India‘s Gilded Age – Course Correction or Course Continuity?

The famous American author Mark Twain is credited with coining the term “Gilded Age” to satirize a period in U.S. history of grave social concerns veiled by a golden veneer.1 The main social problem he had in mind was “corruption”, which characterized the era.

That period saw a huge gap in income distribution as the emerging wealth was heavily concentrated in a few hands, and the poor were shabbily treated. Corruption marked all levels of government. Railroad barons showed no hesitation in buying lawmakers in order to install their railway tracks, and cabinet-level appointees were indicted for malfeasance in the administration of President Ulysses Grant.

The United States is not the only example of a country falling prey to severe corruption. The transformations of rural South Korea and Taiwan into industrialized economies in the 1970s, and of China in the 1980s, were accompanied by some of the same features.

India has also had its share of the Gilded Age, the problem being systemic corruption. In the recent past, a number of corruption scandals have plagued the country of 1.27 billion people. To name a few – the allotment of spectrum to private telecom companies, bid rigging in national asset (coal mines) tenders, real estate and defence scams, By Abhishek Bharti the Commonwealth Games corruption scandal, the Cashfor-Votes affair, and most recently the alleged Vyapam admission and recruitment scandal.

However, India’s Gilded Age has also seen a period of course corrections and improvements as a result of public agitation and judicial intervention against the corrupt. In the 2014 general election, Narendra Damodardas Modi – now the Prime Minister – campaigned for “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”, which entailed a direct fight against the routine venality and scams that had cropped up in recent Indian socio-political history.

These scandals moved citizens in the world’s largest democracy to exercise their right to vote and have a say in the democratic process. Citizens took to public agitation and, most importantly, an invigorating judicial activism saw the advent of landmark case laws and suo motu actions by the highest court – the Supreme Court of India.

New legislation and critical amendments to existing laws with individual rights and responsibility promised to take the Indian polity to another level of institutional reforms. The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act of 2013, commonly known as the Lokpal Act, sought to provide for the establishment of an Ombudsman institution to inquire into allegations of corruption against public office bearers and matters pertaining to them.4 This was an important and revolutionary step in Indian legislative history as even the highest government functionaries could be tried for the
breach of national anti-corruption laws.

Another development was the amendment to the Representation of People’s Act, carried out at the behest of the Supreme Court. It entailed the direct and immediate disqualification of elected and nominated members of Parliament and state assemblies. Furthermore, the Supreme Court interpreted as unconstitutional the provision of the Act giving members three months to file an appeal at a higher forum and allowing them to continue in office until its disposal.

However, the question remains – has the trend of corruption stopped? There are new cases and new issues, large and small, coming up every day. For efforts to go beyond rhetoric, further concrete steps and action are needed. These include the enactment of key pending anticorruption bills, the setting up of an effective Ombudsman mechanism (as per the Representation of People’s Act), curbing money laundering and illicit financial flows, deepening people’s access to information, and reminding them that India ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption in 2011.

A number of important pieces of legislation are still pending. The Prevention of Bribery of Foreign Public Officials and Officials of Public International Organizations Bill of 2011, introduced in the lower house of Parliament (Lok Sabha) on 25 March 2011, has already lapsed and fresh introduction is required. The Bill has some similarities to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and the UK Bribery Act. It has a provision to punish both the bribe taker and the bribe giver, and also empowers the government to enter into agreements with other countries or contracting states to enforce it and exchange investigative information.

If adopted, the Bill will be India’s first piece of legislation to deal with bribery of foreign public officials as this is not covered under any domestic anti-corruption laws at present.

The need of the hour is to fully restore the faith of citizens in a functional democracy by demonstrating serious efforts to fight corruption and having a well-rounded approach even towards the prescription of strict punishment in case of violations. Establishing transparent and robust institutions capable of upholding the rule of law and sanctioning the corrupt will demonstrate legislative intent to rein in the menace of corruption. As an optimist, I believe this will in turn take India from a Gilded Age to its Golden Age.

End notes

1Twain, Mark. Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. London: Penguin Books, 2013, p. 374-376.
2Varshney, Ashutosh. “A Republic of Greed”, The Times of India, 17 July 2015.
4“Lokpal Bill tabled in Rajya Sabha, din blocks debate”, Business Standard India, 13 December 2013.
6“Perception of corruption in India improves marginally”, The Hindu, 3 December 2013.
7“Government to move fresh bill to tackle bribery by foreign officials”, Daily News and Analysis, 20 July 2015.

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