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Cleaning India’s greasy palms

If Narendra Modi is serious about tackling corruption, it will be the fight of his tenure
Indian Prime Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi (Punit Paranjpe / AFP)
Indian Prime Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi (Punit Paranjpe / AFP)

The good news for Indians is that, ranked against other nations, their country is not apparently so corrupt. Transparency International, a global NGO, ranked India 94th out of 177 countries in its latest survey of perceptions of corruption in the public sector. The bad news is that most of the countries worse off were war-torn or severely challenged on the development scale. For a country like India, which harbours great ambitions towards regional and global leadership, “not that corrupt” is not nearly good enough.

Prime minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly vowed to tackle corruption. Just this week, he thundered that billions of dollars thought to be stashed illegally in banks outside India belong to the poor and must be returned. If Mr Modi is serious about fighting corruption, he has a long and difficult job ahead of him.

It will be long because corruption in its various permutations is deeply embedded in India’s ways of transacting everyday life. It starts with the daily custom of bribes to get minor administrative tasks completed. Then, there are the kickbacks often demanded, for example, to get a truckload of cement delivered, to get workmen to show up, or to get power hooked up. Moving further up the scale, there are the putatively powerful who “volunteer” to exert influence to remove hindrances to the conduct of business. All of these constitute an illegal and additional tax on the economy. But just as importantly, they are also a levy on the hopes and aspirations of the Indian people.

To be effective against corruption, Mr Modi must send a signal up and down the greasy pole of graft. It isn’t enough to prosecute senior civil servants, a selected roster of tycoons or even a couple of hundred policemen. India is too big for a simple consideration of numbers to make a dent. What needs changing is that deep-seated belief that corruption is normal. And that is the hard bit, of a change in culture that might take generations. India is that big. But for a start, it would help to lock up a lot more crooked civil servants, a larger number of bent tycoons and maybe even more hundreds of policemen. It would be, at least, notification that things must change – if not how.

Updated: November 4, 2014 04:00 AM

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