Free the police of political control

Corruption booms when perverse incentives reward rather than penalize it. We need institutional changes to end those perverse incentives.

I hope 2010 will go down as the year when an angry electorate finally obliged politicians to stop treating politics as a lucrative, tax-free profession. Scams like illegal mining, the Adarsh cooperative society, Commonwealth Games and 2G licences dominated the media.

But will this change things? India witnessed huge anti-corruption agitations by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1974 and VP Singh in 1988-89. Corruption toppled governments, yet no major figures were convicted of anything. This led to disillusionment, “chalta hai” cynicism, and further corruption.

Cynics say nothing serious will happen to Suresh Kalmadi or A Raja. Unless we have major institutional changes, the existing perverse incentives that reward corruption will continue.

We need three major institutional reforms for starters. First, we need a mechanism that induces criminals to leave politics. Second, we need judicial incentives that speed up justice. Third, we need an independent Police Commission, along the lines of the Election Commission that can investigate and prosecute the biggest politicos regardless of their clout, making corruption highly risky instead of profitable.

First, we must end the outrageous situation where criminals join politics and often become cabinet ministers. This gives them huge clout and ensures that charges against them are not pursued. In the 2004 election, 128 of the 543 winners faced criminal charges, including 84 for murder, 17 for robbery and 28 for theft and extortion. One MP faced 17 murder charges. No party was clean—all had criminals aplenty, since these gentlemen provided money, muscle and patronage networks that every party found useful.

Only institutional change can break this criminalization of politics. Exposure of criminal cases is not enough. We need a new law mandating that all cases against elected MPs and MLAs will be given top priority, and heard on a day-by-day basis until completed. This will make electoral victory a curse for criminals—it will expedite their trials, instead of giving them the political immunity they seek. If such a law is enacted, we may well see criminal legislators and ministers resigning in order to get off the priority trials list. This reform can truly transform the existing perverse incentives. Second, we need much speedier justice. Many judges claim sanctimoniously that “justice delayed is justice denied”, yet keep giving time-consuming procedures and precedents priority over speed.

Many countries have tried to speed up justice by enacting laws that oblige judges to speed up various procedures like adjournments. Research shows that almost all these initiatives have failed. What has succeeded is institutional change to promote judges who complete the maximum number of cases. Once this incentive is in place, judges themselves devise all sorts of speedy procedures and shortcuts which become precedents and so are adopted by all. Of course, speed alone does not ensure justice. But it is among the biggest missing ingredients today.

Third, we must extricate the police from the control of politicians, and have a truly independent Police Commission, which will stand up to politicians as firmly as the Election Commission. Law and order is a state subject, so we will need police commissioners in every state, under a national police commissioner.

Fareed Zakaria has said that the hallmark of a democracy is not that it holds elections, or represents the will of the majority (which can mean majoritarian communal violence), but that it creates independent institutions that can thwart subversion of justice by politicians and mobs.

NC Saxena, who headed the 1962 National Police Commission, once wrote that the police had ceased to regard crime detection and criminal conviction as their key goals. This was because the agenda of home ministers in every state was very different. The top priority of home ministers was to use the police to harass political opponents. The second priority was to use the police and prosecutors to tone down or dismiss cases against their own parties and coalition members. The third priority was to provide VIP security. The very last priority was crime detection —that yielded no political dividends and so was paid the least attention.

Here again, only institutional change will produce better results. Japan has an independent police commissioner. Why not India too? Law and order is necessarily political and has to remain with home ministers. But crime detection should not be political, and so can be devolved entirely to an independent Police Commission.

We need an India where every politician fears that corruption will land him in jail. That alone will replace today’s perverse incentives with incentives for honesty.

10 thoughts on “Free the police of political control

  • 2011.Jan.26 at 21:53
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    Mr Aiyar…..do u really think with a population of over a billion people its possible to have something like u said???

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  • 2011.Jan.24 at 07:28
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    Very good article. However such laws won’t be enacted as the government itself is corrupt and the person who should be taking a lead, i.e our PM – MMS believes in doing nothing.

