Since the 8th of November when the government declared that 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender, there has been much talk about the need for ordinary citizens to join the battle against corruption. Rather dramatically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too announced from the pulpit, his resolve to continue battling corruption even if he is destroyed, or burnt alive. While failing to fathom why the Prime Minister must fan conspiracy theories about sinister enemies waiting to hurt him, I do think that we must respect the overall sentiment he has expressed, and support the government in taking forward this battle against corruption.
More importantly, now that crores of Indian citizens have borne the “minor inconveniences” towards this cause by waiting up in bank queues and rationing consumption, we need to make sure those sacrifices count for something. This battle against corruption should be a fight to the finish. Surely, no one can argue that a battle against corruption is the sole preserve of a conservative right-wing party – it is something in which we all must take part.
So here, I suggest seven steps that will irrefutably signal that India’s fight against corruption is one with serious long-term intent:
- Scrutinise all large transactions, including bank deposits: Tax authorities should be routinely checking all large cash transactions or bank deposits made by individuals, businesses and political parties. Since we expect large transactions to take place through inter-bank transactions, outliers must be investigated. This tax scrutiny should be prompted by a standing policy at the banks where information is shared regularly with tax authorities. Alongside, tough consumer protection laws should apply that punish any tax authority that unduly harasses an innocent citizen. As a follow-up to the current currency swap scheme (misleadingly now known in popular parlance as ‘demonetisation’), all large bank deposits in the large six months must be immediately scrutinised. We already know of the land purchases by the BJP in Bihar, and the large deposits in West Bengal. Could the Income Tax officials raid those establishments?
- Go after the big fish next: Starting from the biggest defaulters to our public sector banks, to tax offenders who have illegal assets stashed away abroad, the big fish are still out there, almost completely untouched by this ongoing demonetisation drive. In order to demonstrate its seriousness, Government of India must go after them, irrespective of how powerful they may be. Getting Vijay Mallya back would be a good start. The trails from those Panama papers and the HSBC accounts that seem to have gone cold need to be revived, pronto. The Prime Minister should prove that he means business.
- Strengthen the Right to Information (RTI) and Whistle blower Protection acts: In a fight against corruption, as was amply demonstrated during UPA 2, the RTI is absolutely critical. Prime Minister Modi must act to strengthen these acts. The RTI compels governments to be transparent, by putting responses to questions from citizens in the public domain. Whistle blowers do the same, from within government and outside, and their government must step up to protect them from the dangers they face. The Government of India should consider making a start to this with the Vyapam disclosures in Madhya Pradesh. Needless to say, political parties should not be exempt from RTI for even one more day. A midnight announcement to that effect would be best, so that culprits don’t have a chance to make amends before the deadline.
- Make data on natural resource deals public: Following a Supreme Court order, the new government was forced to conduct open auctions for the allocation of national resources – minerals, spectrum, etc. In order to take forward the emphasis on transparency, governments – both at the centre and the states – should make public, in an easy to understand format, all deals involving natural resources. This would also be the natural and well-intentioned follow-up to the Supreme Court’s orders to conduct open auctions for allocating natural resources that offer potential for extractive rents. These disclosures should start from the deals involving coastal lands in Gujarat, and extend to the mining contracts in Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
- Make election finances transparent and strictly regulated: All cash contributions to political parties should be considered contributions to the Consolidated Fund of India. Any contribution above INR 2,000 should be made by cheque, bank transfer, or a mobile wallet. If this threshold is considered acceptable for daily ATM withdrawals, and since many Indians just don’t have 500/1000 rupee notes in their possession, mass contributions of those amounts are bound to be a miniscule portion of the total contributions anyway. The BJP and Congress could do well to open up their books for independent audits of their massive election finances.
- Disqualify election candidates with pending corruption cases: This would be the most path-breaking step of them all. Prime Minister Modi is committed to cleaning corruption from India, and his party should be ready to embody the message. My humble suggestion is that starting with the upcoming state assembly polls, BJP should set an example and not nominate for party tickets, anyone with a pending corruption case. This might lead to some electoral setbacks, but will be widely lauded as the greatest act of self-sacrifice by a political party in seventy years of independent India.
- Investigate income declarations of politicians and prosecute rapidly: Extending the effort to clean up the electoral process, all pre-election affidavit declarations must be investigated by a national investigative agency. One often laments that the affidavits mean little unless the data is used beyond generating infographics for the media. Candidates must face legal consequences if they indulge in under-reporting income or assets. Any unexplained spike from one election year to the other should attract the investigator’s attention.
I am confident that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not stop in his mission to eliminate corruption. There is another huge advantage – they will give people a chance to take genuine pride in being honest, without having to endure the public chaos and personal inconvenience caused schemes such as the ongoing currency mop-up drive. Not only will people – especially the poor – bless the government, but also the brave men guarding our borders will be proud of us.