“Dear PM, We Need Serious Action Against Corruption Not Mere Words”
1.Petty Corruption in Govt Offices
All the basic, paid services citizens are entitled to — people are forced to pay a bribe to avoid delays, make repeated visits, face harassment, humiliation or denial of services. In most cases, a ration card, birth certificate, income or caste certificate, land records, registration of a sale deed, water connection or power connection cannot be obtained without a bribe.
Immediate enactment and effective enforcement of a Public Service Delivery law which guarantees services in a fixed time, and compensations are paid for every day’s delay will improve citizen satisfaction. Considering that it is the poor and middle classes who suffer most from poor service delivery, this step will improve lives for the bulk of the people at no additional cost and will reduce the ubiquitous, day-to-day petty, extortionary corruption.
2.Big Corruption in Govt Offices
Once a small corruption is reduced by service guarantees and a localised, accountable exercise of power, the grand collusive corruption needs to be confronted. In grand corruption, both bribe-giver and bribe-taker collude to defraud the public, undermine competition, cause loss to the exchequer, appropriate natural resources, provide low quality public good and services or damage the environment. If this collusive corruption is not addressed swiftly and sternly, corruption will shift from cash to assets, and deposits in foreign accounts will soon become the habitual medium of corruption. Three practical steps are needed to address grand, collusive corruption.
a) Withdraw the unwise amendments proposed in anti-corruption law – it makes three-year prison term mandatory for ordinary citizens compelled to pay bribes for services they are entitled to, and give protection to all bribe-takers at all levels from even police investigation into corruption without prior government approval. Instead, grant full immunity to citizens who are forced to pay a bribe for what is their due, and give protection to those public servants who are subjected to vexatious investigations – those related to policy advice and policy formulation at the government level, or bona fide decisions taken in compliance with government policy.
b) Compulsory retirement of at least 1,000 senior officials with known record of immense corruption and misgovernance. The government has the power to retire them after 50 years of age or 25 years of service without assigning any reason. But for this step to be truly effective, the government should identify the worst offenders without fear, favour or prejudice, and must be utterly fair, and objective in its decisions. Otherwise, it will only lead to more damage than good
c) Bring in a law to check corruption similar to Smugglers and Foreign Exchange Manipulators Act (SAFEMA) of 1976 intended to curb smuggling and foreign exchange manipulation, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1988. In this law, there should be three key provisions – confiscation of all property, including the benami properties; mandatory jail term of 15 years or more; and reversal of the burden of proof once there is prima-facie evidence.
Proportional Representation in States
The requirement of the marginal vote in the winner-take-all first-past-the-post system is at the root of vote buying in a poor country with our historical and political background.
In the quest for winning votes, most major contenders for power – candidate and parties, are forced to spend lavishly and buy votes. Vast, unaccounted expenditure has become the necessary entry fee for serious electoral competition. But it does not guarantee victory. Thus while money does not guarantee political success, it has become a huge entry barrier. Distorted political competition and incentives in politics, has attracted wrong kind of people and repelled most of the public-spirited citizens, and created a system of corruption, bad governance, cynicism and under-performance.
If we allocate seats in proportion to the share of votes of a party in a state, then the marginal vote is not vital, the winner does not take all; there is no desperation to buy votes, ethical groups and parties will have a voice. Consensus becomes necessary in governance; representation is available to all views; and ethical politics and entry of truly public-spirited citizens become assets, not liabilities for parties.
There are various models of such Proportional Representation (PR). But simple, state-based models with a reasonable threshold of vote requirement to prevent excessive fragmentation, and multi-member constituencies to continue link between people and their representative will work best in Indian conditions.
Such a PR system is technically easy to introduce – it only requires a change in the law. However, it is unlikely to materialise at the national level now, when a major party has a clear majority and is a beneficiary of FPTP system. Nevertheless, if there is a political consensus at the national level, PR can be introduced in States. Real politics and governance challenges are in states. As seen in the UK, there is no need to have the same FPTP model at national and state levels. In the UK, while the House of Commons is elected on FPTP model, regional parliaments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are elected through PR. So are members of European Parliament elected so far (until Brexit becomes a reality). Similarly, London city mayor is elected directly by all people.
Therefore PR model for state assembly elections is a viable, practical reform which will transform nature of politics and governance in states. As the real governance touching citizens is at state and local levels, it will be transformative in nature. And it can be achieved by a simple law of parliament as the Constitution provides space for multi-member constituencies.
Direct Election in States
Now that there is a vigorous debate about simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies, the best way to accomplish that goal is election of the head of government in states by the people in a direct election, with clear separation of powers, fixed tenure, term limitations, and the freedom to appoint the cabinet from outside the Assembly. In a large, aggregate election in the whole state, the risks of a vast investment in vote buying are too high, and rewards are too low. Therefore leaders and parties will depend on the personality, character, record and credibility of the candidate, and the agenda, rather than on vote-buying. At the same time, as the legislative majority is no longer necessary for the survival and functioning of the executive, the profit making opportunity of the legislator diminishes substantially (he can no longer pressurise government for transfers, contracts and other favours). Therefore, the risk of high investment in vote-buying becomes unsustainable, as the rewards are few. The whole system will go into a virtuous cycle, and black money and corruption will decline significantly.
Accountable, Empowered Local Governments
Well-designed, accountable local governments are where people can see the links between their vote and personal outcomes (very similar to residents’ welfare associations – RWAs), and between taxes and services. Also in empowered local governments, authority can be fused with accountability, and there will be clear lines of accountability and no alibis for non-performance or failure. If we allow the local governments to be the real third tier of governments with clear separation of functions listed in the Seventh Schedule, and with a definite share of devolution on par with states through Finance Commission, our democracy will undergo a radical transformation and vote buying, black money and corruption will be reduced substantially. We also need strong, independent, empowered local ombudsman, so that the pervasive culture of corruption and misgovernance does not destroy local governments before a virtuous cycle can be established.
All these five fundamental reforms – service delivery, tax rates and administration, real estate, grand collusive corruption and electoral system – are achievable and within reach. The demonetization is a difficult, massive operation. Now that the government has taken this major initiative, the people are very receptive to all these major reforms. All we need are clarity of purpose, a sense of strategy and deep insights into how free societies operate. If these steps are proposed by the government, and the first four easy, popular steps are implemented quickly, the conditions for the major political reform with popular will and broad consensus would be created. Time is of the essence. If inaction or arbitrary action squander this priceless opportunity, we may not recapture the momentum for positive change for a long time.
Author: Dr JP Narayan
The author is the founder of Lok Satta movement and Foundation for Democratic Reforms.
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