Corruption, No. 1 national security threat, is eating into the vitals of the state, enfeebling internal security and crimping foreign policy.

India confronts several pressing national security threats. But only one of them - political corruption - poses an existential threat to the state, which in reality has degenerated into a republic of mega-scandals. The pervasive misuse of public office for private gain is an evil, eating into the vitals of the state, sapping India’s strength. When important decisions, from arms procurement to policy changes, are often tainted by corrupt considerations, it is inevitable that national security will get compromised. If India today is widely seen as a soft state, much of the blame must be pinned on the corrupt and the compromised that lead it. Such ‘softening’ of India has made the country a tempting target for those seeking to undermine its security.

India’s situation is best explained by an ancient proverb, “A fish rots from the head down.” When the head is putrid, the body politic cannot be healthy. And when those at the helm remain wedded to grand corruption, clerks or traffic police cannot be singled out for taking small bribes. In fact, it is the self-perpetuating cycle of corruption at all government levels - federal, State and local - that has turned internal security into India’s Achilles heel. As the then Chief Justice of India pointed out last year, the plastic explosives employed in the deadly 1993 Mumbai bombings had been smuggled into the country due to local corrupt practices.

But it is the institutionalised corruption in high office that is eviscerating the republic. When domestic policy is seriously stained by corruption, foreign policy can hardly be dynamic and proactive.

Such is the weakening of the state that India did a better job warding off regional security threats when it was economically weak - like during Indira Gandhi’s reign - than it is able to do today, despite nearly two decades of impressive GDP growth. Economic liberalisation, paradoxically, has whetted personal greed and brought in an era of big-bucks corruption, even as a system of arbitrary environmental stoppages and clearances has taken the place of the old “licence-permit raj.”

India now is witnessing not mere corruption but national plunder. The consequence is that it is getting feebler institutionally. Yet scandals remain so recurrent that public ire over any malfeasance is short-lived.

Indeed, one strategy often employed to ease public anger over revelations of a new mega-scandal is to start targeting second-tier corruption selectively. The misuse of government agencies remains rampant.

Corruption scandals now actually resemble television soaps, with engrossing but diversionary plots. To deflect public attention, the focus in the immediate aftermath is always on government processes related to probing a scandal, not on opening judicial paths to identify the real beneficiaries and quickly recover the loot. The latest scandal over the government’s allotment of second-generation telecom spectrum in 2008 falls in the same category, although the putative loss to the national treasury has been estimated at $39 billion, or 14.3 per cent of India’s total current external debt. The sheer scale of this kickback scandal indicates that multiple political interests must have had a hand in the till. If there is any good news, it is the belated appointment of a clean professional as Telecom Minister.

Make no mistake: The spiriting away of billions of dollars to international financial safe havens constitutes more than criminal wrongdoing. When economic contracts are signed or policy decisions taken so as to net handsome kickbacks, it constitutes a flagrant assault on the national interest. India ranks among the top countries whose stolen national wealth is stashed away in Swiss bank accounts. Yet no Indian politician has ever been convicted and hanged for waging such war on the state.

Let’s be clear: Corruption stalls development, undermines social progress, undercuts the confidence of citizens in the fairness and impartiality of public administration, impedes good governance, erodes the rule of law, distorts competitive conditions in business transactions, discourages domestic and foreign investment, fosters a black market economy, and raises new security threats. In sum, corruption obstructs a country from realising its goals and undercuts national security.

The cancer of corruption in Indiahas alarmingly spread to elements within the two institutions that are central to the country’s future - the judiciary and the armed forces. Recent revelations have highlighted the deep corporate penetration of the major political parties and the manner big business influences policymaking and media coverage. The rot in the media - the nation’s supposed watchdog - stands exposed. In fact, even the integrity of the national Padma awards has been badly vitiated.

But nothing illustrates the corrosive effects of the culture of corruption better than the palpable decay of state capacity. India’s economic dynamism is rooted in its private sector-led growth. But in stark contrast to China, India does poorly wherever the state is involved. The deterioration of the state is the principal constraint on India’s ability to secure its interests. That underscores the national-security costs of widespread corruption.

Today, a self-advertised “incredible India” has no articulated national security strategy, or a defined defence policy, or a declared counterterrorism doctrine, yet it is the only large country dependent on other powers to meet basic defence needs. Instead of seeking to build a first-rate military with strategic reach and an independent deterrent, India has allowed itself to become a money-spinning dumping ground for weapons it can do without. As a result, India has emerged as the world’s top arms importer in the past decade, even as its capacity to decisively win a war erodes.

The defence of India indeed has turned into an unending scandal. Even indictments by the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) have made little difference to the manner arms continue to be procured from overseas. Such imports, often clinched without transparency or open bidding, are a major source of political corruption. India shows that the more corrupt a system, the greater will be will be its corrupting power. A corrupt system quickly corrupts those who enter it, fixating them on the lure of kickbacks and on amassing pelf. Such metastasising corruption cannot be controlled simply by public funding of political parties. After all, much of the big-bucks corruption is designed to line one’s pocket, with no seeming limit to personal greed. In fact, the series of scandals during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government - from bribery-influenced arms imports and $1-billion urea contract with Oman to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars to the state in allowing private mobile telephone operators to shift from fixed licence fees to revenue sharing - served as a reminder of the growing concentration of powers in a few hands and the consequent disdain for integrated, holistic policymaking.

As in other national security challenges, the principal causes of rampant corruption are leadership deficit and governance deficit. The only way corruption can be contained is through integrity of leadership; improved governance; measures to ensure fiscal transparency; strengthened anti-bribery enforcement; government accountability; and active public involvement. The independence of investigating agencies is a prerequisite for developing an anti-corruption culture in politics and business. Yet in India, these agencies are controlled by those whom they are supposed to keep in check or investigate when a scandal unfolds. Even the vigilance system lacks autonomy and is open to manipulation. With corruption, nepotism and cronyism now endemic, Indian politics has become the safe, fast track to wealth. India freed itself from British colonialism only to come in the grip of an indigenous political class ruling the country on colonial-style principles and still functioning from colonial-era structures. It may take a second war of independence for India to gain true freedom from exploitation and pillage.

(Brahma Chellaney is the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut - HarperCollins USA, 2010.)

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