NEW DELHI - Is corruption crippling India? At first glance, such a question seems absurd. After all, India has had a functioning democratic order since before 1947, and its economy weathered the recent global economic crisis when most others faltered. Yet a combination of factors that have mushroomed over time has raised serious concerns about the threat that corruption poses to the very fabric of the Indian state.
Of course, India is not experiencing any Arab-style "youth quakes" in response to the current corruption scandal plaguing the Congress Party-led government. Nor is it likely to do so. India's economy continues its robust 8.5-9% annual GDP growth, a figure that is the envy of many. Competitive elections are routine.
But disparity and discontent are rising, driven in part by food-price inflation, which recently topped 20% year on year. Indeed, wholesale inflation now stands at more than 9%. Manufacturing growth has turned sluggish, and the fiscal deficit has risen above 5% of GDP, gravely straining the economy. As a result, inward foreign direct investment has slowed and interest rates are climbing.
Moreover, almost one-third of the country's administrative districts are now affected by extreme left-wing "Maoist" violence. Externally, India's immediate neighbourhood, with Pakistan teetering, is more disturbed than ever.
But, on top of all these woes sits corruption, crippling all the organs of state and reaching into its highest offices. Throughout the Indian parliament's recent winter session, the opposition (I am a leader of its largest party, the BJP) demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to inquire into a seemingly endless series of public scandals. The government, however, would not concede on this point, and the opposition refused to relent.
The outcome was paralysis: an entire session of the parliament ended with not a single item of legislative, governmental, or other business completed. This unprecedented impasse led many to wonder whether it portends even worse political immobility to come. Indeed, during the standoff, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, returning from a G-20 meeting, expressed concerns about the "future of India's parliamentary democracy."
Singh's dire pronouncement was most likely born of the unhappy ending to the parliament's session.
But it was also the consequence of scandalous misconduct at India's telecommunications ministry where some $30 billion may have been siphoned off through corrupt practices, gross mismanagement of the Commonwealth games, and many other instances of governmental corruption.
The opposition demand for a JPC to examine corruption required real leadership from the government. Alas, none was forthcoming. But what the government rejected in the last parliamentary session has been conceded in the current one, owing to mounting public pressure.
Blow to democracy
This delay was both shabby and unwise. At the heart of any functioning democratic order must be a firm regard for the rule of law. When this is absent, political and economic troubles fill the void.
That is India's situation today, as many high officials display wilful disregard for the letter of the law and flaunt their defiance of its spirit. Their corruption is debilitating not only India's parliament, but its democracy as well.
Perhaps corruption has gained the upper hand because India's system for redressing grievances has become so sluggish. Indians also seem to be losing regard for each other; they are abandoning the sense of fellowship that marked the country's earlier years of struggle. But, without a fundamental sense of solidarity with one's fellow citizens, no parliamentary democracy can function. There is also a growing sense that India has forgotten how to accommodate dissent, that alternative viewpoints are considered entirely irrelevant. As a result, the government views disagreement as a "disservice," a rebellious challenge that must be crushed.
The tone, tenor, and content of the language with which the government addresses the opposition, and vice versa, has become ritualized, patronizingly rejectionist, emptied of the spirit of parliamentary democracy. Courtesy towards and accommodation of opposing views are treated as signs of weakness.
In such an atmosphere of contempt for opposition, corruption grows and festers.
And it is corruption, combined with a loss of accountability, that is eroding the checks and balances of India's democratic order.
As a result, what remains of representative institutions is an empty shell of residual decision-making, with bribery being the only real conversation of government.
The "dynasticism" that has taken such a firm grip on much of Indian politics plays a large role in fostering corruption. After all, inherited political power is the very antithesis of democracy because accountability is no part of it. And when accountability is absent, both the cunning and the aggrieved feel that they must turn to corrupt means to make their concerns known.
Preserving hereditary privileges invariably means that rules and governmental processes get bent, if not made wholly subservient to dynastic concerns. Today, all of India is paying the price.
Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister, and defence minister, is the author of Jinnah: India - Partition - Independence.Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011. Exclusive to the Sunday Times