Root of Indian Corruption Lies in Its Elections, Official Says

Former Indian Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja
In the biggest recent scandal, former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja is accused of conspiring with ministry officials and company executives to sell mobile-phone permits at below market rates. Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg

India must ban politicians accused of serious crimes from contesting elections if it wants to eradicate the “root cause” of official corruption, the country’s chief election commissioner said.

India’s Ministry of Law and Justice and the Election Commission are considering proposals to bar candidates standing for regional or national assemblies if they face charges with a sentence of five years or more, S.Y. Quraishi, the country’s most senior polling official, said in a May 27 interview. Party spending should be made more transparent, Quraishi said, in a bid to end the offering of cash in return for votes.

“Some people are entering politics because they see it as a way to make money, others think being elected means they will avoid” being prosecuted, said Quraishi, who wants the tougher rules introduced before elections next year in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. “That’s the root cause of corruption.”

About 30 percent of the 545 lawmakers in India’s lower house of Parliament have criminal cases pending against them, ranging from theft to rape and murder, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch, New Delhi-based advocacy groups. Under current rules, politicians on trial or who have appealed their convictions are free to stand in elections in India, where the average criminal case lasts 15 years.

Corruption allegations surrounding a 2008 sale of permits to run mobile-phone services and the holding of last year’s Commonwealth Games led to the arrest of a government minister, officials and company executives, and triggered street protests. A total of 76 lawmakers in the New Delhi parliament have been charged with serious offences, defined by the Association of Democratic Reforms as murder, attempted murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery or extortion.

‘Bad Eggs’

“This is a stain on the quality of our democracy,” Quraishi, 63, said in his New Delhi office where pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who led the struggle for independence from British colonial rule, hang on the wall behind his desk. “We need to identify the bad eggs and remove them.”

India ranked 87th out of 178 countries in the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index conducted by Transparency International. Investors in Indian shares consider graft as much of a barrier to economic progress as inflation, JPMorgan Asset Management said in a December 2010 report.

While some politicians and anti-corruption campaigners support Quraishi’s call to expel corrupt politicians, they are concerned the proposal to bar candidates facing charges from running could be open to abuse in the world’s largest democracy.

Falsely Accused

“Some of the charges framed against politicians are politically motivated,” said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a vice-president of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. While he wants to see tougher anti-corruption measures, Naqvi said that “making it a hard rule to disqualify people while trials are pending is not good for democracy.”

A politician prevented from running for office will “set up his brother or his wife and will rule by proxy,” Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer in the Supreme Court and civil-rights activist, said in a phone interview in New Delhi.

To ensure candidates aren’t falsely accused, only charges filed at least six months before polling would be considered a reason to bar an individual from standing, Quraishi said. That will allow time for baseless cases to be dismissed, he said.

While Quraishi says he wants all party spending to be audited and published on official websites, he acknowledges that ending payments for votes will require a change in the way political parties view corruption.

Election Bribes

An estimated $750 million was paid to voters in bribes during elections in five Indian states in April and May, said Quraishi, who has worked in the country’s civil service for three decades. Only a fraction of that money was recovered by officials, he said.

“The election commission cannot check black money entirely because we don’t have a magic wand,” he said, referring to the undeclared cash used to influence voting. “We are relying on self discipline by political parties and transparency in their funding to reduce payments of black money.”

In the biggest recent scandal, former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja is accused of conspiring with ministry officials and company executives to sell mobile-phone permits at below market rates. The country’s auditor said their actions may have cost the country $31 billion in revenue.

Raja’s party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, lost elections in April in a backlash over graft, with its presence in the 234-member assembly reduced to 23 members.

“There’s significant work to make politics clean but we are making progress all the time,” said Quraishi. “We want to change the man-on-the-street’s impression that politics is full of criminals.”

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