Corruption and Democracy: Disputing Neera Chandhoke

By Anjum Altaf

We have the opportunity to improve our understanding of corruption, democracy and the relationship between them by examining critically the views of Professor Neera Chandhoke outlined recently in connection with the Anna Hazare campaign.

In The Seeds of Authoritarianism, Chandhoke articulates two fundamental positions. First, the establishment of a Jan Lokpal is not democratic and carries within it the seeds of authoritarianism. Although Singapore has controlled corruption, it is not a preferred model because it ‘does not respect the two prime fundamentals of democracy as India does: popular sovereignty and the equal moral status of citizens.’ Therefore, corruption in India needs to be addressed within the procedures and norms mandated in the Constitution.

Second, Anna Hazare’s political beliefs are questionable because he has expressed a low opinion of the voter by saying that some sell their votes; contempt for the voter defies the ‘very rationale for democracy and that of its very claim to legitimacy, that of equal moral status.’ Political democracy, despite all its flaws, has empowered voters to influence political behavior.

We can begin our engagement with these positions by stating the obvious. First, democracy has been in existence in India for over sixty years; it has not been able to eliminate, reduce or even restrain corruption. Corruption has grown by leaps and bounds in tandem with the growth of the economy.

Second, although corruption as an issue agitates and angers every citizen, there seems no reason to believe that democracy as practiced in India would be able to translate this anger into meaningful political action in the future any better than it has in the past.

There are two questions here: Why is this so and what is to be done? Chandhoke does not provide an answer to either.

The reason for this inability, in my view, is that while Chandhoke focuses on the reality of corruption, she seeks her solutions in the practice of an ideal democracy. Despite an early acknowledgement that India’s democracy ‘is deeply flawed in many crucial respects’ she moves on to argue that ‘the proposed solutions for a corruption-free India that are currently on offer might not be democratic at all.’

But what we have to work with is a deeply flawed democracy and the fact of the matter is that in this democracy we have not been able to find a way to channel the deepest desires of voters into effective political outcomes. It is also a matter of fact that votes are traded in this deeply flawed democracy; much evidence was available earlier and more confirmation is provided by the latest revelations from Wikileaks. To state this fact can only be considered contempt for the citizen in a moral framework that values political correctness over truth.

Another perspective on this reality can lead one to argue that voters are rational; they consider the compensation for their vote the best deal they can get out of a deeply flawed democracy. The hope that a vote cast entirely on the basis of ideas can deliver results seems a fairy tale to most voters given the reality with which they are intimately familiar. Popular sovereignty and equal moral status are fine as ideals but woefully wanting in their lived reality. A contrarian position would argue that respect for the citizens requires an acknowledgement rather than a denial of the circumstances that compel them to trade their votes.

It is equally obvious that in India it is ‘non-democratic’ mechanisms like fasts to death that channel popular concerns much more effectively that ‘democratic’ ones as has been witnessed by the outcome of the Anna Hazare campaign – it has put public representatives on the defensive in a way no other mechanism has in the past. We should be learning from what works and asking why rather than being concerned more with what ought to work.

If we start with the reality of what clearly works much more effectively, we can move to the subsequent stage of thinking how such mechanisms can be institutionalized so that they become more compatible with popular sovereignty and less susceptible to authoritarianism. Referenda on single issues and the ability to recall individual public officials would make up for some of the flaws that cripple the democratic process as it exists today. This could be extended, perhaps, to directly electing the governors of the Jan Lokpal that may come into existence in the future.

Related to this discussion is Chandhoke’s comparative evaluation of Singapore and India. After mentioning that “[t]he island-state has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, possesses a world-class educational and health system, and boasts of an incorruptible public service’ she expresses her preference for India because of the latter’s adherence to  the two prime fundamentals of democracy, popular sovereignty and the equal moral status of citizens. One could argue that such a preference itself cannot be imposed via an authoritarian choice. It too should be the outcome of a democratic expression of opinion.

The point is that the preference for popular sovereignty and equal moral status over a world-class educational and health system and an incorruptible public service is not independent of one’s station in life. One can’t eat popular sovereignty and equal moral status, nor, it seems, can one translate them into outcomes that would put enough on the table over a reasonable period of time. We will not belabor the point here because we have covered it adequately in earlier posts – Would You Wish to be a Chinese in China? and Is Singapore a Successful City?

The conclusion we arrive at is that the starting point of any analysis or proposal for reform should be the reality of democracy as it exists in India today and an understanding of how and why it frustrates the translation of popular desires into political outcomes. There is something not quite right in saying that a democracy that has half the population at starvation levels for over sixty years is still preferable to an authoritarian state that has transformed ‘a malaria-infested swamp to an economic powerhouse.’ Such a choice between life and death should not be made on behalf of starving people without their consent.

