Will Corruption Trump Identity Politics in India?

Adarsh -- a multi-million dollar residential tower in Mumbai's most expensive seafront real estate -- has just been served with demolition orders. The tower occupies land that the defense department had reserved for war veterans. Apparently the coterie of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and defense officials who grabbed that land felt their cause was more deserving. The tower stands within a protected coastal zone, strategically overlooking vital defense installations. Again, apparently, the coterie felt no need to seek environmental clearances, nor respond to the defense department about ownership of the tower's apartments.

Adarsh, ironically meaning Ideal , may well be the most appropriate symbol for India's anti-corruption movement today. It represents the total impunity with which powerful insider groups can hijack government for their own interests. And it also represents the gritty resilience of civic activists who still succeed in speaking truth to the powers that be.

Once unearthed, petitioned against and ordered for inquiry, the Adarsh scam led to a furore by the opposition, and a change in the state's Chief Minister a few months ago - a perfunctory damage control exercise that brooked no discussion, nor any admission of accountability to the public by the party high command.

Now faced with scams of even greater magnitude that were unearthed with the Radia tapes leak, the party high command (which also controls the central government) has been challenged by the opposition to a nationwide agitation focusing on corruption. The demolition order for Adarsh issued by the Environment Ministry -- if it holds good by the courts and is finally implemented -- may well be the second card in perfunctory damage control, an attempt to indicate some effort at accountable governance, where the stakes are lower.

Let me explain. While the demolition order for Adarsh may be welcome news per se, it detracts from the deeper, more devastating systemic issues that have been ignored by the present and previous central governments. In a recent Global Financial Integrity study it was estimated that illicit cross-border transactions from India amounted to $462 billion in offshore holdings, or 50% or the country's GDP. Most of this money is generated through corruption, crime and tax evasion. The report goes on to chart the direct co-relation between illicit outflows of money and inequality in income distribution, and indicates the role that liberalization has had since the country's Independence, in facilitating both these phenomena. In other words, the unqualified fascination for Brand India and double-digit growth invites a particularly nasty set of bedfellows.

Regulation then, becomes the critical factor in balancing the positives of liberalization with the negatives of an economic growth that favors the powerful, at the expense of the powerless. Political parties that have championed liberalization also need to address major reforms in electoral practices, tax administration and the criminal-justice system - critical areas for regulation in a democracy. Unfortunately, while there has been a decade of loud hype about the country's economic growth, this has been accompanied by a studious silence on the parallel economy that is siphoning out the country's wealth. And when wealth of such quantum is being generated illegally by powerful coteries in government, the demolition of one building is a very small price to pay.

This particularly busy season of scams the country is experiencing may be an opportunity for the opposition to strategically frame a credible alternative on an anti-corruption platform, and sink divisive identity politics for good. State governments that have done so in the past have been overwhelmingly rewarded by the electorate. If anything, it indicates that the public does recognize the difference between governance and perfunctory damage control. And, despite scam after scam, if a creditable 57% of the electorate still turns out to cast their vote during general elections, this must be a population that has not yet lost hope in good governance.