Corruption and the lack of accountability: the case of india

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Krishna K. Tummala, Ph.D.

Professor & Director

Graduate Program in Public Administration

Department of Political Science

Kansas State University

Manhattan, KS 66506-4030, USA

Phone: 785-532-0452

Fax: 785-532-2339


For Jon S. T. Quah, Corruption and Accountability

Bio data

Krishna K. Tummala is Professor and Director, Graduate Program in Public Administration, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, 66506-4030, USA. Apart from his several publications, he was Chair, Section on International and Comparative Administration (SICA) of the American Society for Pubic Administration (ASPA), Chair of the Kansas Chapter of ASPA, Senior Fulbright Fellow, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research. He served on the Editorial Board of PAR. He won the first prize in an international essay contest on “Reservations in the Indian Public Service,” held by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, Government of India, and received the “Public Administrator of the year, 2001" award from the Kansas chapter of ASPA. He served as a member of the National Council of ASPA, and the Executive Council of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA). He is Vice President (President-elect) of the Public Administration national honor society, Pi Alpha Alpha.


Krishna K. Tummala
If we rank all the fields of man’s activity by profitability,

politics will be the most lucrative business.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky,

Russian bank tycoon.
India did not invent corruption, but it seems to excel in it. Transparency International in its 2003 Corruption Perception Index placed India 83rd with its neighbors Sri Lanka 68th and Pakistan 96th, while Bangladesh stood last as the most corrupt among the 133 nations that were studied.i The Center for Public Integrity– a non-partisan Washington based group– placed India in the “weak” category in its study of 25 nations.ii In another survey of businessmen conducted by the Hong Kong based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd. India placed second among the most corrupted Asian nations (after Indonesia).iii This is a rather sorry state for a country known as the largest working democracy.

Corruption conventionally is viewed as a transactional evil where money changes hands either in anticipation of favors, or favors already conferred. The more serious and pernicious evil, “regime corruption,” when personal and partisan interests are confused with, and/or substituted for, national interests and the general welfare of the populace, and the constitutional provisions are subverted for similar reasons is too involved a process that demands separate study, and thus is not included here. The following pages are thus devoted to the study of the reasons for, and consequences of, corruption and its impact on accountability.iv The paper is divided into the following sections. First, an introduction is provided. Second, the context of corruption is explained. Third, the extent of corruption is shown. Fourth, the institutional arrangements available to contain corruption are discussed. Fifth, the application of anti-corruption measures is explicated. Sixth, political corruption and the efforts to deal with it are demonstrated. And finally, some conclusions are drawn, ending with some suggestions.

1. Introduction

"The folklore of corruption"v must, however, be approached with great caution as the very definition of corruption is fraught with many a pitfall. A simple and useful definition is given by Carl J. Friedrich. For him, corruption "is a kind of behavior which deviates from the norm actually prevalent or believed to prevail in a given context... It is deviant behavior associated with a particular motivation, namely that of private gain at public expense.... Such private gain may be monetary one, and in the minds of the general public it usually is, but it may take other forms."vi Several caveats, however, must be noted.

First, often all and sundry actions, including inefficiency in performance, are considered as being corrupt in addition to its transactional facets. Second, the debate needs to be tempered by certain culture-specific imperatives. For example, in the Hindu culture, while visiting an elder or a superior one is expected to carry a gift, however small or inconsequential it is, as a mark of respect and not as an instrument of corruption although it might serve that purpose. Third, there is a certain duality in less developed countries (LDCs) where personal life is judged by indigenous cultural standards while the official conduct is largely assessed under western norms. Fourth, a distinction must also be made between the magnitude (size of bribe), and frequency (its pervasiveness). Fifth, there is the issue of cause and effect in that who is to be blamed for the initiative– the client who offers the bribe or the official who takes it?vii Sixth, there is often also the confusion stemming from the failure to analytically distinguish between the conduct of elected public officials and that of the civil servants. The behavior of each group, after all, follows different imperatives. And seventh, it should be noted that in all societies, more so in transitional and less developed societies, norms themselves are in a state of flux.viii

Yet, corruption is dysfunctional as it deviates from established norms. Hence it is illegal. It is inequitable as only those with resources can make things happen, and those in crucial seats of power get rich due to unearned income. It is wasteful in an economic sense because resources are spent on an activity that did not deserve any further expenditure, to start with. It also leads to a lot of misery for the client who is often taken hostage. And of course, it is contrary to the tenets of good governance.

