Thoughts on economics and liberty

Three simple reforms can dramatically improve India’s governance

I had sent this article to TOI for publication more than a month ago, but have not received a response. Therefore, I'm publishing it here, and may consider a shorter version for some newspaper in the future.

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India suffers from misgovernance and corruption. Both go hand in hand. The fact that the middle class is now rising against these issues presents an opportunity, but the populist nature of proposed reforms is sure to disappoint. 
 
Implementing a Lok Pal is unlikely to have any noticeable impact on corruption. Under the current institutional circumstances, it is quite possible that this institution may itself become mired in corruption and misgovernance.
 
So what to do? My thirty years of policy specialisation suggests that India can benefit from three simple reforms, which relate to the better design and operation of the electoral system.
 
First, a brief background. In December 2000, I walked out of my large government bungalow in Shillong and left the Indian Administrative Service. Given the effort involved in getting into this job, you might well ask why. 
 
It had long become apparent to me that corruption was being driven from the top, by which I mean the top (no exception). Politicians had corroded and corrupted India's steel frame. While the steel frame still held India together, it had become very, very rusty. 
 
After nearly two decades I had reached the point when I could no longer vouch for the integrity of all my colleagues (and I’m not paranoid). The corridors of government had become a place of ill-repute. I could no longer continue to “report” to such scoundrels for the rest of my career. Working as a pimp would be more honorable than working in the IAS. I was willing to pay the price of self-respect. I left.
 
The point is this, that we need to stop the continuous flow of criminals into our political system. We must drain the pond. But in doing so we must never lose respect for the law. The principles of natural justice are not negotiable. 
 
Someone not yet convicted of a major crime should not be prevented from entering parliament. (In any event, if we try to do so, criminals will put up dummy candidates – most likely their spouse or child – anyway.) 
 
The (Swami Aiyar) solution to this problem is to fast track the trials of newly elected MPs with criminal cases. Such cases should be be given top priority and heard without break until completed. The Election Commission could be charged with this task. 
 
No doubt, the Commission has no powers to prosecute ordinary criminals, but it has a responsibility to ensure that heinous criminals do not function as our MPs. The Commission should work closely with the Supreme Court to design a process that achieves this goal. A pinch of money (say, Rs. 20 crores) can be given to the Commission to facilitate this task by overcoming resource gaps in the judicial system.
 
Second, we must vigorously encourage honest people to enter politics. While electoral expenditure is not the only determinant of electoral success, it remains a major contributor. Good people (who, by definition, do not have access to black money) are defeated even before they start by corrupt scoundrels who out-spend them in a ratio of 1 to 100. 
 
We can’t just keep complaining about this. We must address this huge injustice. Fortunately, the solution is quite simple. All candidates should pay a high deposit, but then be reimbursed Rs.15 per valid vote cast. Good candidates will be able to borrow money to help spread their message and even though the bad guys will outspend them, at least the good guys won’t end up losing big money if they lose the election. 
 
State funding of elections on these lines has a proven track record of success in countries like Australia. It not only makes eminent sense to implement this in India’s case, it is also easy to implement. (I speak from extensive experience in conducting, organising, and observing Indian elections.) 
 
The third reform would be to strengthen electoral expenditure audits and relevant punishment. 
Today, almost all our politicians enter parliament as liars, having falsified their electoral expenditure accounts. 
 
While the concept of electoral expense limits violates freedom of speech, if we must have these limits then they must be enforced. Punishments for non-compliance must also be significantly increased. I am glad that the Election Commission has started taking this task seriously, but there is enormous scope to improve this aspect of elections.
 
The Commission must send out an army of observers to record election expenses (through videocameras/ photographs) and a large team of auditors to match observed expenditure with declared expense. The fear of God must be put into our shameless, lying politicians.
These simple reforms will dramatically reduce corruption and significantly improve the quality of MPs and hence the quality of governance in India. While these do not constitute the magic bullet that India is looking for, they come close.
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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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