India’s big choice for integrity in governance

Elections for Parliament could add momentum to anti-corruption reforms of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Passengers crowd a window to buy tickets at a railway booking counter in Allahabad, India.

Elections in India, where nearly a fifth of humanity resides, are usually a wonder of democracy. On April 11, when voting begins for a new lower house of Parliament, there may be another kind of wonder. Eight years after India saw mass protests against corruption, voters will decide if the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, has done enough to ensure clean and transparent governance.

Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party rode into office in 2014 on a wave of resentment against everyday bribery and nonstop scandals. With a personal image of incorruptibility, he promised to channel the outrage into hope and to rid India of corruption by 2022. He is now asking for another five years to complete the task.

If the polls are accurate, voters generally approve of his anti-corruption record, although many disagree with his Hindu nationalist party and his weak performance in job creation. Concern about corruption dropped by 8 percentage points from 2017 to 2018, according to a Pew survey. About a fifth of Indians say there is less corruption. Nearly half believe the court system treats everyone fairly.

Mr. Modi’s boldest move came in 2016 when he attempted to eliminate “black money,” or illicit currency used in corrupt activities. He issued new banknotes and removed those of high value (500 and 1,000 rupees). The demonetization unsettled the economy for a while but it set a high tone. It may have had one good side effect in making more people more honest. Tax compliance rose 80% between 2014 and 2018.

He also began to digitize government business, helped poor people open bank accounts, and greatly reduced the time needed to start a new company. Mr. Modi presided over new legislation aimed at preventing corruption, such as a crackdown on bankruptcies used to defraud creditors. In the World Bank’s rankings of countries based on their ease of doing business, India improved dramatically, going from 142 to 77 over the past four years.

The latest step for Mr. Modi was appointing a powerful anti-corruption agency, known as Lokpal (“people caretaker”). It can independently investigate elected leaders and civil servants – even the prime minister. His delay in setting up the agency was puzzling but, under pressure from anti-corruption activists, he finally did it.

Mr. Modi himself remains a model of integrity. “More and more politicians are rising to power on the argument that their lack of family ties protects them from the temptation to profit from office. Modi, the bachelor prime minister, has made uncorrupted single-hood a centerpiece of his political persona,” writes one expert, Ruchir Sharma, in Foreign Affairs magazine.

The elections, which end May 23, will reveal if Indian voters approve of Mr. Modi and his reforms. The opposition Indian National Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, is still suffering from its reputation as a corrupt ruling party.

The eruption of public demand for integrity that began in 2011 has helped turn India into a potential model for other countries struggling with corruption. The culture shift preceded Mr. Modi and it may outlast him. For now, he is trying to keep on top of it. Honesty has its rewards.

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