The Indian anti-corruption movement can benefit greatly from laws of other nations and the sustained efforts of international groups

India’s full participation in the next Olympics is in jeopardy over a commitment effectively to bad ethics. In the eye of the storm is Lalit Bhanot, a long-time aide of Suresh Kalmadi, who was indicted in the 2010 Commonwealth Games corruption scandal. Barely a day after the International Olympic Council (IOC) suspended the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) over its failure to disqualify candidates facing charges, Mr. Bhanot was elected unopposed as the IOA’s secretary-general. The IOC has, however, remained resolute. And in so doing, it has highlighted a critical avenue that the stalled anti-corruption movement in India can wield to its advantage. The crusade against graft, apart from driving domestic reform, must also explore the potential of importing good governance, through the legal and regulatory frameworks of international organisations and even other countries.

The IOC’s own history is no doubt riddled with charges of corruption. But since the bribery scandal involving Salt Lake City’s successful bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, it has substantially cleaned up its governance, and has expelled members implicated in ethics violations. To this end, as the apex body of the Olympics movement, the IOC has recommended that the IOA introduce into its charter a clause that those facing charges or convicted of a criminal or corruption offence be barred from contesting elections.

Playing to the galleries

The IOA does not dispute that convicts ought to be weeded out from its composition. But it sees no reason why those against whom charges have been framed ought to be disqualified. This debate over the “innocent until proven guilty” principle has often reared its head in some form or the other in Indian electoral politics. The Supreme Court’s recent and controversial ruling in the Jan Chowkidar case that any person confined in prison or in lawful custody of the police would be disqualified from contesting elections to Parliament or the State legislatures has further illuminated this argument. But what’s novel in the IOC-IOA standoff is the involvement of a foreign entity.

The natural response of the IOA, as evinced by its president Abhay Singh Chautala’s statement — “We can’t go beyond the law of our land. We will make our constitution according to the law of the land” — is to use the shield (in this case, fig leaf) of Indian sovereignty. The fundamental issue with this argument is that it simply skirts the problem at hand. The rule is demonised solely on the grounds of pedigree — it is foreign, it is forced upon on us, and hence it must be bad. Such arguments carry emotive appeal in India, and are difficult to counter.

However, as the global struggle against corruption in recent years has shown, sustained, international pressure works. Efforts by NGOs such as Transparency International have had path-breaking effect. The business community has taken off from the NGO’s lead, and has launched significant actions including the World Economic Forum’s “Partnering Against Corruption Initiative.”

The limitations of the grassroots anti-corruption movement in India have been exposed over the past year. Such efforts are easily derailed by parliamentary disruptions, governmental harassment of anti-corruption activists, and deflecting referrals to parliamentary committees. Moreover, these movements often lack focus on the details. In contrast, international organisations are more nuanced with the good governance requirements they impose, and, significantly, are in superior bargaining positions to ensure that these requirements are enforced.

It isn’t only international organisations that the movement can look toward. Even other countries, acting individually, could make beneficial interventions. The United Kingdom’s Bribery Act, for example, is an ambitious piece of legislation with a near-universal jurisdiction. The Act allows the U.K. to prosecute an individual or a company having links to the country, no matter where the offence was committed. The law could potentially be used to indict Indian companies or individuals with even a casual link to the U.K., for acts of bribery that they may commit in India.

Cautious approach

However, not all foreign attempts to influence domestic legal norms need be blindly welcomed. For instance, attempts to influence the patents regime in India through the TRIPs framework, and the United States’ efforts to limit recourse under Indian law against foreign suppliers of defective nuclear material are cases to be viewed with great circumspection.

But we must invite, where we can, such external interventions that would clearly work to the benefit of India’s anti-corruption drive. After identifying these forces, the movement must throw its weight behind them, just as it did behind Anna Hazare and his crusade for the Lokpal Bill. This can be done in various ways: from simply providing information to international organisations to launching and aiding criminal prosecutions abroad. Ultimately, the fight to completely rid India of its graft may have to come from within. But, given how ingrained corruption is in the country, the battle, as the IOC-IOA impasse demonstrates, cannot be won purely through domestic efforts.

(The writers are lawyers at the Madras High Court.)

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