THE prime minister’s loyalty to his friends looks to be ever more a fault. This week parliament grilled Manmohan Singh over his latest failure to fight corruption and his habit of sticking with compromised allies. The grilling concerned P.J. Thomas, the man Mr Singh appointed to lead India’s fight against corruption.
Mr Thomas was, to put it politely, an unorthodox choice to lead the national “vigilance” commission. A former official in the scandal-besmirched telecoms ministry, he faces a longstanding charge over an import scam. He has done himself few favours by pointing out that 28% of sitting lower-house members of parliament also face criminal charges or inquiries. Worse was the government’s claim that a vigilance chief need not have an impeccable character (presumably on the grounds that it takes one to know one). On March 3rd the Supreme Court forced him out. The prime minister fended off opposition demands that he should resign.
His poor judgment over Mr Thomas fits a pattern. Nobody says the prime minister is personally corrupt. But he looks weak by seeming to let others steal. Last year the Supreme Court ticked him off and the opposition called for him to quit over the government’s failure to look into suspicious licensing of the 2G telecom spectrum. Now the Central Bureau of Investigation is starting an inquiry into corruption at the highest levels over the shoddily run Commonwealth games. Mr Singh, again, is bound to be embroiled.
The Supreme Court has its tail up. Its rulings refer ever more often to corruption—over 50 did so last year. Now it lambasts the government for failing to take on crooks who funnel “black money” overseas. Some say that $450 billion of ill-gotten gains or untaxed earnings are sitting in foreign banks. The court seems to imply that the Congress party, which heads the government coalition, has protected powerful friends.
On March 7th the hyperactive Supreme Court justices scored another victory, with the arrest of Hasan Ali Khan. A flamboyant horse-owner, he has been charged with money laundering, which he denies. He is alleged to have $8 billion stuffed in Swiss bank accounts.
India’s “season of scams” was launched late last year, thanks to the breakdown of an unspoken political truce in which no party fussed too much about corruption, allowing all to prosper from it. Now the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has broken ranks, betting that it can tap into widespread fury over corruption and so dent Mr Singh’s clean image, if not topple him. The BJP may be on to a good thing: over 80% of Indians tell pollsters that graft is worse than ever.
Though a general election is not due until 2014, and despite facing corruption scandals of its own, the BJP is pushing on. By boycotting parliament, it closed most of the winter session, until it won the inquiry into graft that it had demanded. In turn the press, the courts and street protesters picked up the campaign. The opposition may be keeping in mind an earlier defeat for Congress, in 1989, when voters punished the party over huge kickbacks that flowed from an arms deal with Bofors, a Swedish company.
In response, Mr Singh and his (and Congress’s) boss, Sonia Gandhi, say they will soon announce sweeping reforms. These may include state funding for political parties, the removal of discretionary powers abused by politicians and civil servants, and the ratification of a UN corruption convention. They might do well to look, too, at Bihar state, where elected officials and civil servants must now publish a list of all their private assets. Even more importantly, they could push on with cleaner ways to help the poor. By one estimate, two-fifths of state paraffin subsidies are stolen, earning a “fuel mafia” $2 billion a year. In Uttar Pradesh reportedly over $40 billion of food and other subsidies have been bilked over five years.
From the grassroots up
How all this will shake out at the polls will become clearer next month, when four states—West Bengal and Assam in the east, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south—hold assembly elections. Perhaps voters will punish dirty politicians. Too often, though, for all their harrumphing about ghotala (Hindi for scams), voters are swayed during election campaigns by candidates’ gifts of rice, rupees, saris and television sets.
Yet hopeful initiatives do exist among those truly fed up with corruption. Technology looks to provide especially promising solutions. Last year Swati Ramanathan helped to found a website, www.ipaidabribe.com. Indians post details of how they are forced to bribe. “Rather than moralise about corruption,” she says, “we need first to know the details of what is happening, and uncover its market price.”
In seven months the site has lodged 5,000 reports of paying bribes. On March 9th, for example, someone in Belgaum, Karnataka, admitted shame after giving 200 rupees ($4) to pass a driving test. In Mumbai it costs 1,000 rupees to register a baby. Bigger bribes are usually paid when land is at stake. Perhaps when Indians are better informed they will feel more empowered and refuse to pay. Reportedly, Bangalore’s transport commissioner likes the site too, as it lets him see how corrupt his junior officials have become.
More hopeful yet are reforms that take away the chance for officials to behave improperly. Gujarat’s anti-graft commissioner, Manjula Subramaniam, praises a tendering system where companies bid online for public contracts, for example for road-building. This helps her anti-graft department spot anything suspicious. She can also watch funds that sit unused in state coffers, and move them before any light-fingered officials get there.
For ordinary people, more obviously valuable is a four-year-old system for homeowners to assess property tax online, rather than have crooked inspectors visit their homes. And the benefits of technology are spreading fast, as every village in Gujarat has been hooked up to broadband and to state databases.
In one of them, Uvarsad, a farming district, a privately managed local e-government office allows Suryakant Patel to print off the title deeds to his 20-acre wheat and rice farm. It takes two minutes and a ten-rupee fee. Then he walks around the corner to a bank, to raise a loan to buy a new irrigation pump. In the past, he says, getting the deed would have taken days, and might have depended on the whim of a civil servant. Change can come fast, he reckons. Mr Singh, take note.