News stories have also featured reports of officials taking apartments meant for veterans’ families, the distribution of illegal mining licenses, the purchasing of parliamentary votes and the crooked construction contracts written for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. This is nothing new: By one calculation, corruption has cost the Indian state more than $460 billion since independence in 1947. The amounts of money involved seem to have grown exponentially, but then so has India’s economy, too.
Of course, big corruption scandals are commonplace in the developing world (and the developed world, for that matter). Yet the scale and relative peacefulness of the corruption debate in India may be unprecedented. In Russia, the anti-corruption movement that organized several big protests in 2011 has been stamped out with arrests, police harassment, threats and violence. In China, corrupt deals at the highest levels take place in secret, with nosy journalists kept far away. Even when accusations are made — as they were against party leader Bo Xilai — trials are masked by rumors and obfuscation.
But unlike China, and unlike Russia, India is a democracy. And although the Indian political system is imperfect in ways too numerous to list here, the central authorities most of the time do respect free speech and free press. Civil society works. Freedom of association works. The question now is how well India’s other democratic institutions work. Protests over corruption — or, more recently, the rape and harassment of women — make the television news. But can they create the deep institutional changes to party financing, to regulation, to policing and to courts that the new Indian middle class demands?
Around New Delhi, there is no agreement about whether six decades of bad habits can be broken. Clearly, Hazare’s campaign has lost steam — in Hyderabad last week, only a small crowd showed up at one of his rallies — perhaps because his personality began to overwhelm his cause (one columnist called him a “moral tyrant” presiding over a “comical anti-corruption opera”) and perhaps because many now realize his favored solution — an omnipotent ombudsman — is insufficient.
Others throw their hands up at the scale of the problem, which is much broader than even the reported scandals suggest. Indians pay bribes to get birth certificates for their children and death certificates for their parents. They find business, any kind of business, impossible to conduct without payoffs. In her book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” Katherine Boo describes a boy from the slums who is wrongly accused of a crime, thus dragging his entire family into a netherworld of corrupt police, lawyers and politicians.