Saturday 4 August 2018

Catch the dragons of corruption, not just flies (Sunday Guardian)


In India, often, it is the very corrupt who are asked by their political masters to ‘monitor and punish’ the corrupt. It is scarcely a surprise that graft has flourished.

In 2012, the Communist Party of China (CCP) elders’ meeting at Beidahe (a two-week annual ritual scheduled to take place this year within a few days) overturned the decision of the then Chinese President and CCP General Secretary, Hu Jintao, to appoint his Communist Youth League (CYL) associate Li Keqiang as his successor the coming year. Instead, the party elders chose Xi Jinping for that powerful role, and perhaps unintentionally began a process that is as transformative for China as the tenures of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were in the past. Mao was able—through ruthless adherence to his objective—to bring within the control of the PRC a larger territory than had ever been the case in his country’s history, while Deng began (towards the close of the 1970s) reforms that saw the Chinese economy grow from a size then smaller than India’s to its present five times larger size. Through his Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and the anti-corruption campaign, Xi Jinping is changing the texture of governance and the chemistry of the PRC. Change is always a more disruptive process than the mummified status quo that was the mark, for example, of Leonid Brezhnev’s all too long innings in the now extinct USSR. Before Xi got into high gear, the elephantine State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) dominating China’s economic landscape were almost all fiefs of small, self-sustaining cliques, most comprising “princelings”, or those descended from families that played a significant part in the setting up of the PRC. After more than four years of an intensive drive by Xi against corrupt officeholders, many such enterprises have seen their managements devolve on professionals, who got to their high positions through expertise rather than the accident of birth. Policymakers in China are now working to ensure that domestic private enterprises be given the policy leeway now enjoyed only by the SOEs, so that more private behemoths such as Ali Baba can be born. Such a freeing of the “glass ceiling” holding back private enterprises in China is likely to once again accelerate growth in the coming years, thereby giving India more competition in the annual rate of growth sweepstakes. Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has changed the CCP, especially its higher echelons, as also took place (albeit in two wholly different ways) during the Mao and Deng periods.
Unfortunately, “anti-corruption drives” in several Asian and African countries are usually ruses designed to cloak and hide a putrefying status quo. The very biggest politicians and officials escape accountability, while a few smaller fry get caught in order to satiate public anger at widespread graft. Such mock battles against corruption get conducted mostly through words, rather than action, even as politicians and officials secretly collude with each other to make money. This cannot any more be said for China, where numerous very high-level CCP and state functionaries are now in jail, with more joining them almost every day. Although in a milder form, a similar cleanup is taking place in Mahathir Mohamad’s Malaysia. Within days of taking over the government, the 93-year-old human dynamo’s predecessor Najib Razak was prevented from escaping abroad. This is in contrast to the way so many neo-billionaires have fled from India to safer shores. Several high Malaysian officials have been dismissed from service, while others have been ordered to resign or are facing prosecution. Here in India, when—for example—an official who had worked in Tamil Nadu in close proximity and collusion with a politician known for his Midas touch, was recommended for a substantial promotion to the Central level, the high Central official vetting his suitability recommended the shift of the Midas associate to higher responsibilities. His reasoning was that “just because the officer is corrupt in Chennai does not mean he will be corrupt in Delhi”. Or in another of the (frequently interesting) autobiographical books written by senior civil servants, the case was cited of a police officer who in the view of the author was deranged enough to seek to file an FIR against the bribe-taking wife of no less a potentate than an IAS officer! Shock that a policeman would dare to take such action, even though a bribe had indeed been paid, against the spouse of a senior official was reason enough to get the “out of control” policeman transferred to an insignificant posting, while the bribe-taking wife and her husband were naturally left unmolested. Given that it is often the very corrupt who are asked by their political masters to “monitor and punish” the corrupt, it is scarcely a surprise that graft has flourished in India with the luxuriance of an Amazon rainforest.
Such was the case in both China and Malaysia as well, that is until Xi and now Mahathir took charge. It must be admitted that the latter’s awareness of the harm done to his country by corruption is yet not accompanied by the realisation that religious fanaticism poses an even greater danger to Malaysia. Prime Minister Mahathir will regret his present decision to allow radical preachers leeway in Malaysia to spread their regressive views on the way society should be ordered, of course by force. Coming to India, progress needs to accelerate in efforts at digitalisation of governmental procedures, including land registrations. Conditions should get created for a steady increase in a wholly voluntary—repeat, wholly voluntary—shift from paper currency to online payments and plastic cards. Forced conversion seldom works, as has been shown by the re-appearance of currency in transactions despite India’s painful 2016 demonetisation. By far the best gift that Prime Minister Narendra Modi can give to citizens alarmed at the continuing ubiquity of graft in India would be to enforce money laundering, corruption and fraud laws against more of those who misused their stint at the pinnacle of the governance system to enrich themselves and their families to obscene levels. As they say in China, not just “flies” (petty offenders) but “dragons” (very high level functionaries) should be identified and punished for betraying the public trust for Everest-sized levels of private gain.

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