Fighting corruption

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The success of Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency KPK in fighting this menace should serve as a lesson for us. We could set up a similar agency to put an end to the evil practice of greasing palms. While other efforts have failed, this novel idea could work

The setting was Bali. The event an international conference on fostering democracy and the rule of law. The participants, lawyers, MPs and civil servants from six countries, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Philippines, Nepal, Afghanistan and Myanmar. I was there as an invited speaker on the subject of participatory democracy and grievance redressal systems, in the context of New Delhi. Most intriguing by far was the description of a relatively new Indonesian institution — a Corruption Eradication Commission — born out of public reaction to the brazen corruption that had characterised 30 years of President Suharto’s rule when his family and cronies amassed enormous wealth at public expense. So irrepressible was the public outcry then (1998) that the incoming Government was forced to create a powerful anti-corruption agency — Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi — as an Act of Parliament. This article dwells on KPK’s resounding success in containing corruption and some lessons for India.

The KPK has already prosecuted and jailed over 100 high-ranking officials in five years. It has won every case before the corruption court and had all verdicts upheld by the Supreme Court. Indonesia says her ranking in the International Corruption perception index has improved thereby, giving the country a more ethical reputation worldwide. Among others, the KPK has jailed a Minister, Members of Parliament, heads and key officials of the Central Bank, the Election Commission, the Competition Commission, Governors and Mayors, as well as senior officers from the police and the Attorney General’s office. It has also jailed businessmen, heads of private companies and notably the father-in-law of the President’s son.

KPK Commissioners are identified by a special selection team appointed by the President from among known leaders in society and representatives from the prosecution and the police. Ten candidates are recommended by the selection committee to the President, who then sends the names to Parliament which makes the ultimate choice of five Commissioners. Certainly a better way than our system where persons that occupy high office (C&AG, CVC, CBI, NHRC, Election Commissioners) are recommended (on file) only after receiving a direction from the Cabinet Secretary and the PMO after a decision has already been taken. Even when the concurrence of the leader of the Opposition is obtained, it is but a formality. Public involvement is zero and any kind of parliamentary scrutiny unheard of.

Another unique feature of the KPK is the way investigators and prosecutors work in partnership and only when they both agree that there is a strong case for prosecution, is it subjected to a further review by the KPK Commissioners who ensure that the case becomes ‘winnable’. Only after that does the case get filed for prosecution which is the primary reason for KPK’s 100 per cent conviction rate. Since the KPK is headed by a five-member commission which operates as a collegium, the manipulation of the entire body becomes very hard.

By law and practice, all corruption trials handled by the KPK are completed within eight months, which includes the time taken before the Special Court and the appeal before the Supreme Court. Insiders give credit to three factors for the success of KPK. First, institutional independence; second, fiscal autonomy and; third, unparalleled public support. We lack all three.

But clearly the first flush of KPK’s victory is on the wane. As could be expected, two KPK Commissioners were themselves accused of corruption, something which could have finished the institution once and for all. This situation was averted only because of resounding public support when thousands voiced their protests in the streets, airwaves and the Internet. A constitutional court later found the evidence against the Commissioners to have been concocted by officials from the police and the Attorney General’s office and the suspended Commissioners are back at work. But the road ahead is now uncharted territory, with growing resistance from within the Indonesian Government’s own agencies. A watered-down version of a new corruption law is reported to be coming soon. The KPK’s continued success now depends entirely on public persistence.

The KPK example carries some lessons for India. Ever since access to television channels and newspapers multiplied, scam upon scam gets reported almost daily. We have enough substantiation of corruption to warrant the installation of the grandmother of all KPKs. But the creation of a KPK and its subsequent sustenance, as the Indonesian story has shown, essentially requires sustained public demand and support, which unfortunately is sorely lacking anywhere in India. Cynicism has reached its nadir.

The middle class which is the biggest votary of anti-corruption, considers it as an inevitable evil that must be endured. Most people believe that corruption will continue, no matter who is at the helm of affairs. This acceptance of wrong-doing has typified the story of the Phillipino Ombudsman which was established after corruption had inundated the Marcos regime. In the absence of public support the Ombudsman in the Phillipines has been reduced to a cipher. A clear pointer to the fact that unless people literally bring the roof down over corruption, nothing and no one within the system is going to do anything about it.


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