Of course, this is presenting the argument very starkly in order to highlight what is at stake in the alleged choice between democracy and authoritarianism. The real challenge is to move beyond pointing to the superiority of an ideal democracy. It is to incorporate into the practice of democracy as it exists in India today the mechanisms that allow citizens to make their desires matter and their voices heard. Mechanisms that ensure accountability and are themselves accountable are steps in the right direction.

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  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 15:57h, 17 April Reply

    It doesn’t matter if Anna Hazare is thief. Chandhoke is being very selective in her arguments. The parliament is full of persons of criminal background. Anna’s method of applying pressure was completely democratic. Some amount of authoritarianism is also part of democratic process. Didn’t we have TADA to deal with terrorism? We have Mayawati, Sonia Gandhi, Bal Thakre etc. who run or can run their parties in complete totalitarian ways and they do so with complete sanction of democratic norms.

    So, if a draconian law is passed it will be part of democratic process. And its repeal at a later date will also be part of democratic process.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:13h, 19 April

      Anil: We will move this discussion forward if we define with more care our use of the words ‘authoritarian’ and ‘democratic.’ At the simplest level, the difference depends upon whether actions have the backing of popular will. Thus Ataturk’s actions in Turkey to specify what people would wear and what script they would use were clearly authoritarian. It is possible for authoritarian actions to reflect the popular will; it is just that the popular will is not consulted – someone decides on behalf of the majority what would be good for the latter.

      Democratic actions are more complex because they have to meet other criteria besides reflecting the popular will simply because democracy is not equivalent to majoritarian rule. The Constitution has to guarantee some inviolable rights, e.g., freedom of religion and speech, that a majority cannot violate. Further, democratic actions have to remain within the rules and procedures specified by the Constitution otherwise they are considered extra-Constitutional.

      In this context we have to consider whether Anna Hazare’s campaign was democratic or extra-Constitutional. I can argue that many constitutions recognize as democratic the right of labor to unionize and strike for their demands. In that light, Anna Hazare’s campaign can be considered akin to a strike that achieved its objective. I would consider it a democratic mechanism that was more effective at channeling popular sentiment than other mechanisms in India. It did not employ violence or break any rules as far as I know. It was purely the use of moral suasion.

      I don’t think one can be opposed to a draconian law as long as democratic processes have been followed in arriving at it. What can be more draconian than capital punishment? The same democratic processes can be followed to lobby for changes in the law. The problem arises when democracy is “deeply flawed.” If parliament is just a rubber-stamp or legislators can be bought then what looks democratic because it is approved by the legislature is not so in reality. Appearances can be deceptive and this is what we have to be vigilant about.

  • Haris
    Posted at 05:36h, 18 April Reply

    Prof Neera Chandhoke’s case is compelling. Her premise that there need not be any close correlation between democracy and the eradication of corruption is inarguable. In any 2X2 matrix of corruption by democracy all four quadrants will be well-populated – e.g. there is Sweden (democratic, non-corrupt), India (democratic, corrupt), Saudi Arabia (non-democratic, corrupt), and Singapore (non-democratic, non-corrupt).

    In the South Asian context it is not a trivial matter that many who believe that corruption is THE primary political issue also believe that electoral politics are tilted in favour of corruption. Anna Hazare is not alone or idiosyncratic in this regard. Those who elevate corruption as THE primary issue are, unfortunately, doomed to believing this. Because they are constantly frustrated at voters choosing leaders thought to be corrupt. There must be something wrong with the voters or the electoral process if my priorities are not reflected in electoral outcomes. Either that, or I have to concede my claim that corruption is the most important issue for others, without prejudice against the priorities of other people.

    But look at it from the other side. If someone believes that caste prejudice/Sharia non-compliance is THE primary issue, and corruption way down the line, she/he will choose leaders accordingly. And if some of those leaders start to believe that anyone guilty of caste prejudice/Sharia non-compliance ought to be shot we will have a civil war. Did I say “will have”? Oops, sorry. There are already violent organisations claiming to fight against caste prejudice/Sharia non-compliance in South Asia. And what is our counsel to them? Come and work within the constitution, show your electoral strength and we’ll try to accommodate your priorities alongside the protection of others. Isn’t that what Prof Chandhoke is asking of those who believe anti-corruption to be THE issue?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:32h, 18 April

      Haris: The first two points are so obviously true that I did not even raise them in the post. There is indeed no correlation between corruption and the form of governance and corruption is certainly not THE issue. We have addressed these earlier on the blog with comparative evidence. Two of the posts can serve as a refresher:

      We have gone to considerable lengths to argue that there is indeed no one THE problem, addressing, in turn, overpopulation, illiteracy, corruption, lack of morals, etc. This is a necessary task before one can begin to discuss what the problems might be given the widespread tendency to believe in THE problem and directing all efforts to eradicating it.

