Corruption in India and the Rise of the Aam Aadmi Party
January 22, 2014
Delhi’s new chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, has publicly declared a war against corruption in India’s government. Within weeks of assuming office, the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or the Common Man’s Party, set up an anti-corruption helpline, calling upon ordinary citizens to become “anti-corruption crusaders,” reporting on and conducting “sting” investigations against officials allegedly taking bribes or engaging in other corrupt practices. In the first two days alone, the helpline received over 11,000 phone calls. The AAP has also promised to fast track legislation to bring in an independent anti-corruption agency, or Jan Lokpal, to investigate and prosecute corruption cases in the capital.
Born out of the anti-corruption protests in 2011 and 2012, the AAP’s success in the recent Delhi elections (securing a remarkable 28 out of 70 seats) has captured public imagination. The AAP’s campaign for a clean, corruption-free government – championing the cause of the Aam Aadmi or common man – has successfully tapped into urban middle class frustration with endemic corruption in public service delivery.For many, corruption has reached crises levels in India. In the last few years, mega corruption scams such as those related to the Commonwealth Games, allocation of 2G telecom licenses, and coal block allotments have regularly made newspaper headlines, spurring civil society protests and opposition demands for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to resign.
While such scams are not new, the scale of the alleged transgressions is unprecedented. According to one estimate, the potential loss to the Indian economy due to high profile corruption cases from October 2011 to September 2012 alone was approximately 364 billion rupees or $6 billion. The scams have tarnished the image of an emerging India, harming global investor confidence at a time when domestic inflation is high and the rupee underperforming.
Corruption has also had an enormous human and social cost on daily life in India. In 2013, according to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer report, out of 114,000 people surveyed in 107 countries, 54 percent of Indians reported having paid a bribe to access public services or institutions compared to 27 percent respondents globally. Indians reported having paid bribes to the police, to access utilities, for registry, permit and land services, as well as in sectors such as education and healthcare.
Corruption is also rife in the implementation of many pro-poor and social welfare schemes. In the 1980s, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi famously stated that only 15 paise out of every rupee allocated by the government for development made it to the end beneficiary. Studies and audits conducted by civil society organizations and government oversight agencies repeatedly illustrate the siphoning of funds allocated for social development in programs such as the national rural employment guarantee scheme (providing 100 days guaranteed employment to rural wage earners), mid-day meal scheme (the world’s largest school feeding program), and the public distribution system (that provides subsidized food grains to poor rural and urban households). The impact of this is self-evident. India has some of the lowest human development indicators in South Asia with high rates of hunger, malnutrition (nearly 48 percent of children under the age of five, according to government statistics), and maternal and infant mortality.
Public reaction to government corruption has been strong, in part because many feel that the Congress led-United Progressive Alliance government (UPA) has been slow to take action against the corrupt. The party’s recent electoral losses in the states of Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan powerfully illustrated public frustration with government inaction. Many viewed the enactment in December 2013 of the long-awaited Lok Pal Bill as an attempt to rehabilitate the government’s image as anti-graft. The bill calls for the setting up of an independent ombudsman to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption against bureaucrats and politicians. While questions over how the law will be implemented abound, one thing is for sure, tackling corruption is very high on the agenda of India’s politicians.
With Lok Sabha, or general assembly elections, planned later this summer, political parties are ramping up their campaigns. For many, this promises to be an election unlike any other. Traditionally, political parties in India have drawn their support and votes from the countryside. Given the concentration of nearly 72 percent of India’s population in rural areas, the conventional idiom of election campaigns has been steeped in promises to deliver basic services such as water, electricity, roads, better education, and healthcare. Often these promises take the shape of large-scale, pro-poor social welfare schemes that are rolled out just before major elections. Despite the rapid urbanization of India, the growth of tier 1 and tier 2 townships and a burgeoning young and urban middle class, this demographic has seldom been the target of election campaigns. Until now.
The rise of the AAP and, more importantly, its success in the national capital, has sent shock waves through India’s political elite. For perhaps the first time, the concerns of urban India on issues such as women’s security, infrastructure, service delivery, and corruption have found a political voice. While the AAP has come under intense criticism for its “anarchic” style of politics, its emergence does mark a shift in India’s political discourse. The AAP has confirmed that it will contest the general assembly elections. While it remains to be seen whether it will be able to replicate its success in Delhi in other parts of the country, one thing is for certain – 2014 will be a decisive year for Indian politics.
Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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