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Historicising anti-corruption in India’s 2014 election, Part One


More than any other general election before it, India’s 2014 contest appears to have been characterised by wide ranging appeals to a politics of anti-corruption.  The rising popular appeal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has partly reflected, and partly created this trend, but arguably there are other processes at work here.  Some observers, including Rob Jenkins in this blog, explore the agendas of both AAP and Modi in terms of a decline or change in the nature of ‘patronage politics’. Arguably too, the urban/middle class basis of the larger anti-corruption movement (from which AAP emerged in late 2012) represents a new manifestation of Indian democracy, which is alternate to, and largely divorced from what Chatterjee has described as the ‘paralegal’ confrontations with the state by marginalised communities.

The phenomenon of anti-corruption as a system of mobilisation during elections, however is in other ways not at all new to India.  Another period in which public discussions of the political process were replete with new kinds of discussion about ‘corruption’ in a range of forms, was around the moment of decolonisation.  In this sense, 2014 needs to be explored in terms of its roots in India’s late colonial and early democratic elections.   Arguably, its appearance as a form of political discourse between the 1930s and 50s linked to two processes making up parts one and two of this blog post respectively, which throw a new light on this year’s contest: Firstly, anti-corruption as a means of critiquing the colonial state and/or promoting a particular vision of the ‘modern’ state; and secondly the appearance of corruption allegation as a means of, paradoxically, sustaining political competition around networks of patronage.

In the last 3 years, possibly even since the passage of India’s Right to Information Act of 2005, anti-corruption has had unrivalled appeal across the political spectrum, and nearly everyone has wanted a piece of it.  AAP’s agenda on anti-corruption is multi-faceted, including the Jan Lokpal  (Ombudsman) Bill itself, a citizen’s charter, women’s security, police reform, and a range of proposals associated with the catchy attack on the three ‘c’s of ‘corruption, communalism and crony capitalism’.   AAP candidates have been selected, in many cases, with an eye to their association with grassroots anti-corruption movements and commitment to these specific agendas, or the absence of a criminal record.  The rise of the party has even been associated, some argue, with larger shifts in Indian political mobilisation, from older concerns of identity politics to those of everyday social entrepreneurialism (jugaad)

Other parties have also attempted to ride this wave: Narendra Modi has adopted a markedly Thatcherite appeal of small government, efficiency, public spending cuts, deregulation and privatisation as a means of showing how he might rein in older forms of briefcase politics.  These poses have often defined the lines of electoral debate too:  Kejriwal has directly attacked Modi’s supposed ‘Gujarat development model’ by suggesting that it is a smokescreen to obscure economic and financial benefits for big business in Gujarat, in long standing connections between the BJP and larger business houses. Finally, the incumbent regime, accused as it is for having failed to root out corruption, has attempted to shore up its anti-corruption credentials. In early 2014, Rahul Gandhi attempted to push through a Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, the Whistleblowers Protection Bill, the Right of Citizens for the Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services, the Prevention of Bribery of Foreign Public Officials Bill and the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill.  All were shelved for fear that the President might question their announcement as a clutch of Ordinances, creating embarrassment in the lead up to the elections.

Although novel in scale and context, the politics of anti-corruption is not unique to the 2014 contest.  India’s very first elections under universal suffrage in 1951-2 were marked by an extensive and well developed politics of anti-corruption mobilisation, not least within the Congress’s own processes of candidate selection.  In the distribution of tickets for each constituency, eliminated candidates were able to send complaints to the Congress centre, many of which contained prolix accounts of links between the successful candidate, license-permit control and local businesses.  In these complaints, the term ‘corruption’ took on a new set of political meanings, noticed not least by the Prime Minister.  Consequently, in the lead up to the elections, newspapers were replete with reports about the relationship between the thriving politics of ‘blackmarketeers’ in the aftermath of war time controls and the political market in licenses and permits.

The call to break the ‘nexus’ between business, administration and politics, as publicised by Kejriwal then, was familiar in an earlier phase of Indian electoral politics, and was well discussed in the 1940s and 1950s.  It is worth considering the implications of this for how we might view 2014’s race in the longer term.   At one level, in the lead up to 1952, ‘corruption’ was viewed as a problem of political inheritance of the colonial bureaucracy.  In this sense, anti-corruption in 2014 is based in a particular historical critique of the Indian post-colonial state. This critique had some of its antecedents in the late 1930s Congress ministries.  In UP and Bihar for example, formally appointed anti-corruption committees exposed, perhaps for the first time from a position of power, the colonial conceit that India was ‘inherently corrupt’.  Instead, they argued, the state itself directly promoted traditional patron-client relationships, turned a blind-eye to low level forms of commission or customary payment, or even allowed the working of systematic forms of rent-seeking as a means of assuaging local conflicts.  The Congress’s official consensus was that the colonial bureaucracy therefore had mapped onto a range of traditional relationships that failed to embrace the ‘modern’ principles of governance being espoused by the ruling regime.  In other words, corruption was a symptom of anti-modernity – an incomplete process of change, hindered by an essentially despotic colonial steel frame.  Change had to come from non-official bodies, since internal reform had proved impossible.  It had to come from the political community itself.  Responsibility for change therefore lay in the development of bodies and organisations of civic action, which would reflect public opinion, and expose public abuses.  Subsequently, ‘citizens’ organisations sprung up across north India in from 1948-1951, particularly in cities, with a view to exposing the illegitimate activities of individual officers.

These processes and principles have affected what anthropologists and political scientists were to find much later in India.  Work on late 20th Century ideas about ‘discourses’ of corruption in India have discussed a grand dichotomy between common acceptance of everyday and local means of ‘getting things done’ on the one hand, and loftier critiques of that same state.  Jonathan Parry and Akhil Gupta have, in different ways, described this as acquiescence in day-to-day corruption, alongside a parallel internalisation of citizenship values.  Arguably, this vision of what the state ‘ought’ to be doing, despite its older ‘colonial’ structures being intact, relates right back to the mid century debates about state modernisation.   It is also a vision central to the politics of the AAP.   Kejriwal and a number of institutions like the AAP represent corruption as systematic failure of governance, which for some has quasi-feudalistic causes.  Their remedies are based in an appeal to larger frameworks of civic values, outside the framework of the state itself, devolving power to ‘aam log’, via institutions such as Mohalla Sabhas.  Their appeal is to the lofty ideal of ‘swaraj’, transparency in government, social justice for minorities in relation to the police, decentralisation via the empowerment of gram sabhas.  Here again too then, is an implicit critique of the state, whose corruption that can be best combated via a civic critique rather than either complete overhaul or internal reform of its structures. 

This blog is in two parts, the second part will be posted tomorrow


William Gould is a Professor of Indian History at the University of Leeds and author of Religion and Conflict in Modern South Asia and Bureaucracy, Community and Influence in India.

Published inIndia Votes 2014

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