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UN Convention Against Corruption as Litmus Test for Indian Political Establishment

As corruption has taken centre stage in Indian political discourse like never before of late (mainstream and otherwise), a lot of focus has been centred upon the ordeals of common people on the one hand and their commitment to weed out corruption on the other. A few important voices have also raised concern over private and political establishments in the country and the part played by them in adding to or fighting against corruption in India.

Interestingly, before common people became the focal point of the “fight against corruption” this discourse, last mobilised at a shrilling pitch during 2014 elections was largely about political players as well as bureaucracy implicated in corrupt practices, scams and scandals.

The United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) also puts the spotlight on political establishment and bureaucracy as the key domestic factors involved in the issue of corruption. Realising the severity of obstruction that corruption poses in extending the public goods and benefits to the common people, UN Office on Drugs and Crime put together this convention in 2004. Many nations have ratified it. India did so in 2011.

How does India perform when put to test on the propositions of this convention with respect to domestic factors- political class and bureaucracy? Following are some of the observations based on policy making and legislative and executive intent.

Starting on a positive note, one of the articles of UNCAC which India satisfies at least in terms of policy making and legislation is article 10 titled “Public reporting” as well as article 13 named “Participation of society”. While the former article requires nation-states to ensure transparency and a free flow of information on “organisation, functioning and decision-making processes of its public administration”, the latter asks for “ensuring that the public has effective access to information”. 

The propositions of these articles were satisfied with the passing of the historic Right to Information Act 2005. The act entitles all Indian citizens to obtain the above said information from all public bodies covered under the act. Yet there are some exemptions made under this act, such as the information guarded under the “Official Secrets Act”-one of the acts inherited from the colonial administration.

Then there is the article 7 of the convention which urges nation-states to make provisions to “enhance transparency in the funding of candidatures for elected public office and, where applicable, the funding of political parties”. For a long time now there has been a persistent demand in India about bringing political parties under the purview of the RTI act, so that they have to disclose the sources of their party funds. But all major political parties in the country across ideological spectrum have rejected the demand to come under RTI purview.

Recently in a debate in Rajya Sabha on the issue of demonetisation or currency ban, Communist Party of India (Marxist)- general secretary, Sitaram Yechury raised the demand of creating a common election fund from which political parties can withdraw money for contesting elections. However CPI(M) along with other parties has refused to come under the purview of RTI. 

This becomes especially significant considering that CPI(M) stands fourth in the list of national political parties with income from undeclared sources (those contributing less than Rs 20,000 and hence not liable to be disclosed) as revealed by an analysis from Association of Democratic Reforms.


Source: Factly.in

The other parties which rank ahead of CPI(M) are Bahujan Samaj Party in the third place and leading by a significant margin are the two parties- Indian National Congress and Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). With the demonetisation move, BJP along with its leader PM Narendra Modi have claimed to have taken the hardest and most radical step in the fight against corruption and black money in the history of independent India.

Considering Yechury’s radical suggestion of creating a common election fund and BJP’s claim of conducting a “surgical strike” on black money, perhaps allowing their own political parties to be covered under the purview of RTI act would have been a far more radical step than any other, since it would have struck at one of the most crucial sources of generation of black money in India- the funding of major political parties as it would have also unearthed the funding of the parties retrospectively. This argument though applies equally to the entire political class across the spectrum.

Besides requirement for more transparent flow of information with respect to tackling corruption, the other major issue is the requirement of protecting agencies investigating matters of corrupt and illegal practices from undue political influence. In this regard the party in charge of the central government presently- BJP directly comes under the attack.

In a recent move the cabinet has approved of certain amendments to be made to the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988. In an article published on First Post, an argument has been made by this author as to how these amendments endanger investigative agencies against undue influence. The amendments aim to make it mandatory for investigative agencies covered under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act 1946 such as Central Bureau of Investigation and Central Vigilance Commission, to take prior approval from central government before launching an investigation against any central government employee of or above the rank of joint secretary.

The argument is further extended to show that not only are these amendments against the UNCAC but also against prior Supreme Court judgments which has repeatedly struck down such attempts made in the past by successive central governments. The judgment invokes article 14 of the constitution which guarantees citizens “equality before the law”. It also raises the concern that making it mandatory to seek approval from the central government to initiate investigation or enquiries against its own employees would lead to a scenario where “there will be no confidentiality and insulation of the investigating agency from political and bureaucratic control and influence because the approval is to be taken from the Central Government which would involve leaks and disclosures at every stage.”

Thus the BJP’s claims of acting tough on corruption since November 8th 2016 and approving these changes only two days later show a clear contradiction between its words and actions. But more importantly the articles referred to above from UNCAC show that the issues of “free flow of information”, “disclosure of funding of political parties” and “protection of investigative agencies from undue influence” are genuine concerns all across the world.

But assessing the performance of Indian political establishment and particularly the party in power at the centre, it is clear that these pan-contextual norms are not being implemented in the country. This also shows that while the party in power may talk tough on corruption urging people to face “minor inconveniences” for the time being, it is clearly in no mood to inconvenience itself any time soon but might rather only privilege itself with prior information on any investigation being initiated against its own employees contrary to the prevailing sense of judgment both inside and outside of India.

-Sumit   



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