M.L. Sondhi

The Pioneer, February 19, 1996

If we examine the three crucial decades since the Santhanam Committee on Prevention of Corruption (1964) submitted its report, we find contradictions of the political process of the period anchored in the lack of will to modify the vertical relationship between the central political authority and civil society.  The courage to carry out the most salient idea mooted by the Santhanam Committee, that is, its recommendation to institute a special procedure for inquiry into specific allegations against Ministers, was lacking.  There was general talk of political reform, but there was no power-wielder in the Indian polity who was prepared to shoulder the personal burden of initiating a multi-dimensional process for “righting the past wrongs”.

It is true that the recommendations of the Santhanam Committee led directly to the setting up of the Vigilance Commission for public employees and the strengthening of the Central Bureau of Investigation.  The question of Conduct Rules for Ministers was also addressed, but the key issue of starting a general process for rectifying the wrongs committed in the past was not seriously addressed.  For their part Parliament, Media and the Intelligentsia could not provide any broad-ranging multidisciplinary discussion of corruption which could make a serious dent on the ambiguity and ambivalence which continued to prevail at the highest level of political activities of the nation.

Mr. L.P. Singh, a member of the Santhanam Committee contented himself with the pious hope that Indian universities would make “a decisive contribution to the enlightenment of the public mind and the restoration of ethical standards.”  He added: “If we succeed in taking care of standards and values in our universities the moral problem of the rest of society will take care of themselves.”  Unfortunately, there was no one at the commanding heights of the Indian academia who saw it as his appointed mission to stipulate a timely debate on the serious issues concerning corruption in public life and politics.

The anti-corruption experience in South Korea has been historically very short coinciding with President Kim Young Sam’s reform drive.  The validity and transparency of the information relating to “righting the past wrongs” embodied in the prosecution of former Presidents, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Taewoo suggests a forward strategy which if adopted in India would have the result of opening the gates to a totally new world.  One of the policy planning advisers in Seoul, Lee Kark Bum, argues on good grounds that the Korean initiative against corruption is stronger than ever because it has included the political risk of ignoring influential voices which had advocated condoning the misdemeanours of the two former Presidents in the name of orderly conduct of public policy.

The scope of this political innovation is related to a definition of national interest which regards corruption as much as a security challenge as those in a traditional sense.  The breaking of the nexus between business and politics has become a core theme of both development and security in an era where there is increasing recognition of non-military means of protection for building democratic societies.  The Kim Young Sam presidency has drawn the conclusion that South Korea’s security cannot sufficiently be guaranteed by military measures, if legal norms within the country are violated.

The reshaping of the Korean, polity is currently taking place on a broader canvass in which transparency in financial transactions, the elimination of havens for black money, and stringent ethical standards in politics have all gained real substance and are not merely the pursuit of a mirage.

In India a solution to the recurrent patterns of repression has been the setting up of the Human Rights Commission which has in a short time greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the work being done for fostering social and economic rights and the punishment of human rights violators.  Korea can be India’s guide to new thinking and action on the problems of corruption.  Some examples of existing arrangements in Korea which might prove useful in setting up a Permanent Commission against corruption in India would be found in the Public Officials Ethics Law and the legal systems dealing with “real-name transactions” and real estate registration.  It should be noted that all “benami” transactions have been outlawed in Korea.  The political and administrative competence of those in charge of the Kim Young Sam reform drive has bolstered Seoul’s confidence and now the process of overcoming the negative legacies of authoritarian rule has developed a momentum of its own.

The democratisation of the decision-making process has enabled President Kim to awaken the political conscience of Korean society yet again building on his personal record of a 23-day Gandhian hunger strike in the early eighties when he led the protest against the military-backed authoritarian rule.  It is true of course, that he has the entrenched vested interests to contend with and those who propagate the view that setting high ethical standards is basically na´ve and unrealistic in the Hobbesian world of politics.  It is true that except during the short period of the emergency, India has been able to guarantee free political choice through elections, but as the current turmoil over “hawala” shows national self-esteem cannot be maintained if money power continues to corrupt the political system.  The conventional wisdom among western observers and among many Indians as well has been that in seeking economic prosperity for the nation a fair amount of corruption is part of the game in pursuit of economic growth.  In this context Kim Young Sam’s experience in Korea is radically different and quite instructive.  He has provided his country with an international image and voice commensurate with high ethical standards.

Certainly the task of dealing with corruption and scandals like “hawala” and “Bofors” in a continental size country like India is not easy.  In many ways India has become like Italy where the influence of the mafia has been around a long period of time.  The Santhanam Report had provided an agenda for serious changes in Indian polity and society, but it failed to nudge real reforms ahead.  The Korean example can serve as a catalyst for overcoming laxity and scepticism.  It also shows that an anti-corruption drive can be given a permanent political expression if proper lessons are drawn from both traditional discourse on moral issues and from concrete thinking for making financial dealings fully transparent in the interests of competitive efficiency in the economy.  Both strands have to be woven into a liberating vision of the possibilities of political reform and restructuring.
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