News / Asia

Corruption Curse Follows India's Congress Party to the Polls

FILE - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks during the release of the ‘Report to the People’, a self-assessment report, in New Delhi, India, May 22, 2013.
FILE - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks during the release of the ‘Report to the People’, a self-assessment report, in New Delhi, India, May 22, 2013.
Reuters
For two decades, Lalu Prasad Yadav was a giant on India's political stage. He ran a state of 100 million people, he took charge of the country's massive rail network and his party was a crucial prop for the shaky coalition government in New Delhi.
 
Yadav managed all this despite a constant whiff of corruption around him. Indeed, he liked to thumb his nose at the law, riding triumphantly on the back of an elephant after a brief spell behind bars in 1997 as a crowd of admirers cheered.
 
Last week, a court sentenced Yadav to five years in prison for his part in a multi-million-dollar embezzlement case.
 
It was a landmark moment in a country where public disgust with corrupt politicians is finally starting to bite. Voters could throw the ruling Congress party out of power at the next general election, due by next May, for presiding over one of the most sleaze-ridden periods in the country's history.
 
An opinion poll in August said the party's parliamentary strength could drop to about 125 out of 543 elected seats. Currently it has 206, and rules with the help of coalition allies.
 
“Endgame of India's unclean politics,” Kiran Bedi, a former police chief and now an anti-corruption activist, tweeted cheerily after Yadav was bundled off to jail last week.
 
The popular outrage has also spawned a clutch of new parties committed to ending the nexus between politics and crime, and - for the first time in quarter of a century - it has put corruption firmly on the agenda for national polls.
 
Sweeping Away the Muck
 
Probity has never been the strongest suit of the world's largest democracy. A staggering 30 percent of lawmakers across federal and state legislatures face criminal charges, many for serious crimes such as rape, murder and kidnapping.
 
Politicians and gangsters have long been bedfellows, not least because of the dirty money that fuels political campaigns. More than 90 percent of funding for the two main national parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, comes from unknown sources, according to the advocacy group Association for Democratic Reforms.
 
Yet, only once in India's history has the public been upset enough about graft to boot a government out for shady dealings. That was in 1989, when a kickbacks scandal over the purchase of artillery guns from Sweden's Bofors contributed to an election defeat for Congress and its then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi.
 
The scandals have come thick and fast on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's watch in the last few years.
 
There was a huge scandal over the sale of the 2G mobile spectrum, which Time magazine listed as number two on its “Top 10 Abuses of Power”. More shenanigans took place surrounding New Delhi's botched hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which led to dozens of corruption cases. Later on, the government was hit by a furor over the allocation of coal deposits, a scandal now known as “Coalgate”.
 
All this has prompted the emergence of an anti-corruption movement, one that swelled in 2011 with huge protests led by Anna Hazare, who styled himself as a crusader in the mold of independence hero Mahatma Gandhi.
 
The outcry has continued since then, rattling the government in part because much of it comes from the urban middle class, a traditionally apolitical bloc whose sudden engagement could shatter electoral calculations.
 
A Lowy Institute poll of Indian citizens in May found that 92 percent thought corruption had increased over the past five years; even more believed that reducing corruption should be a top priority for their government.
 
A newly formed party, the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, has tapped into the angst over sleaze. The AAP chose a broom as its symbol, to suggest it is sweeping the muck out of politics. In a video game launched last week, the party's leader navigates the corruption-plagued streets of the capital wielding a broom.
 
An increasingly activist judiciary has also added to the calls to rid politics of criminals.
 
In July, the Supreme Court decreed that lawmakers convicted of a serious crime would immediately forfeit their seats, closing off a loophole that had allowed politicians to stay on during appeals, which can drag on for years in India.
 
Last month, the court also ordered the Election Commission to introduce a “none-of-the-above” choice for voters, allowing them to reject unsavory characters instead of choosing the best of a rotten bunch.
 
The AAP, which is expected to disrupt the usual two-party race in a Delhi state election next month, is just one of several parties to be set up on an anti-corruption platform.
 
Among them is the Nav Bharat (New India) Democratic Party of Rajendra Misra, who gave up various business interests to join public service seven years ago. He worked with the main national parties to improve policy and governance but was disillusioned by the venality around him and finally decided to go it alone.
 
“India isn't a poor country. It's a poorly managed country,” says Misra, who is planning to stand in next year's election.
 
There will be many election first-timers like him: young white-collar working professionals challenging a system where political seats are mostly occupied by old men and handed down to next generations like family heirlooms.
 
The upstarts have their work cut out for them in a country where votes are still cast along community lines rather than by ideology, and where mainstream parties are flush with cash.
 
Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the chances of a criminal candidate winning an election are three times better than others, and money is not the only explanation.
 
“Candidates often use their criminality as a sign of their credibility to protect the interests of their parochial community,” Vaishnav said, noting that voters sometimes choose criminals not despite of their criminality, but because of it.
 
Shekhar Tiwari, a co-founder of the Nav Bharat Democratic Party, recognizes the enormity of the task facing the anti-corruption challengers. “Some of what we say sounds like a dream. But if we don't dream, nothing is possible,” he says.
 
Torn Up and Thrown Out’
 
Still, a recent drama in the Congress party, which is led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, showed which way the wind is blowing.
 
Prime Minister Singh's cabinet issued an executive order allowing convicted lawmakers to continue to hold office and stand in elections, in essence defying the Supreme Court. Critics said the move was aimed at shielding allies - such as Yadav - whom the Congress may need to form a ruling coalition after the elections.
 
As brickbats flew, Rahul Gandhi - the Congress party's likely candidate for prime minister and scion of the dynasty - stunned and embarrassed his own colleagues in a rare public outburst, calling for the order to be “torn up and thrown out.”
 
A few days later, humiliated and looking divided, the government withdrew the decree.
 
“Rahul did that because he is convinced that this would destroy the tattered remnants of Congress' credibility,” said Prem Shankar Jha, a political analyst. “Had this gone through, Congress would no longer be a victim of the criminalization of politics, but would be a patron of it.”

You May Like

WHO: Anti-Ebola Efforts Should Focus on West Africa

Official says WHO is 'reasonably confident' countries bordering those hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak are not seeing the virus crossing their borders More

South Sudan Crisis Threatens Development

Economic costs and lost development opportunities in South Sudan have erased what little progress the country has made since independence in 2011 More

Ukrainian PM Warns: Russia May Try to Disrupt Sunday Poll

Arseniy Yatsenyuk orders full security mobilization for parliamentary election to prevent ‘terrorist acts’ from being carried out More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid