Yatha Raja, Tatha Praja (The way the King is, so is the society)”. This is an old Indian saying. But there is a contradiction in modern India. “Neither will I eat (take a bribe), nor will I let others eat.” This was a promise that Prime Minister repeated several times, during his 2014 election campaign, and as the head of the country. However, during the 65 months of his reign, corruption hasn’t died down. Petty corruption continues – one can sit in one’s house and get a visa, or any other official documents, at the cost of an illegal payment. Low-level officials in key agencies, like the Police, continue to line their pockets. More importantly, systemic corruption thrives. People at the highest levels continue to receive tainted money in an organised manner – from the various mafias (liquor, mining, and drugs), Big Business, and large domestic and global government-to-government deals.
According to Transparency International’s annual global list on corruption, India has inched forward; its rank moved up from 85 in 2014 to 78 in 2018. This indicates that corruption has reduced marginally, but the journey was topsy-turvy – lower rank, followed by an increase, followed by a decrease. What is notable is that in 2018, India was at par with Pakistan in terms of the levels of corruption. This doesn’t augur well for Modi’s era as PM. More importantly, it indicates that the fight against the black economy has limited itself to a plethora of new acts and laws, with minimal changes on the ground. The rhetoric became more powerful than actions. Words overtook deeds. The propaganda worked.
Look at some of the radical, even innovative, policies to tackle black money. The first was demonetisation, which aimed to render worthless the stacks of illegal cash accumulated by politicians, businesses and wealthy individuals. The entire cash that circulated in the economic system was returned back to the banks. In effect, until the fraudsters are hauled up or fined, which hasn’t happened almost three years later, demonetisation actually helped the culprits to ‘wash’ their illegal wealth, and launder it legally through the banking system. The same was the case with GST, but with an opposite impact. A transparent tax system became the tool to evade and avoid taxes along the entire value and distribution chain. This is indicated by the huge fall in the GST that was collected in 2018-19. It proved that taxes were systematically evaded.
Electoral bonds were introduced to curb the dishonesty associated with political donations. However, since the names of the bond buyers are hidden, it led to the same extreme – opaqueness in the funding of the political parties. In fact, since the state-owned State Bank of India sells these bonds, and knows the names of the donors, the government can access the information to go after those who donate to the opposition parties, if it so desires. In the case of the insolvency code, the banks, especially the public sector ones, have the freedom and powers to give huge haircuts to the buyers of defaulting companies. Crony capitalism has risen to another level, and in a perfectly legitimate manner.
Unless there is a systemic attack on the perpetrators of systemic corruption, unless low-level corruption is wiped out, the fight against corruption is as good as lost before it can start. Corruption is a mindset, it is a habit, it is a curse in any society. It reduces when people have access to basic amenities, and are comfortable. It goes down when it is driven from the top-most levels. However, this requires a behaviour change at various levels – from the top to bottom. It needs a multi-pronged strategy, with both carrots and sticks. Something like a Swachh Bharat campaign can possibly lead to a Swachh Economy in the next five years, i.e. 2024.