II. The context of corruption

Before dwelling on pervasive corruption and the several institutional arrangements to fight it, one must put the Indian scene in perspective. It is argued here that (i) the very diversity and the prevailing contradictions result in a certain normlessness, and (ii) the politico-economic system provides various power points and opportunities that allow corruption to flourish. This is studied under three headings: demographic, economic and cultural.

(a) Demographics: India has an estimated population of 1.07 billion in 2004 living on a total landmass of 3,287,590 sq. km., speaking sixteen languages (including English), and as many as 1,652 dialects. There are several religions with a predominant Hindu majority (81.3%) and the largest Muslim minority (12%). The average life span of 27 years at the time of independence in 1947, is now to 63.9 years. The birth rate is 22.8 and the death rate is 8.4 per 1,000 population. Infant mortality rate stands at 57.9 per 1,000 live births. With an estimated GDP (Purchasing Power Parity– PPP) of US$3.2 trillion and a 7.6 percent average annual growth rate, its per capita PPP stands at $2,900. Nearly a fourth of India’s population lives below poverty line.ix With 66 percent of its population living in rural areas, India has only 54 percent of its land arable, and agriculture still contributes 24 percent of its GDP.x The FY 2004-05 budget presented on July 8, 2004, contemplates a total expenditure of US$103.8 billion (Plan, $31.6 and non-Plan $72.2) and shows a revenue deficit of US$ 16.5 billion (2.5% of GDP).xi

It is also a land of stark contradictions. It is the largest working democracy, with 29 States (including Delhi, which has semi-statehood) and 6 Union Territories. Yet, no constitutional status was provided for local self-government until the passage of its 73 and 74rdth Amendments in 1992. To accommodate the great diversity, it opted for a federal form of government, but called it as the “Union of India.”

As the fifth largest (by some counts fourth, certainly third in Asia after Japan and China) economy in the world, and rated as the eleventh largest industrial nation, it still has nearly two-thirds of its population living off agriculture, forestry and fisheries. With only 52 percent of its population literate, (State of Kerala in south boasts 90 percent while Rajasthan in north languishes at about 40 percent) the nation with 219 institutions of higher learning at the University level produces the second largest number of scientists and engineers in the world. However, the gap between literate men and women is around 30 percent in some States such as Bihar, and as low as 7 percent in Mizoram.xii

It had a female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who was considered to be one of the most powerful democratic leaders in the world, and was voted as the “Woman of the Century” in a poll conducted by BBC.xiii But successive governments have had trouble in getting a law passed to reserve 33 percent of all legislative seats for women. Although the nation has been struggling with the inequities of the caste system, it however, decided in 1990 to extend preference in public service on the basis of caste (further to the Mandal Commisison recommendation in 1980).

Ever since its 1974 nuclear device explosion and the 1998 tests of five nuclear bombs and several missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, India entered the select nuclear club. Yet, it refuses to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It fought three bloody wars with Pakistan, and was beaten by China in 1962. Yet, according to Washington-based World Watch, it leads the Third World among arms producers (followed by Israel).xiv But it still professes to be the leader of non-aligned and peaceful nations.

While the country leap-frogged into the electronic age beginning in 1990 and used electronic voting machines in its 2004 elections, a large part of India still languishes in the age of the bullock-cart. For example, village Plahi in the Punjab with its 3,800 population, enjoys the use of the Internet, has solar lighting, and indoor toilets. But it is not accessible by road; no motor vehicle can drive into the village from its nearest town, Phagwars, which is three kilometers away.xv

Despite the fact it is sufficiently modernized and westernized, India clings to a lot of its tradition, and more so to occult. As far back as in 1989, an all female crew flew a Boeing jet on a domestic flight. But as recently as in July 2002, police could not prevent a case of suttee (which is outlawed) where a wife was allegedly forced to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband. The country has the largest railway network in the world and ever since its green revolution, it could feed its teeming millions. Yet it failed miserably to either rush aid or feed the millions rendered homeless in frequent cyclone and famine disasters.xvi

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition government (till its defeat in the 2004 general elections) came into prominence after some of its followers destroyed in 1992 the Babri mosque which was allegedly built upon a Hindu temple. But once in power, it showed a good measure of secularism in a way when its appointments to the position of State Governors included a lower caste Christian, a Syrian Christian, a Protestant, a Muslim, and people of other religions as Governors of States.xvii It also showed the door to one of its own prominent party men, Kalyan Singh, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), who could not deliver support to the party in the 1999 parliamentary election. Contrarily, it not only exonerated, but also supported another of its party leaders, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who has been much criticized for his inability to prevent, and even accused by some of fomenting, large scale religious killings. It must be noted, however, that while all parties talk of secularism as enshrined in the Constitution of India, most every party used religion for electoral advantage.xviii

