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

Turkey's Controversial Reform Bill Giving Investors Jitters

Homeland security reform bill will give police new powers in search, seizure, detention and arrests, while restricting the rights of suspects, their attorneys More

Audio Slideshow In Kenyan Prison, Good Grades Are Path to Freedom

Some inmates who get high marks could see their sentences commuted to non-custodial status More

'Rumble in the Jungle' Turns 40

'The Champ' knocked Foreman out to regain crown he had lost 7 years earlier when US government accused him of draft-dodging and boxing officials revoked his license More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisiai
X
Henry Ridgwell
October 30, 2014 11:39 PM
Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisia

Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Africa Tells its Story Through Fashion

In Africa, Fashion Week is a riot of colors, shapes, patterns and fabrics - against the backdrop of its ongoing struggle between nature and its fast-growing urban edge. How do these ideas translate into needle and thread? VOA’s Anita Powell visited this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa in Johannesburg to find out.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
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 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.

All About America

AppleAndroid