New Delhi: “I will not spare anyone who is corrupt or has a criminal background,” the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate, and the man opinion polls say will be India’s next prime minister, said at an election meeting in Uttar Pradesh on Monday.
Narendra Modi said that if elected to the country’s top job, he would have the Supreme Court deal speedily with cases against public representatives.
His emphasis on corruption isn’t surprising.
It is an election platform his party and a rival, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), have adopted.
“Corruption has moved up in the list of issues that worry people—from number 10 some years ago to three or four at present. Today it is among the top five issues that worry voters,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, political analyst at the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies.
In the past 10 years, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by the Congress party, has been besieged by corruption controversies.
From the allotment of flats in a housing society for war widows in downtown Mumbai to the conduct of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, and from the allocation of spectrum to telcos to the allotment of coal mines, UPA has come under fire. It is one reason why many don’t give the coalition a chance in the ongoing elections.
“Corruption feeds into a whole host of issues like anti-incumbency factor and good governance, the economy,” all of which, Rao said, are factors seemingly weighing against the Congress-led coalition. Earlier this month, in its election manifesto, AAP promised several measures to root out corruption, bring probity back into public life and ensure that the common man gets clean and efficient governance.
At the very top was the rag-tag AAP’s pet project—“a strong anti-graft legislation” with an office of ombudsman with the authority to investigate charges of corruption against all public officials, including the prime minister.
AAP’s emphasis on corruption is natural, given that it was born early last year out of a series of anti-corruption protests that started in 2011. AAP also promised that it would make it mandatory for all government officials to declare their assets.
AAP has had a meteoric rise and spent 49 days running Delhi state before relinquishing power, claiming its efforts to pass a tough anti-corruption law were being stymied by the Congress and the BJP.
Yet, corruption isn’t a recent phenomenon in the country.
In 2013, the Berlin-based non-governmental organization Transparency International ranked India 94 among 177 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index, which was topped by Denmark and New Zealand as the least corrupt. In 2000, India was ranked 69 out of 90 countries while in 1997, it was placed 45 out of 52 countries.
In 1986, in a case that still remains unresolved, Swedish Radio reported that AB Bofors, a Swedish arms manufacturer, allegedly paid kickbacks worth Rs.64 crore to middlemen and politicians in India for the purchase of field howitzer guns. The late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi lost the 1989 elections largely on account of the Bofors scandal, although the government that replaced his lasted just two years.
In 2001, news magazine Tehelka showed then BJP president Bangaru Laxman allegedly receiving cash for swinging a defence deal in favour of a particular vendor. Laxman was later found guilty by the courts. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance ruled India between 1998 and 2004.
Thanks to 24x7 news television and the Right to Information law, reportage of such scandals is far more intense now.
In 2013, the BJP government in Karnataka was routed in assembly elections after one of its chief ministers resigned on allegations of involvement in illegal mining operations in the state. That chief minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa is now back in the BJP’s fold.
“What is fuelling the resentment of the people is corruption combined with inflation,” said Balveer Arora, former head of political science at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, referring to persistently high inflation. “There is this resentment of having to pay more from one’s own pocket for simple things and of knowing how much these politicians are worth, how much their wealth has increased since they came into power. These things can’t be hidden any more; they are part of the disclosures made by candidates at election time.”
Young people especially, are prepared to have none of this.
Of India’s 814.6 million electorate, 52% are between the ages of 18 and 40.
“Corruption stunts economic growth, investments, employment opportunities for the youth because what it does is that it creates opportunities for those who are willing to pay which is a very small section of the population. The others are left behind,” said Charan Wadhwa, economist with the Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank.
Government data shows that between 2004-05 and 2011-12, the Indian economy created 15 million jobs, even though 12 million people joined the labour force every year. The economy has slowed—from a growth rate of more than 8% in the late 2000s to 5% or less in 2013-14.
Young people hate corruption and want better opportunities for learning and employment, added Wadhwa.
All political parties seem to have realized this.
“We cannot ensure 100% cleansing of political malpractices but we will stress on preventive measures so that the scope for crime and corruption is negligible,” Modi said in a recent interview with CNBC Awaaz channel. In his speech on Monday, Modi said that his government would take the step to end criminalization of politics even if it meant the loss of power on account of the withdrawal of support by coalition partners, one of the reasons offered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh while explaining why he chose not to act against errant ministers. “Should I take this step or not? I will do it whether the government remains in power or not. All the MPs who are found guilty will lose their seats and there will be re-election. Parliament will be clean, good people will be elected in place of criminals,” Modi said.
Leaders of the embattled Congress party, on their part, have started presenting the record of their years in office— the kilometres of roads and highways built, the foreign exchange reserves and the numerous entitlement programmes to fight poverty that have lifted 150 million people out of poverty. They have also reminded people that it was the Congress-led government that brought in the Right to Information Act in 2005 which has given citizens access to information under “the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority”. In its 2014 election manifesto, the party has promised to combat corruption if re-elected for a third term.
For all these claims, some voters have decided that no party can be free of corruption.
“Every day there is a scam exposed. And this happens because of collusion between politicians and bureaucrats,” said Himani Jhorwal, a 24-year-old student at Jaipur University. “I don’t think any party in India can claim to be corruption-free,” she said, adding that she would register her protest by selecting the “none of the above” option on the electronic voting machine.