The South Asia Channel

Something Rotten in the State of India

"Only the corrupt, schemers, fraudsters, etc are eligible for membership," his banner read. Nareseh Singh Bhadauriya, a politician in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was marching through the streets of the city of Amethi in late February to promote his newly founded "pro-corruption party." 

Bhadauriya's Khas Aadmi, or "Special Man" party, was a satirical play on words on Delhi's Aam Aadmi ("Common Man") Party, which rose to Delhi's highest office in December on an anti-corruption platform. The politician told Indian media that his march was an attempt to put a spotlight on corruption, which many believe to be dangerously widespread in Indian politics.

Combating corruption is high on the political agenda this year, as Indians heads to the polls in April and May to elect a new parliament, which will in turn name the next prime minister. But despite the energy of India's anti-corruption movement, it has far to go in battling graft. Corruption and criminality remain endemic in Indian politics, with 30% of members of the current parliament facing criminal cases.

Milan Vaishnav, an associate at the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., has done extensive research on the topic. Foreign Policy's South Asia channel spoke with Dr. Vaishnav on March 5 about why corruption and criminality have proved so persistent in Indian politics, and what the country could do to stamp them out.

How widespread is corruption in Indian politics today?

Corruption is very widespread in Indian politics, and the economy and society today. It's certainly not a new phenomenon; even historical texts such as Kautilya's Arthashastra from the 4th Century BC talk of corruption. But certain factors are different now. The most important one is that the economy is growing at an unprecedented pace in modern Indian history. That has enlarged the pie: There are more rents to be had as the economy is churning out more money. At the same time, the Indian state remains very much a player in the marketplace and can use its discretionary authority over things like contracts, licenses, and permits to distribute those rents for the right price. That has facilitated heightened levels of cronyism as the economy has gotten bigger.

The rules in India have gradually changed with regard to corruption: Last year, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that sitting politicians who are convicted of criminal acts should be removed from office. How far has India come in terms of anti-corruption measures, and how much farther does it have to go?

It's made several important steps in recent years but still has a long way to go. For instance, in 2003, the Supreme Court of India ruled that anyone who stands for elected office has to submit a detailed affidavit disclosing their personal financial assets and liabilities, as well as criminal records. That data has now been collected for every election going back to 2003, which is a vast amount of information that sheds light on issues of corruption and criminality among politicians. In 2005, there was the passage of the Right to Information Act, modeled after America's Freedom of Information Act, which allowed ordinary citizens to request information about the inner workings of their government. More recently, Parliament passed the Lokpal bill, which will set up an anti-corruption ombudsperson to handle corruption cases against senior government officials. Similarly, many state governments have set up analogous positions to deal with state-level officials.

All of these steps have been really positive, but while India has had a lot of success increasing transparency, it has not enjoyed much success in improving the effectiveness of governance. So oftentimes people will revert to paying a bribe or engaging with a politician who is a criminal to get their work done, because the state is not delivering services as it should. So unless you solve that issue, which is really about how to get India's state to function better, the demand and the supply for corruption are not going to go away. Many anti-corruption campaigns have focused perhaps too excessively on the transparency side and not enough building state institutions to complement that. 

Have those public disclosures been a main resource in your research?

They have. All my research on criminality really stems from the fact that researchers, ordinary people, the media, civil society have access to this data. We can look for patterns in the data, we can look to see whether or not the assets of politicians are increasing over time in ways that are disproportionate to their known sources of income, and we can look at the variation across states, across parties. So it's an enormously useful tool to at least start to understand the problem. But it's not a silver bullet. Information is the starting point, but it's only that. Information alone is not going to make this problem go away.

Your research argues that there is actually a demand in India for corrupt and convicted politicians. Explain that.

In a society like India, which is often divided in terms of ethnicity, caste, or communal lines, and has weak rule of law to boot, some politicians willing to break the law can promote themselves as Robin Hood figures. They tap into disenchantment among voters who believe their interests should be protected by the state, yet in practice those needs aren't being met. So if there is someone who is a strongman but can get stuff done for you and your community, that is a feather in his or her cap. Those criminal candidates may not be beneficial for social welfare at large, but they may cater to your interests and your community. And in places where there's been a tremendous amount of social churning in terms of the balance of power between different social groups, in places where there is an open question over who is in control of the levers of economic and political power, there is a vacuum that these politicians can fill in. That's where the demand stems from.

You also discuss the correlation between candidate wealth and political success. What are the implications of this trend for Indian policy and democracy?

There are two parts of this story, of why there is an electoral market for criminal politicians. The first part is why parties nominate and recruit them. One fundamental reason is money. Politicians who are associated with criminal activity have a significant wealth advantage over those their "clean" Counterparts. And given that elections have become very expensive in India and parties have limited coffers, having wealthy self-financed candidates fills in the gap.

Then the question is, given that parties are recruiting them, why are voters voting for them? That is what I referenced before, that such candidates are able to use their criminality as a sign of their credibility to get things done for a particular segment of the population.

What this means for long-term policy is until you solve how to regulate election finance and control the costs of elections, parties are going to be moved to select these candidates, because they are under tremendous pressure to raise funds, and they don't have enough sources to plug that gap. Secondly, you need to resolve some of the discretionary powers that the state has over the economy. Right now, politics is a very lucrative business in India. The state has a lot of control over land, mining, telecommunications spectrum, infrastructure, defense contracts, etc. This creates a vicious cycle, where candidates are willing to do whatever it takes to get back into office to enjoy those fruits. In terms of policy, the focus needs to be squarely on how to reduce incentives for people to make money from the state, and in turn the incentive for recruiting candidates with deep pockets.

Is there a substantial drive for campaign finance reform?

There have been about a dozen government commission reports since the 1960s that have recommended various solutions to India's campaign finance dilemma. Those documents have essentially gathered dust on bookshelves. More recently, the Election Commission, in cooperation with civil society, once again promulgated a set of reforms that parties simply don't seem to be very interested in, because they feel it would damage their electoral prospects. The not-so-secret strategy of parties is to find candidates who are winnable. That's the bottom line. If those people are criminals, if they're rich because of corrupt activities, those are not necessarily strikes against them.

I'd like to get your view on the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party. How long was the anti-corruption movement and this party in forming? Do you see complications for the AAP in becoming a political party that is able to govern and address a range of issues that concern Indians, not just corruption?

Various grassroots anti-corruption movements have been going on in India for some time. The Anna Hazare movement, of which the Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) Arvind Kejriwal was a leading figure, was really an attempt to corral those local movements, scale them up and mainstream them into the political discourse. These protests really hit their zenith in the summer of 2011 in terms of raising awareness about corruption as an issue in India and clamoring for an effective Lokpal bill, a bill that would create a tough anti-corruption ombudsman. The party evolved out of this movement. There was a divide among Hazare and his aides about whether to remain outside of politics or enter mainstream politics; Kejriwal felt firmly that in order to effect the kind of change they wanted to bring about, they had to do it from within the system.

The rise of AAP has been truly remarkable. Very few people predicted that it would form a government in Delhi, which is the heart of power in the country. Delhi is essentially a city-state; it's a small, but symbolically important place. Now, AAP has a real challenge in how they scale their message and organization up over time. And I think they really face a struggle balancing the kind of agitational inclinations which got them into the newspapers, got them a lot of attention and mass support, and governing-which they proved to be not particularly effective at. After all, their government in Delhi lasted only 49 days. But it's very early days for them. India has seen new parties, new anti-corruption movements come and go. Oftentimes they've been a flash in the pan, and the jury is still out on whether this movement is politically going to have legs inside the system.