MUSINGS FROM CHICAGO: Corruption: Biggest Threat to Democracy

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Chicago – December 9 is celebrated as International Anti-corruption Day, but for a country like India, this is a topic of daily discourse. Survey results released by Transparency International on December 3 indicate that Sweden with the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of 92 ranks as the least corrupt nation. USA ranks at 17th position with a CPI of 74, while India with a CPI of 38 ranks at position 85 along with countries like Burkina Faso, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Jamaica and Peru. Its neighboring country Pakistan along with Nepal ranks at number 126 with a CPI of 29. North Korea and Somalia are the most corrupt nations with a CPI of just 8.

Corruption is a global phenomenon. Like leprosy, it is a slow and insinuating disease that causes loss of function and numbness that often goes unrecognized.

According to an estimate, on a global level, 1 trillion dollar is paid annually in bribes and 2.6 trillion is siphoned away per year through corrupt practices, the latter accounting for 5% of global GDP. Corruption affects economic development, violates tenets of democracy resulting in infringement of human rights, justice and quality services. It also impedes human potential because of favoritism and nepotism and the consequent social ramifications may be even difficult to comprehend.

The scourge of corruption has existed as long as humankind. A quote by Chanakya says it all: “It is just as difficult to detect an official’s dishonesty as it is to discover how much water a swimming fish drinks.”

In India, corruption is a way of life. It is a recurring theme that has permeated all aspects of our life. Corruption is one common denominator that characterizes Indian life. Despite massive diversity in terms of culture, language and food habits, it is the gel of corruption that keeps us united! Corruption, bribery, favoritism come to us as innate traits; no formal training is required to learn this. From procuring birth certificate to death certificate, from seeking a job to buying a property: greasing the palm is an accepted norm.

India continues to squirm under the pain of corruption and unaccountability. It has resulted in incalculable damage to the nation in terms of economic and social development. The abysmal level of corruption in India has resulted into what we call a ‘revolving door’ democracy. Lack of transparency and accountability has also slowed the process of building up strong institutions of democracy.

Those who think that the malaise of corruption exists only in the third world countries and struggling economies are for a surprise here. The developed world has its share of corrupt practices, the style and approach however may change.

Does the world’s strongest democracy – USA- have corruption? It is true that a common man is not subjected to the routine hassles of a third world society, but corruption exists in USA too. India’s burden of corruption is shared by everyone collectively- it is a common man’s disease. In USA, the corruption does not seem to touch the common man the way it does in India, but it is nevertheless prevalent in significant way!

Two practices highlight the existence of corruption in high places. The role of money in campaign financing has grown so out of control that many critics claim that USA is fast transforming into an oligarchy. The real jolt came in 2010 when the US Supreme court in a case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, threw away the age-old restriction on corporate expenditures in election campaigns. This has opened the floodgates for Super-PACs (Super Political Action Committees).

Literally any one can form a super PAC and raise unlimited amount of money from individuals, corporations and unions. Even though a super PAC cannot donate the money to the candidate, yet is legally allowed to spend on media campaigning – favoring or opposing a candidate or party.

The court took a very restrictive view of the term corruption in this case, decreeing that political donation here is consistent with first amendment of American constitution that allows freedom of speech. Since in such a scenario, there is no pro quid pro, hence no corruption, observed the court.

Super-PACs have changed the game of campaign financing now. Majority of contributions to super-PACs come from ultra-rich donors, and not corporations. A study has revealed that Super PACs in the 2012 Presidential elections raised $505 million, about $200 million more than the presidential candidates combined, from only 159 donors.

Sheldon Adelson, a famous Las Vegas hotelier alone spent $150 million to support conservative Republican candidates. Another super-PAC –named Americans for Prosperity- was financially supported by Charles and David Koch and spent $122 million during the 2012 campaign.

Needless to say, there is no pro quid pro here, but the power of influence is clearly visible. In current times, 25% of campaign funding in USA alone comes from 0.001 donors, rest 75% coming from 99.99%.

Who is a more powerful influencer?

Similarly, lobbying is another blot that has come to be accepted in the modern world. Lobbying – considered to be illegal in olden times- is a perfect example that shows how perception of corruption has changed insidiously over time. The practice allows corporations to spend enormous amount of money to influence the legislators and the Congress.

However, lobbyists are being paid to advocate for someone’s (say, a tobacco company) private interests and not public good. The fact that, more than 50% of members of Congress become lobbyists upon leaving the office is a telling story as to how the modern democracies have accommodated the distasteful practice of corruption in the name of free speech. But is money speech?

Fighting graft is in everyone’s benefit. Alone governments cannot do it. A strong republic will only emerge when its residents live like citizens and not just private residents.

Dr. Munish Kumar Raizada
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Dr. Munish Kumar Raizada is a Chicago-based practicing physician (neonatologist) and a socio-political commentator

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