      What I have disputed in the post is the disconnect in Chandhoke’s argument. She states at the outset that Indian democracy is “deeply flawed” and ends with the advice that you have captured well as “Come and work within the constitution, show your electoral strength and we’ll try to accommodate your priorities alongside the protection of others.” There is no analysis of how the former might frustrate the latter – what exactly are the deep flaws and what are their implications?

      The point I wish to make is that democracy is not a standardized product that one can take off the shelf. It is a composite of hundreds of rules that have varied over time and place – rules about limits to the franchise, form of government, division of powers, modes of representation, joint or separate electorates, mechanisms of accountability, etc., etc. And these rules matter. If they are dysfunctional and loaded in one direction, the desires of the voters (whatever they are) might not be reflected in the outcomes. It will be a brave person who will argue that electoral outcomes in South Asia perfectly match the will of the electorate – If so, in what way is democracy “deeply flawed”?

      Rules matter. There are interactions within the rules of the game and there are interactions over the rules of the game. Take the WTO as an illustration. The rich countries are saying come and work within these rules and the poor ones are contending that the rules are stacked reflecting the prevailing division of power. Why should the same perspective not be valid for democracy?

      I am leading to the point that over time and space there have been conflicts over these constitutional rules, from extending the franchise, to changes in the system of representation, control of corporate financing, citizen initiated single-issue referenda, direct elections of public officials, the power to recall, the role of institutions like the electoral college in the US, etc. There has been no such focus in South Asia. We seem to be so thrilled by the fact that we have ‘democracy’ that we are not investing any effort in examining whether the rules that came with the British model can be rearranged so that the disconnect between electoral will and electoral outcomes is reduced. This aspect, too, we have discussed on the blog previously. The following is just one of a series of posts:

      Chandhoke’s argument, as it stands now, can be characterized as the ‘let them eat democracy’ position. We have designed a thought experiment on the blog where one has to choose the form of governance from behind a veil of ignorance. If a person knows he/she would be born at the bottom of Indian society, would he/she still choose Indian democracy over Singaporean authoritarianism? This is an open question that cannot be decided on the behalf of others knowing one’s actual station in life. What does it mean to say “we’ll try to accommodate your priorities”? Who are the “we”? If one pushes this argument one can conclude that even the preference for democracy can be an expression of authoritarianism at times. The thought-experiment is here:

      The point of the disputation is not to argue that we ought to replace the democratic form with an authoritarian one in South Asia. Rather, we need to devote a lot more attention to the electoral rules that are the guts of any living democratic system. And that this exercise itself needs to be democratic and inclusive.

  • Vijay
    Posted at 19:52h, 20 April Reply

    Well argued and quite a good reply even to Prof.Panikker’s article in The Hindu recently.
    What we need is to stop with the intellectual masturbation and start doing something to rid ourselves of this problem.
    The longterm solution is, like in everything else in life, self-restrain from corrupt practices. That is an ideal situation and I don’t think such ideality is anywhere near the horizon nor will ever come to pass. Let’s get practical and do things instead of sitting on our bums doing nothing.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:58h, 21 April

      Vijay: You have hit the nail on the head by saying that we need to do something. The next step is to identify what that something ought to be.

  • Vijay
    Posted at 13:05h, 21 April Reply

    In response to your, “The next step is to identify what that something ought to be.”…I consider things very practically. I am the kinds who does things first and then tells others to do. So, for me the most practical thing to do (of course its not the way to go for many others…I am lucky to be in a position where I can make the choices I have) is self-restraint.
    I couldn’t believe myself a few years ago when I refused to give a chaddi-dost some CA’s information because he wanted to save some tax cuts in his salary. But that’s me…I feel good that now my friend realizes that he earns so good that it doesnt matter if he can save a few thousand rupees in a year over medical reimbursements. I mean it works that way…individuals need to make choices of how to live. I can expect poor people not to be as assertive as me but luckily I am in a position to be assertive, so why not do it? be the change you wanna see in the world said Gandhi,,,so here I am…what say? Much easier that way than focusing on bigger things for now, innit?

    Once when we feel comfortable with our choices in our own skin and dont feel like we “missed out” when we see others abusing the system then it gives us conviction to go to others and ask them to change. More than anything, being assertive about such things makes you feel good inside and its a fun experience…you can live life in a very happy, smiley smiley way that way. Because you are able to come outside yourself and see how you have grown/changed as a human being. The “loss” only in the mind 🙂

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:24h, 21 April

      Vijay: I am not sure how you can get people to follow your example. If that doesn’t work, what is the second-best alternative?

