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Corruption undermining democratic governance

C. Raj Kumar

Corruption violates human rights, undermines the rule of law, distorts the development process, and dis-empowers the Indian state. The way forward is to increase the say of civil society in governance issues.

TWO RECENT events have brought to the forefront the issue of corruption in India. The first is the saga of the demolitions of illegal structures by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). It has demonstrated how corruption and abuse of power are deep-rooted in India as no action was taken when all these structures were being built. Palms were greased to break every law in the book. It took an order from the Delhi High Court for the MCD to do its long overdue duty.

The second concerns the recent revelations about cash-for-questions by 11 MPs. Ten of them have now been found guilty of breach of privilege by the Lok Sabha's own inquiry committee, which has recommended that 10 of them be expelled; the eleventh is a member of Rajya Sabha where a probe report is expected on Friday. The fate of seven other MPs caught in allegations about use of funds from the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme hangs in the balance.

These two cases of corruption have underlined the need for understanding this problem from a human rights and democratic governance standpoint. It is well known that corruption is widely prevalent in India. Both domestic and international assessments of India have demonstrated its poor track record. Time and again, acts of corruption become an issue in the public domain but like many other ills affecting this country this also is forgotten after some action for a brief while. However, "we, the people" know very well to what extent corruption affects our daily life. Corruption has a profound negative impact on the social, economic, and political fabric of Indian society. It violates human rights, undermines the rule of law, distorts the development process, and dis-empowers the Indian state. This leads to the state losing its capacity to govern. Corruption violates the legal and regulatory framework in India. Clearly, the building laws the MCD was under an obligation to implement were violated. While there are laws against corruption in India, the gap between the law in the books and the law in practice is wide.

Corruption violates human rights of the people of India as it hinders the process of fulfilling civil, political, economic, and social rights. The unequal application of law leading to selective enforcement due to corruption creates an environment of scant regard for law and legal institutions. This is also demonstrated at two levels in the recent demolitions in Delhi. There are allegations that MCD officials were bribed to ensure they do not enforce the law and do not order demolitions. This is notwithstanding the fact that the MCD officials were aware illegal structures were being built. It is also alleged that those who did not bribe were harassed.

Rule of law means a society is governed on the basis of laws enforced equally. Corruption in India creates an environment whereby some people are given privileges due to their ability to pay bribes. A rule-of-law society is based upon the trust and faith of the people that they are governed on the basis of laws enforced in a fair, just, and reasonable manner. Corruption undermines this basic trust. This especially weakens sovereignty in democratic polities, where legitimacy and popular will are essential requisites for an authority to call itself `sovereign.'

In India, corruption is recognised as a law enforcement issue. The laws against bribery are part of the criminal law enforcement mechanisms. Even the institutional mechanisms available are largely based on the law enforcement machinery investigating allegations of corruption and the prosecution of the wrongdoers. But this approach puts corruption along with other offences criminal law attempts to punish. However, corruption, if understood from the standpoint of its consequences for the rule of law, human rights, and development has a negative impact on state sovereignty. Transparency in governance is crucial to ensure the state exercises its powers in a responsible manner. Corruption of the institutions of the state, including the recent alleged acts of corruption committed by Indian parliamentarians, does not allow the state to exercise its sovereign powers. In fact, corruption of the state and its institutions means the state is not functioning to capacity and the law enforcement machinery is weak.

There are five dimensions to how sovereignty is impacted by corruption:

1) Security: The goal of every sovereign state is to ensure national security for its people so that peace and stability prevail in society. Corruption has the potential to threaten national security. Human security is another dimension of sovereignty. This is to ensure people of a state are empowered to face a wide array of threats, including from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, natural disasters, deadly diseases such as AIDS and SARS, and other environmental disasters due to global warming and climate change. It is important to recognise the connections between corruption and sovereignty from national and human security standpoints so that all issues of public policy and governance a state is engaged in by way of its sovereign functions are pursued on the basis of transparency. Corruption is an all-pervasive phenomenon that affects the exercise of the functions of the state in a wide manner.

2) Law Enforcement: A sovereign state ought to ensure laws are enforced in a non-discriminatory manner. Corruption does not allow this. Hence, criminalisation of politics and politicisation of crimes have become common in Indian society. The sovereign state becomes too weak to enforce the law and all institutions of governance suffer from a crisis of legitimacy as well as of autonomy and independence, which are required to enforce the law including that against corruption.

3) Good Governance: A sovereign state ought to ensure the best practices of good governance. A corrupt state cannot ensure that its legal and political existence is duly supported by the governance process. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in India can play an important role in ensuring good governance. It is important that issues relating to corruption become an integral part of the mandate of the NHRC.

4) Development: The goal of any sovereign state is to ensure there is social and economic development. Contemporary international initiatives in the form of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) underline the need for ensuring development of the people. The UN Declaration on the Right to Development also emphasises this point. It is the responsibility of a number of players, the most important being the state itself, to ensure the MDGs are achieved. The fulfilment of the MDGs is inextricably related to the state exercising its sovereign functions. However, it is seldom recognised that corruption plays a very important role in the state not fulfilling its functions. Often, the resources allocated from domestic sources or development aid from international sources are diverted, in the form of corrupt transfer of wealth to a few persons who are governing the country. The alleged acts of corruption in the MPLADS is an example of how corruption in India undermines the development process. Development aid becomes a source of huge internal conflict and improper use of resources, thereby undermining the sovereignty of the state. These actions delay and undercut the development process.

5) Human rights: The recognition of corruption as a serious human rights issue is based on the realisation that corruption of the state and its institutions hinder the full realisation of civil, political, economic, and social rights, which are all related to the exercise of the right to development. Sovereignty as a facet of state responsibility demands that the state exercise its powers in a manner that ensures corruption-free governance. This will ensure better protection and promotion of human rights. Further, the recognition of corruption as a factor that undermines the sovereign exercise of power means our efforts to prevent and fight corruption lead to empowerment of the people. Empowered people will have a greater commitment to ensuring good governance and development. The new Right to Information Act in India has the potential to empower the Indian populace, but it remains to be seen how effectively the Act will be enforced.

Corruption in the two cases examined provides a telling example of how the agents of the state either assume that their individual and clique prosperity translates into state prosperity and sovereignty or simply do not care for anything beyond personal enrichment. In both cases, the example of Louis XIV who claimed, `I am the state,' serves as a sensible reminder. I have argued in favour of a humanistic and liberal reinterpretation of `sovereignty' in India in the wake of new acts of corruption that have come to the forefront. Sovereignty in India exercised as untrammelled power to exploit and to dis-empower the citizens is an anachronistic idea that sadly prevails at many levels of governance in India. Sovereignty exercised as a responsibility with human development as the end is the wave of the future that has not yet gained prevalence.

That corruption ultimately hurts the Indian state and its legitimacy needs to be impressed upon the many Indian parliamentarians and bureaucrats who are persons of integrity and are performing public service with utmost rectitude. The way forward in the fight against corruption in India is to ensure responsibility and accountability for strengthening, not weakening, sovereignty, along with large-scale efforts to increase the say of civil society in governance issues. A corruption-free Indian state enhances its ability to govern, reduces possibilities of unwarranted external interference, and raises its international stature. A non-discriminated against, content and well-governed population confers internal stability, a key requisite for projecting power internally and externally.

(The writer is an Assistant Professor at the School of Law, City University of Hong Kong. He is also Honorary Consultant to the National Human Rights Commission in India.)

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