Strong watchdog institutions in a weak democracy make for a tall order.
The Lokpal Bill failed to become law in 2011. The Lok Sabha passed it after some acrimony, but the Rajya Sabha did not even vote on it. Three views emerged during the debate inside and outside Parliament. First, it is a weak Bill not worth passing in its present form. Secondly, it is better to have some sort of Lokpal even if it is not what it ought to be. Lastly, the Bill would create a monstrous institution that will undermine Indian democracy, especially as it would affect the functioning of legislators and the Prime Minister.
Many parliamentarians (publicly and/or privately) understandably supported the third view, given that either they themselves or some of their party colleagues face charges of corruption. They argue that Indian democracy is one of the best in the world: so why disturb it by creating a new institution that would have powers over the people's representatives. While this argument has some merit, perhaps their real worry relates to the possible truncation of their capacity to wheel and deal. Do they not see that the public is angry with the politicians because it believes they undermine democracy? A Chief Minister resigns over corruption charges, but installs his wife as Chief Minister. Many who are accused of corruption have become Chief Ministers or Ministers. Politicians often make public statements, only to deny them later, showing utter disregard for public opinion. The public has reacted by increasingly becoming contemptuous of them.
The middle path
The middle position prevailed in the Lok Sabha but not in the Rajya Sabha. The argument is that it is better to have some kind of Lokpal than none. A middle path is favoured over extreme positions. However, can the position midway between two incorrect positions be automatically considered correct, or even that which is midway between an incorrect and a correct position be a correct one? It was argued, for instance, that even if the Central Bureau of Investigation remains under government control it may be granted more autonomy. The moot question is whether such a CBI can be effective.
Some people suggest that the absence of constitutional status would weaken the Lokpal. It is true that constitutional status rather than statutory status is better. But how would that by itself make the Lokpal effective? It is argued that a government that is unhappy with a Lokpal can remove the body, as happened in the case of the Punjab and Haryana Lokayukta, or have the Bill modified through a simple majority in Parliament. However, in today's environment this would be difficult since anti-corruption movements are stronger than earlier. The moot question is: how would constitutional status help curb corruption if the Lokpal itself is weak because of the inadequate provisions in the Bill? India has several constitutional authorities, such as the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Central Vigilance Commissioner, to check malpractices. Yet, illegality has only grown.
Election Commission's efforts
Is it the case that because the Election Commission is a constitutional body it is successful? Elections to five States have been announced. In this season to fight corruption, the Commission has announced steps to reduce the role of black money in elections. Income tax officers will be posted to monitor expenditure, bank accounts will have to be opened by candidates to route funds, and so on. These seem timely since much black money is used in elections, resulting in the forging of ties between politicians and the corrupt. Most candidates spend way above the election expenditure limit since they buy votes, hire workers, travel, organise meetings, and so on. The politicians accepting funds know that a quid pro quo is involved. There are also the wealthy fighting elections using their own unaccounted funds. They pay off the party leadership to get nominations. They may not be obliged to others but their motive is not selfless service, rather the furthering of their business interests.
Election Commissions have tried to curb the role of black money in elections, but the politicians have proved cleverer and circumvented it all. T.N. Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner cracked the whip, but many politicians have said in private that he only succeeded in driving spending underground. There are reports of large cash movements during election-time. It is good that this would be monitored, but will that be effective? One election organiser of a candidate in the last parliamentary elections admitted that money came in sacks. Apparently, counting machines were installed in safe houses where cash was counted and distributed.
In the last two decades, no Election Commissioner has been accused of being corrupt, though there have been accusations of bias. Yet, the Commission has not been successful in checking malpractices that result in the compromised getting elected — who then claim legitimacy and propagate corruption with impunity. Instances of booth-capturing have declined, but new forms of grabbing votes have emerged. There are election expenditure limits but these are hardly kept. Parties and candidates are supposed to get their accounts audited, but how can unrecorded transactions be audited?
The failure of a constitutional body like the Election Commission to check the growing scale of corrupt practices has important lessons for the reform of the existing watchdog institutions and the Lokpal. India has a multitude of watchdog institutions, constitutional and statutory. What is their experience?
The CAG audits government departments to track malpractices, but those in power have found ways to get around it. Intelligence agencies (the Intelligence Bureau, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and so on) keep tabs on important people and their wheeling and dealing and hold vast amounts of information, but illegality has only grown. There are the CVC, the CBI and various police agencies. Government departments have their vigilance wings. There are agencies to protect the environment, but the powerful violate environmental laws with impunity. There are regulatory authorities (such as the Securities and Exchange Board of India and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) to check private business activity, but they could not prevent the 2G scam or insider trading in the stock markets. The Reserve Bank of India regulates financial institutions, but it has been found wanting, as in the Harshad Mehta scam, the failure of cooperative banks, and so on.
The Information Commission oversees the Right to Information. It has shown some success, but increasingly the whistle-blowers are being eliminated and its success has remained limited to the highly literate. The media have exposed innumerable cases of corruption, but now sections of them are entangled in the vice of paid news. Some media stars have been found to be hobnobbing with the powerful and the compromised.
The judiciary is an independent constitutional body, yet the number of cases of alleged corruption against judges is increasing. Cases are piling up in courts, and the number of pending cases has crossed four crore. This has resulted in miscarriage of justice in many instances.
Watchdog institutions & ruling class
In brief, neither independence of functioning nor constitutional status has helped watchdog institutions to effectively perform their assigned tasks. The reason is that democracy, the super-watchdog which should deliver all-round accountability, has become weak in India. The ruling class has played havoc with the watchdog institutions so as to control them for their narrow ends. That is why the demand for a strong Lokpal gained momentum. Democracy ought to have ensured accountability of institutions. Votes should have weeded out the corrupt but just the opposite has been happening — the honest rarely win elections.
Democracy has become formalistic. Legislatures should check corruption but it would not be so if the elected are beholden to the corrupt or are themselves corrupt. The problem is political; it cannot be resolved through technical fixes or by having more laws — these are anyway being circumvented. A weak democracy presents a no-win situation: if a democracy is weak, the corrupt get elected and misuse their autonomy; if the legislators' autonomy is curbed, democracy weakens. Only a conscious public, not rules and laws, can deliver autonomous and incorruptible legislators.
That is why today there is a need for political movements that can change the national consciousness, a task being addressed by the movement against corruption and for Lokpal. So, the question is, can there be strong watchdogs in a weak democracy?
(The author is a Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)