Presented with a golden opportunity to rise and shine, India has an unmatched capacity to look prosperity firmly in the face, turn around, and walk off resolutely in the opposite direction.

The latest manifestation of this favorite national pastime comes in relation to deeply ingrained corruption practices at all levels of public life. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could have appropriated the cause and channeled the people’s movement to enact tough new laws to rid India of corrupt practices and cement its economic future. Instead his government has responded with characteristic vacillation and, by using the powers of the state to intimidate and harass activists, stood firmly on the wrong side of history.

In 2008, Singh’s government allegedly survived a no confidence vote on the contentious civil nuclear deal with the U.S. by bribing lawmakers. The recent rapidly multiplying mega-scandals include the 2010 Commonwealth Games boondoggle, a $40 billion telecom scandal, and a high-profile real estate scam in Mumbai. Telephone intercepts of a media lobbyist revealed a nexus of journalists, businessmen and politicians doing deals in a profit-for-everyone chain.

In a report published last November, the Washington-based Global Financial Integrity put estimates of illicit assets (gained through corruption, bribery, criminal activities, tax evasion, etc.) held overseas by Indians at $462 billion. This means that 72 percent of money in India’s underground economy (itself worth half the country’s $1.5 trillion GDP) leaves the country. The annual capital flight is worth almost 17 percent of GDP. India’s Supreme Court has called this “pure and simple theft” and “plunder of the nation.” The government has been brazenly sluggish in chasing the money trail.

Licenses, degrees and permits bought and sold daily are less spectacular but affect most ordinary folks. The overall impression is that society has lost its moral moorings, greed is good, everything is a commodity and everyone is on the take.

Singh does not appear to see, hear or speak evil. He may not have gained pecuniary benefits, but he has presided over an explosion of financial corruption and a blurring of the boundary between public power and private gain. British politician Norman Lamont’s description of Prime Minister John Major is apposite: Singh is in office but not in power.

To be fair, the pursuit of corruption has become a cross-party habit: The BJP-led state government of Karnataka is the most recent instance of public larceny on a grand scale. But the party did dump the state premier. By contrast, In an opinion poll for The Hindu, Indians held the Congress-led government to be corrupt by a 60-15 margin, and, by a 44-17 margin, believe that the government wants to protect, rather than pursue and prosecute, those with black money stashed abroad.

In April, when 74-year-old social activist Anna Hazare undertook a fast unto death — a technique of civil disobedience sanctified by Gandhi during the independence struggle against British colonial rule — the government capitulated to his demand for a joint committee to draft an effective Lokpal (people’s ombudsman) bill. But faced with the need and demands for a robust bill, the government proposed a particularly limp one. Its draft bill ignored all requests from civil society representatives on the joint drafting committee for tough powers and extensive jurisdiction. Analysts pointed out that few of the recent big scandals would have fallen within its ambit. The people ridiculed it as the “Jokepal” Bill.

When Hazare threatened another public fast, he was arrested.

Many commentators had reservations about some of Hazare’s uncompromising demands and disagreed with the threat of fasting unto death as a technique of exerting pressure on the government, describing it as political blackmail. Fiercely proud of their democratic institutions, traditions and practices, Indians were appalled by the government’s ban on peaceful protests. They reacted with derision and disdain to allegations leveled by the ruling party’s political attack dogs on Hazare’s character and probity.

Hazare’s arrest and preventive detention united opposition parties and citizens. Describing his fight against corruption as India’s second freedom struggle, Hazare called for nonviolent protests all over the country. Indians took to the streets in the tens of thousands, waving the Indian flag and chanting patriotic slogans.

The Hindu, India’s heavyweight newspaper of record, argued that the Singh government, “devoid of moral authority” because it is “widely perceived as the most corrupt in the history of independent India,” had “revealed its ugly, repressive face.” Unnerved by swelling protests, the government released Hazare.

Hazare has tapped into a deep reservoir of rage and revulsion against the political class and ruling elite. The government finds itself badly out of step with a restive and angry national mood on common corruption that inflicts daily hardships and humiliations on most citizens.

While in Western countries bribes may occasionally be demanded for performing extra-legal services, Indians have to pay bribes to get what is theirs by right. Hazare’s call to end corruption has touched a raw nerve and mobilized a mass constituency cutting across regional, caste and religious divides to confront the lethargy of an apathetic government.

India will remain a compromised democracy and an incomplete power unless and until major invasive surgery is performed on the body politic to cut out the cancer of corruption.

Ramesh Thakur is professor of International Relations at Australian National University and adjunct professor at the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law at Griffith University.

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