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.