Monday, 5 March 2018

A chowkidar is not enough: The fight against corruption must be driven by institutions, not by an individual

I don’t want to become Prime Minister, I want to be a chowkidar, said then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi on the campaign trail during the 2014 elections. Social media is unforgiving and four years later – after the Nirav Modi banking scam blew up – a video of the PM’s chowkidar speech was repeatedly recycled.

As the NiMo banking scam unfolds, reality has hit hard. To lay the blame at the prime minister’s door for a multi-crore scam in one branch of a public sector bank would be unfair. The scam reveals, though, that however tough the chowkidar at the top, there’s deep rot in an unaccountable public sector banking system. For example, all 20 PSU banks including PNB do not have a workman or an officer director. 

The personal commitment of a dominant political executive to act against corruption is welcome. Yet a single chowkidar sitting alone in Lok Kalyan Marg in Delhi cannot oversee goings on from Jhabua to Trichy, or PNB Mumbai’s Brady House Branch for that matter.Instead, it is anti-corruption institutions at every level which must be strengthened and empowered. Today public cynicism about corruption is overwhelming. Even a Davos group photo or PM’s references to “hamaare Mehulbhai” can lead to perceptions of cronyism, unless strong institutions act swiftly to catch the big fish.

The government claims it has introduced tough new amendments in the Benami Property Act and brought in an Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code to enable actions against swindlers. But who will implement these tough laws if administrators and institutions are rendered irrelevant? The government has not instituted a single Lokpal in the last four years and as many as four posts in the Information Commission are lying vacant.Election funding, arguably the most visible source of political corruption, remains unchecked. The introduction of electoral bonds (now challenged in court) has failed to address the core issue of promoting transparency in funding: under the new law, details of individuals and corporates funding political parties will not be disclosed in public.

The finance minister recently said that while politicians are accountable, it’s the regulators who are not, suggesting that banking regulator RBI has not been vigilant enough. But the fact is, it’s the government’s responsibility to create autonomous and independent institutions that have the self-confidence to ask questions, even from well-connected VIPs.

The Indian people’s interests are best served when the government takes urgent steps to ensure that institutions – CVC, CBI, judiciary, RTI, CIC, bank watchdogs – are not attacked or weakened or marginalised or bypassed but made vigorous, independent and staffed by persons of courage and integrity. It’s these institutions that are India’s real chowkidars, not a single individual.


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