Is the Narendra Modi government the most corrupt in India's history?

To answer this question we first need to define "corruption". Definitions of corruption can be more or less broad. The Merriam-Webster definition is perhaps the broadest: "dishonest or illegal behavior especially by powerful people"[1]. Wikipedia adds some detail: "corruption is a form of dishonesty or criminal activity undertaken by a person or organization entrusted with a position of authority, often to acquire illicit benefit, or, abuse of entrusted power for one's private gain."[2] The notions of dishonesty and abuse of power for gain are common to most definitions. Although bribery is sometimes mentioned, the definitions do not insist that the gain must be financial. Thus, most people would agree that gaining political power, status, or sexual favours through dishonest means involving the abuse of power is corruption. While some definitions include the phrase "private gain", this seems mainly to clarify that the benefits of the dishonest practices do not come to the public at large.

Creating a climate where abuses of power can go unpunished has been central to the Modi government's programme. Necessary for corruption to flourish are measures to reduce transparency, diminish accountability, and weaken institutions which could otherwise provide checks and balances against abuses of power.

Let's begin with transparency. Key to the government's drive against transparency is the availability of information and data. Statistics about politically sensitive and important issues such as violence against minorities and lynchings, animal welfare, crime, rural distress, and the economy are suppressed or tampered with[3, 4, 5]. When it comes to the economy, the government does not hesitate to lie about numbers in parliament[6]. While misleading the public and denying us information, the government is also busy obstructing people's right to information (RTI), making the uncovering of abuses ever more difficult[7] and dishonouring India's RTI martyrs, people who have been killed seeking to unmask abuses by the powerful[8]. By weakening the right to information, it seems the Modi government is desperate to ensure that the only information available to the public is what is released by its own propaganda machine and fed to a largely pliant media.

Remaining on the theme of transparency, consider the question of political funding, key to understanding the forces at play behind political decisions. The BJP government introduced a widely criticised system of electoral bonds, effectively annihilating all hope of transparency in political party funding[9]. The BJP receives the vast bulk of electoral bond money, but we'll never find out from whom, and what these "donors" receive in return. While the very cosy relationship between the Narendra Modi government and certain big business houses is well known, the detail and scale of these transactions become harder to probe.

Lying and hiding information for political advantage are much easier if the supposedly independent institutions of democracy - investigative agencies, the judiciary, the media, educational institutions, the election commission, institutions charged with producing statistics - are all greatly compromised or weakened. And this is a key part of the Modi government's agenda. News items under the heading "institutions" on this site illustrate the great variety of ways in which the institutions of democracy have been attacked by Narendra Modi's government. These include restructuring or dissolving institutions, passing laws which reduce their powers or bring them under the control of the central government, packing them with corrupted or pliant individuals close to the ruling party, and harassing dissenting voices within institutions. This last theme of attacking dissenters was the subject of a previous post. A few instances were highlighted where threats and misuse of the law were used to make the lives of those who investigate or criticise the government miserable. Apart from deterring protest, the goal is surely also to reduce the likelihood of corruption and other abuses being exposed. A recent - and very serious - example of an attack on dissent involves the snooping on rights activists and critics of the state using a WhatsApp vulnerability[10].

In an environment where access to information is restricted and the media is fearful or compromised, propaganda goes unchecked. Corruption in the sense of "dishonesty for political gain" becomes rife. The government raises slogans about women's empowerment, while it welcomes supporters of sexual violence[11, 12, 13]. It makes noisy speeches about terrorism, while working hard to get its favoured terrorists off the hook[14]. It even found space in parliament for an individual facing serious terrorism charges, an unparalleled moment in politics[15]. Narendra Modi repeats in several languages to an NRI audience that "everything is fine" in India[16], either not knowing or not caring that every other child in the country is malnourished[17]. Fawning supporters are impressed, forgetting that a lie in eight languages is still a lie.

Yes, it is true that the political class has always been corrupt, using its power for financial gain and giving handouts to its cronies. This has continued under this government. The major names and incidents associated with this kind of corruption in Modi's India are well known. There are plenty of details in pieces on our news pages about corruption and crony capitalism. We haven't focussed on this kind of financial corruption and cronyism in this piece because, although they are important, they are a continuation and escalation of past tradition, not a break with it. However, when it comes to corrupting the very frameworks of democracy, naked abuse of power for political gain, the crushing of democratic institutions, and attacks on all dissenting voices, the actions of this government are unprecedented.

Is Narendra Modi's government the most corrupt in India's history? The answer seems self-evident.

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