Ethics @ Work: Ending corruption in India

If an anti-corruption prosecution agency is outside the government, how can it be held accountable to the public, or to anybody?

Anna Hazare 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Anna Hazare 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Almost two weeks ago Indian activist Anna Hazare began a hunger strike as part of the battle against corruption in India. Hazare’s position, as well as the opposing position of many of his erstwhile allies, illustrate the dilemmas involved in fighting corruption within a democratic society.
There is no dispute that corruption in India is a serious and endemic problem, one that touches the life of individual Indians on a daily basis and also endangers the progress of the Indian economy as a whole. India has also been the site of popular disgust with and activism against the phenomenon, including some innovative ones such as the "zero rupee note", of which over a million have been distributed to be delivered in protest to petty functionaries who demand bribes for their services.
The public backlash has made itself felt in the political echelon, and India’s current government has proposed the creation of a special anti-corruption agency, to be designated “Lokpal” (often rendered as “ombudsman”). But Hazare and his allies feel that the current bill will create a weak and ineffective agency which will shelter rather than battle corruption.
The version they are fighting and fasting for would give the new agency very broad powers, including the power to initiate prosecution and police-like investigatory powers. But many Indians, including other anti-corruption activists, are wary of such a super-agency that would in many aspects be beyond the ordinary checks and balances of India’s democracy.
This dispute illustrates a very common dilemma in the fight against corruption, one we have written about often in the Israeli context. Corruption has been defined (by Transparency International) as “the misuse of public power for private gain.”
To the extent that the government itself is abusing its power, it is fair to ask how the government itself can police corruption. But if the investigating and prosecution agency is outside the government, how can it be held accountable to the public, or to anybody? As a far from extreme example, we could consider the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation under Director J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI had such broad powers that Hoover was able to further exploit them to make the agency virtually immune from public oversight.
The Israeli system adopts a fairly effective compromise: the Comptroller’s Office, which has broad powers to investigate wrongdoing but no power to prosecute it. (The Comptroller’s office is itself often referred to as an ombudsman.)
Formally the government and the prosecution are free to ignore the recommendations and findings of the comptroller, so accountability remains. But to the extent the findings are credible immense political pressure will be brought to bear to sanction wrongdoers.
Based on what is being reported in the major news outlets, the kind of agency Mr. Hazare insists on would be far more similar to the Hoover-era FBI than the Israeli Comptroller’s office. In fact, the bill he supports would actually move the anti-corruption wing of India’s Central Bureau of Investigation to the new agency. And the FBI was never granted the power to impose penalties directly, a power the Hazare bill would partially grant the new agency.
The burden of corruption in India is great and ancient, and the desire to see a powerful and sweeping reform is understandable. But creating a new and powerful entity that is beyond the accountability of the democratic process seems to be even more dangerous.
Experience teaches that such entities tend to act to leverage and augment their powers and ultimately indulge in their own corruption, which is even harder to root out than the petty corruption they were created to fight.

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