking justice.
Gurmukh Singh is the Canada correspondent for India's Indo-Asian News Service.