(b) Economics: On the political economy front, the country started with the credo of democratic socialism under the helmsmanship of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Unleashing massive social engineering, it resulted in one of the most administered states by capturing the “commanding heights” of the national economy. By 1990 however, it turned around towards economic liberalization. A traditionally hoarding culture has since changed into a fully consumer-oriented one by the motto of accumulation of wealth. Under both economic philosophies, the politicians and administrators have been empowered enough to be also extensively corrupt (see below).

(c) Culture: It is important to note here the cultural dimension of Hindu behavior. Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion but largely a way of life. Not only other religions such as Buddhism and Sikhism emanated from it, it is also tolerant and absorbing. Yet, when the country was partitioned on the eve of its independence in 1947, religious fanaticism rose to such a level that it resulted in the largest migration of over 17 million people across borders in both directions between a predominantly Hindu India and an Islamic theocracy, Pakistan. And in 1971, as Pakistan was being dismembered with the creation of a new nation, Bangladesh, out of former East Pakistan, as many as 10 million Bengali refugees poured into India, and to this day the eastern States continue to agitate against these “foreigners”.

Hinduism in general is also personally forgiving in nature. An errant individual can always go to a superior (a religious leader, or simply one who is senior in age) and fall on his/her feet, literally and unashamedly, and the chances are that leniency will be shown almost immediately regardless of the fact the culprit may or may not have repented at all. Nirad C. Chaudhuri captured its essence thus: "The unlimited capacity to be a villain of the worst kind with an unlimited capacity for self-abasement before virtue and nobility is one of the most disarming traits of the Indian character...."xix Life at two different, and often contradictory, levels of existence for the Indian is not abnormal. Even the most debased material living can co-exist with a high abstraction of life. Deviance in personal and material life is accepted and forgiven when the search is for a purported higher truth. The present and the observed, for the Hindu, is only maya– illusion. Thus, two apparently contradictory, but not necessarily conflicting behavior patterns are manifest, and are tolerated.

Given all the contradictions and opportunities, corruption in India is ubiquitous. Neither is this a modern day development; nor is it far different from the experience of other nations. That the subject was of interest even historically is seen from the ancient writings of Kautilya, who stated thus:

Just as it is impossible not to taste the honey or the poison that finds itself at the tip of the tongue, so it is impossible for a government servant not to eat up, at least, a bit of the king’s revenue. Just as fish moving under water cannot possibly be found out either as drinking or not drinking water, so government servants employed in the government work cannot be found out (while) taking money (for themselves)...Government servants shall not only be confiscated of their ill-earned hoards, but also be transferred from one work to another, so that they cannot either misappropriate government money or vomit what they have eaten up. Those who increase the king’s revenue instead of eating it up, and are loyally devoted to him, shall be made permanent in service.xx

The British contributed generously to this scourge. To quote Cornwall Lewis, a member of the British House of Commons: " civilized Government existed on this earth which was more corrupt, more perfidious and more rapacious than the Government of the East India Company from 1765-1784."xxi At least one Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, was impeached (but exonerated) in Britain for all his misdeeds in India. Modern day India is no exception. For instance, the Central Vigilance Commission recognized as many as 33 different modes of corruption.xxii Corrupt practices internal to the administration cover misappropriation of public money and of stores; production of false claims for allowances and reimbursement, and of forged certificates of age, community, educational qualifications, etc., abuse of official position or powers; acceptance of illegal gratification in recruitment, postings, transfers and promotions; misuse of government employees for private work; misuse of advances sanctioned for purchases and leave travel concessions; cheating in connection with the sale and purchase of land; and unauthorized occupation and sub-letting of government residential quarters. Report of the Central Vigilance Commission, 1966 (New Delhi: Government of India), pp. 15-16 and 32-33.

III. Incidence and Magnitude of Corruption

India’s ranking among the corrupt is already shown at the beginning of this paper. Even among the Indians themselves, the picture has been bleak as seen from a 1995 poll which showed (Table I below) that corruption has been pervasive among many professions, with 98 per cent of respondents believing that the politicians were corrupt on one hand, and 38 per cent believing that ordinary people were corrupt at the other end.

