In the last week of August, a small political party recruited about 50 “unemployed” youth from Gurgaon, a suburb of India’s National Capital Region (NCR), on a monthly income of 15,000 rupees (US$214), in addition to all expenses including food and travel. They were instructed to commence canvassing for the 2019 general elections at the grassroots level. Each was promised 100,000 rupees or more depending on the number of votes they could muster.
This party supposedly lost black money worth millions in 2016 because of demonetization. But it seemed to get back in action soon.
In March 2014, the Delhi High Court indicted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) for receiving foreign funds in violation of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). It directed the government and the Election Commission to re-examine these violations. But the new government amended the FCRA with retrospective effect and passed a money bill without any discussion in Parliament. In a sweep, it institutionalized unlimited anonymous funding to political parties that can’t be questioned or accessed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005. Little wonder then that small political parties also have piles of money lying around.
India has 2,075 political parties – seven national parties, 24 recognized at state level and 2,044 unrecognized. Of serious concern are last year’s statistics of 4,582 lawmakers (4,120 members of a legislative assembly and 462 members of a legislative council) of whom 1,581, including 228 members of Parliament (MPs), faced serious criminal charges. This implies that one-third of India’s lawmakers are alleged to have committed serious crimes.
Can such alleged law-breakers be lawmakers? This number may have risen, with parties fielding candidates with criminal records in the Karnataka elections held in May.
The Supreme Court says the government should amend Article 102 of the constitution and provisions of the People’s Act providing grounds for disqualification from contesting polls, but the government will not do so because of the vote-catching factor of criminals with private armies. Currently, an individual “jailed” for less than two years can contest elections. Is India transforming into a government of the criminals, by the criminals, for the criminals?
India is ranked 100th among 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) of 2017, slipping three places from 2016, with Nepal ranked at 72, Myanmar 77, Sri Lanka 84, China 29, Pakistan 106 and Afghanistan 107. Even North Korea ranks higher than India, at 93. But how many Indians sleep hungry doesn’t affect the high and mighty powers that be.
Kanshi Ram, a mass leader and mentor to former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, underwent a heart bypass in Tokyo in the mid-1990s at government expense. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance-II government authorized politicians and bureaucrats or their spouses with one attendant for medical treatment abroad and all expenses including air travel, stay and medical to be borne by the government, despite excellent medical facilities in India. In response to an RTI query, it was revealed that the wife of a serving chief minister incurred a foreign medical bill of 110 million rupees. Recently, a politician incurred expenses of 280,000 rupees for a dental root-canal treatment in Singapore.
The government’s response to an RTI query asking for an overall expenditure on foreign medical treatment of politicians and bureaucrats over past decade was: “Funds are being used judiciously.” This, despite the fact that under the RTI Act, it is mandatory to provide full details. In July, the government attempted to amend the Right to Information Act, for the third time, possibly to render it ineffective.
India has had a series of defense scams, with its Ministry of Defense exclusively manned by bureaucrats, but no bureaucrat can be questioned without government permission. A serving MP has been publicly seeking permission to prosecute corrupt officials of the Ministry of Finance, but the government is silent to his demands.
Finally, the question is, beyond institutionalized criminality and corruption, where is India heading? Instead of institutionalizing the rule of law, it seems to be moving toward a government where the corrupt have a free run.