  • Vijay
    Posted at 20:55h, 22 April Reply

    How will it not work? It’s the simplest thing to do. OK, maybe you didn’t understand what I was saying. Let me present it in a different way.

    Let’s say you are a working girl. I am sure you must be having some tax rebates in your salary…something like say Rs.10,000 per annum which gets taxed in case you do not produce receipts. Now, if you haven’t really used 10k of medicines in the year, just let that amount get taxed instead of getting false receipts to avoid the 10k being taxed. Can you do that? If you can’t then even god can’t help you.

    Another example, you get caught by the traffic police and you are not carrying your license. The cop says the fine is Rs.100 and hints that he will let you go if you pay him 50 without a receipt. Just say, no thanks, pay the 100, take the receipt and go on. You broke the law so take the punishment instead of saving Rs.50..I am sure you can afford it after all you can afford to write a blog and log on to the net. If you do pay the 50 then expect to pay such bribes everywhere. If you have committed a wrong then pay the fine and let the law do itys job. Remember u are feeding the cop the bribe as much as he is asking for it.

    Suppose you are standing in a queue at a local grocery store and see someone breaking into it, speak up…ask him to follow the line. Suppose you are carrying a whole basket of items that needs to be billed at the store counter and the person behind you needs to get only one soap bar billed. Ask him to go in front of you…after all he has only one item to bill (be nice and helpful to your fellow humans).

    Suppose some government official asks you for a bribe to get someting done…smile and tell him that you dont want to because you swore to your god or whatever. O ya, but when you do say that dont make him feel like he is being immoral…give him an impression that you’d rather not get the thing done than pay the bribe but that you understand why he needs a bribe (coz he has a family to feed). You will see how easily he will give in to you.

    These are day to day things and I am not sure why you are finding it difficult to know how to do such stuff. Don’t you want to be honest yourself? Forget the world for a second, think about yourself…”you” be honest, “you” stop bribing, “you” be what you expect society to be. It’s in your control, innit? Why can’t “you” stop bribing? Do you have an OCD to bribe…no, right? Then why are you looking for an alternative. Forget society’s problem…first you handle your “problem”.

    Are you getting the idea or does it sound too difficult?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:13h, 23 April

      Vijay: I did understand what you were saying. I agree, it is the simplest thing to do but people don’t do it. I am just wondering how one would get people to act in this manner.

  • Nit
    Posted at 21:45h, 22 April Reply

    I am not a scholar compared to the writers on this blog, however this just my observation. Since I am an Indian, hence can comment on what I have seen in India.

    I would say, India is not a truly democratic nation, nor it’s population understand democracy, specially the normal, non-CNN/BBC watching masses. What India is, a tolerant country where live and let live is the norm. This attitude is due to the fact that every one starts in the same dirt and coming out of it is the sole objective. Once you are out of the dirt and become CNN/BBC watching kind, then the “fire of democracy” burn a lot in you, as you ample time in your hand.

    If we stop a person walking on the street and ask him about the pillars of democracy, you will get a blank face! It is a regrettable fact that India despite being the world’s largest democracy did not find it worth while to impact virtues and knowledge of democracy in it’s population. This is no accident, but deliberate. Politicians would want the population to think democracy as casting your vote to a party. They dont want people to learn about true democracy as it will set a “unhealthy trend” of people asking for accountability from politicians.

    Now a normal person not aware of what democracy means, would like to register his protest over few things he does not like. What will he do? No one has told him how this can be done through democratic means. However he has seen that Mahatma Gandhi used civil dis-obedience to bring down a Empire.
    It is a easy to understand & powerful motivator. Hence you see support for Anna’s movement.

    In a essence the normal man knowingly or unknowingly is following the foundation of democracy, the fact that un-corrupt process is my right and I dont have to fight for it. I am here to tell my voted representative. I wont burn down any buses or break any glasses. All I will do is sit in dis-obedience until you list to me. Simple as that.

    Needless to say CNN/BBC watchers & democracy PhD holders will bring in the Encyclopedia and dictate us what’s in there. If only they could remember, democracy is by the people and for the the people.

    By the way I am also one of those CNN/BBC watchers!

    And just to add to the comment, the day we follow democracy to the book, we will cease to be humans.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:28h, 23 April

      Nit: I can arrive at two conclusions from your comment. Let me know if I am right:

      1. There is agreement on the principles of democracy and what they should deliver but the institutional model in existence is not appropriate. People are more attuned to alternative ways of making their desires known and of striving for them.

      2. The norm is live and let live as long as people do not demand accountability from politicians.

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