Table I
Occupation % believing
Politicians 98

Police 97

Government Servants 88

Lawyers 80

Businessmen 76

Bank officials 69

Judges 66

Journalists 55

Teachers 43

Ordinary people 38

Source: MODE poll, "Corruption All-Pervasive: Survey,

Times of India (January 14, 1995), p.1.

To this must be added the phenomenon of “black money” defined as unaccounted income which is concealed.xxiii This in effect results in a major loss of tax revenue. Not only that, the government would lose control on effective national fiscal policies. There is a loss of capital in that this money is largely concealed. Moreover, this kind of money accounts for most of the nefarious political practice of buying votes and candidates, and influencing government decisions, among other illegal activities. It is estimated that as much as one half of all income is underground. In 1973-74, it was estimated at Rs. 58 billion and by 1980-81 it shot up to Rs. 183 billion. The compound rate of growth is estimated to be 18 percent with non-corporate tax evasion at around Rs. 53 billion. By the 1990s, it was estimated that annually Rs. 400 billion is generated as black money.xxiv Such hoarding and surreptitious movement of black money not only results in poor development of the country but also accounts for the undue and under-handed influence exercised by the business and moneyed classes on the policymakers thus subverting legitimate democratic processes.

Added to this is the immense wealth that is accumulated by politicians and civil servants holding positions of power and influence. In recent memory, former Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P. V. Narasimha Rao, besides other Cabinet Ministers, were accused of large scale corruption (both exonerated later.) Even the former Speaker of Lok Sabha (the lower House of Parliament), Balram Jhakar, faced major corruption charges at one time. There were at one time as many as 46 different corruption cases pending before three special courts against the Chief Minister of the State of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha Jayaraman. Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav was forced to resign his office pending major corruption inquiries into what is known as the fodder scam. (Paradoxically, he is now elevated to the national stage having been elected to the Lok Sabha, and rewarded with the Railway Ministry in the central Cabinet. It is reported that he demanded, rather unsuccessfully the Home Ministry, which would have given him some control over the investigations.) The list goes on and on resulting in the general cynical belief that all public servants by nature are corrupt, and that they seek public office to enrich themselves. Ironically, almost all the accused continue to be active political participants with impunity. News papers are replete with all sorts of stories of raids of houses of politicians, civil servants and businessmen. But very few spend time in jails.

Government agency demands for kickbacks for the party (parties) in power from even foreign firms are also known.xxv And the general populace has taken all this as a matter of course; it became second nature. Any client can attest to the fact that petty bribery is pretty common. All this leads to the single naughty question: Why this state of affairs?

It is theorized by several that corruption is endemic in LDCs for various reasons: unequal access to, and disproportionate distribution of, wealth among the rich and the poor; public employment as the only, or major, source of income; fast changing norms and the inability to correspond personal life patterns with public obligations and expectations; access to power points accorded by state controls on many aspects of private lives; poor, or absent, mechanisms to enforce anti-corruption laws; general degradation of morality, or amoral life styles; lack of community sense, and so on.xxvi

The case of India was summed up by Robert Wade thus: "Several structural features of Indian society predispose the administrative and political system to a high level of corruption: acute scarcities; a large regulatory and allocative role of the state; a pre-eminent bureaucracy, faced with declining real salaries; a rapidly expanding middle class demanding access to the state."xxvii The earlier commitment to democratic socialism led to state intervention in terms of licensing in many aspects of private life and private entrepreneurship culminating in the great expansion of the public sector and its undertakings, and thus generating the label that it is a "permit Raj" which in turn led to the stranglehold that the bureaucracies exercise over people. Planned development, observed Kuldeep Mathur, "considerably helped the bureaucrats to acquire administrative and political power, which expanded their role in the economy, permitting them greater opportunity to satisfy their self-interest."xxviii

The Santhanam Committee as far back as in 1964 confirmed thus: "The sudden extension of the economic activities of the Government with a large armory of regulations, controls, licenses and permits provided new and large opportunities (for corruption)."xxix The New Economic Policy (NEP) since 1990, with its liberalization, inaugurated a neo-capitalist culture and whipped up a voracious appetite for accumulation of wealth. It also has transformed a largely traditional and hoarding society into a consumer nation with great abandon and amorality. In other words, the opportunity for corruption, starting with a highly administered society, has become abundant as many are now hankering for all modern accouterments.

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