India and its exceptionalism

India and its exceptionalism

On the eve of the 21st century any expert on corruption in a major Western capital would tell you that absence of democracy was the key in explaining corruption in a vast swathe of the world, from polyglot Africa to post-Communist Russia. Democracies, it was said, were exceptional in this respect and, while not free from the blight, they managed to keep it in tolerable proportions. There were hardly, if any, exceptions to this “rule".

As the first decade of the new century comes to a close, India is well on its way in etching another dubious distinction for itself: Among the established democracies it is the most corrupt country. The recent Adarsh Housing Society scandal in Mumbai and the multiple dubious deals before and during the recent Commonwealth Games in New Delhi provide anecdotal evidence for this.

While such evidence is there for everyone to see, there are better, quantifiable, measures that point to the rot in India. Last week, Transparency International, a non-governmental organization that monitors corruption worldwide, released its Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for 2010. CPI is an index that ranks countries according to perception of corruption in the public sector. The emphasis is on the word perception as corrupt practices often encompass a spectrum of activities ranging from visible ones such as outright bribery to opaque ones such as subtle policy changes that favour one or a few firms/groups while being entirely legal. Countries are ranked from 10 (least corrupt) to zero (most corrupt).

This year, India has a middling rank of 87 out of 178 countries with Somalia ranked worst at 178 and countries such as Denmark, Singapore and New Zealand ranked least corrupt and jointly ranked 1.

What is revealing, however, is India’s position in the tally of the corrupt. It is well below two other major emerging economies, Brazil (rank 69) and China (rank 78). It is also far removed from any established democracy in the chart: It is leagues away from France, at rank 25. When it comes to corruption, India is in the company of some very unsavoury peers.

What is the secret of Indian exceptionalism? For one, the country’s political class, irrespective of its ideological stripes, has mastered the art of overcoming all barriers to such practices: From a free press (which is ignored) to a permanent civil service, the lack of which is often cited as a crucial missing factor in the complex interplay of checks and balances. In fact, it has nearly overcome the biggest reef against corruption: the division of powers in the government. Few, if at all, have managed to pull this feat with such a sound institutional foundation. That is the tragedy of this country.

Why is India so high in the list of corrupt countries? Tell us at