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  • 2011.Jan.18 at 01:27
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    Laws need to be formulated/passed by the politicians…. so as upright as ur thot process is , ur argument is not implementable , since no sane person axe’s thr own arm… much less a bunch of self centered politicians…

    Unless laws start to be formulated thru plebiscite.. which is highly unlikely… sensible arguments like these will keep circulating without any notable effect..

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  • 2011.Jan.16 at 17:27
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    Dear Mr. Aiyar,

    It was a pleasure reading your article and the proposal of setting up police commissioners free of political clutches crossed my mind earlier.

    We have time and again seen home ministries in state abuse their power to favour them as stated by you in the priorities of these ministers. The home ministry’s purview should be limited to administer the working of police, weapon upgradation and salaries. Intereference should be minimal as it could easily influence cases.

    To protect the police forces from becoming corrupt a parallel wing for accountability to be setup. The only problem will be the coordination and differences between various states’ definition and implementation of it.

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  • 2011.Jan.16 at 11:45
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    Mr Aiyar
    Regarding the three reforms which you stated first one was absolutely correct ,But regarding the second one I do not agree with you speedy trials giving promotion to judges who clear more cases will certainly result into denial of justice and also the major denial the political leader or influential person in the case can use its power to change the face of the judgment judges in the context of giving more judgments may not give proper time and importance to the cases maybe they will move with their instincts.also the influential party may use its power for short duration and can stop the witness during trials.
    I agree that speedy trial is a requirement but not the one with more priority for giving justice.

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  • 2011.Jan.14 at 14:51
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    Catch them young-This is the motto of sports regards to honing children when they can be best taught.Same Principle should be applicable for politics.
    We need to introduce Politics in the school curriculum and teach children the ill-effects of wrong administration and how it impacts the whole nation from a macro perspective.
    We need to make them feel how it hampers the growth of the nation and indirectly themselves.
    Those joninig the Civil Services shud be giving a training for atleast 6 months prior to assume with the role as they are the ones to be enticed and fall prey to the snare of corruption.

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  • 2011.Jan.12 at 12:16
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    Sir,
    Very true but ‘Justice hurried is Justice burried’ instead of corporatisation of judiciary by giving incentives, there are other ways to revamp the delyed judicial system like using IT enabled system in lower courts n amending those archaic British time , time consuming procedures and on top of it no. of laws in our country is humongous as if there is a individual law for all citizens.Also sir institutional changes is easy to get through but basically democracy thrives on social customs and unless there is behavioural change among the carriers of democracy the required change is tough to implement

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  • 2011.Jan.09 at 15:21
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    Dear Mr Aiyar,

    Yet another very smart thought from you. Since I have been following your writings for many years, I guess you have given this thought also in the past to the readers in the context of how Police can be better than the Army in dealing with terrorism provided they are freed from the politicians’ clutches. Question is this law (and also the other suggestions from you) need to be passed by the politicians themselves and I wonder why should they enact something that deprives them of the very reason/cause for which most of them are in Politics as career. I wonder if such radical changes can happen only if there is “Indian Revolution”

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  • 2011.Jan.09 at 12:19
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    *than the reward for doing his duties rightfully

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  • 2011.Jan.09 at 12:16
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    Mr. Aiyar, I agree with you 100% that incentives matter and they must be set right to achieve the right results. In the context of corruption, it is an illegal activity, and must be strictly and swiftly punished.

    However, the question is what actionable steps can disrupt the present perverse incentive system operating in India?

    Informed population and financial growth? I guess it is too optimistic, how much has the position of India changed on Transparency Index/Human Rights Index/millenium development goals over the last 20 years?

    Have we nailed Bofors corruption case? Tehelka Scam?

    Petitions? Ummm, against what? Judicial system?

    By whom? he informed public? I doubt , the gain from exploiting the present system is much more rewarding to an individual than the penalty for doing his duties rightfully.

    Further, the penalty I think of doing the things rightfully is too high.

    Finally, I have my EMIs

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