In my last post, I explained how loopholes in India’s legal system have enabled self-proclaimed “godmen” to amass fortunes by facilitating money laundering. But these corrupt godmen could not build their illicit empires without protection from politicians. After all, the government could crack down on godmen’s activities by changing the laws, or even by ensuring adequate enforcement of the flawed laws that currently exist. The government has not done so in part because of a corrupt relationship between godmen and politicians. The politicians provide the godmen with political favors, special privileges (including sweetheart deals for the godmen’s business ventures), patronage appointments, and, perhaps most importantly, the preservation of the system of legal loopholes and minimal oversight that enables the godmen to amass their fortunes. In return, godmen provide politicians with a number of services. These services include the same money laundering services that godmen provide to businessmen. But the godmen also provide politicians with three other services in exchange for the politicians’ complicity.
In the past two decades, India has witnessed the rise of so-called “godmen” (and “godwomen”), charismatic religious leaders who have amassed enormous fortunes. To take just a few of the most eye-popping examples: when the godman Sathya Sai Baba died in 2011, his holdings were valued at more than $9 billion. Another godman, Asaram Bapu, has a trust with an annual turnover of $49 million—which may seem like a lot, but pales in comparison to the over $1.6 billion in annual revenue earned by a company called Patanjali, controlled by yet another godman, Baba Ramdev. It would not be hard to supply many other examples. The godmen and their supporters will tell you that these empires are built on a combination of legitimate contributions and business savvy, and that the funds are used to support spiritual and charitable activities. But in fact there is ample evidence that the fortunes of these supposedly religious figures are tainted by extensive corruption, tax evasion, and money laundering.
One of the most common functions that godmen perform in the illicit economy is the conversion of so-called “black money” (unaccounted off-book money, often from illegal sources) into “white money” (or goods or services), in exchange for a hefty fee. Godmen are able to get away with this due to unfortunate features of India’s religious trust laws, which are opaque and riddled with loopholes, and leave religious trusts largely unchecked and unsupervised. Here’s how some of the godmen’s illicit schemes work:
In 2011, India witnessed the largest anticorruption uprising in its history, as hundreds of thousands of people mobilized to protest against entrenched corruption and to push for the passage of national anticorruption legislation that had been stuck in parliament for decades. The movement failed to achieve that objective, but out of its ashes was born a new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The AAP, founded in 2013, made anticorruption its main focus, choosing as its symbol a broom to represent its goal of cleaning up Indian government. The AAP achieved its first major victory in 2015, when it won a landslide victory in the state elections in Delhi, India’s capital city. Many inside and outside of India naturally wondered: Would the AAP achieve its goals? Could it effectively govern a city of 19 million people, and succeed in curtailing entrenched corruption? After all, the challenges are enormous, and the international track record of anticorruption parties is rather mixed.
The AAP’s journey wasn’t smooth, and its first few months in office were marked by significant infighting and a general perception of dysfunction. But the AAP managed to turn things around, and in the February 2020 elections, the AAP won handily, gaining a decisive majority for the next five years. The AAP’s success is partly due to its popular policies on things like increasing spending on education and reducing the cost of electricity and water. But the AAP also succeeded in the polls because it followed through on its anticorruption agenda. Although it’s always hard to gauge the success of anticorruption efforts, there are two major pieces of evidence that indicate that the AAP really has taken major steps to clean up politics:
Six years ago, the deadliest garment industry accident in modern history killed more than 1,100 people and injured 2,500 in an apparel manufacturing facility, Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh. Perhaps the worst part is that the tragedy was entirely preventable, and the result of corrupt practices by the politically well-connected owner. The Rana Plaza building violated codes, with the four upper floors having been constructed illegally without permits. The foundation was substandard, and despite safety warnings that led shop owners and a bank branch on lower floors to immediately close, owners of the garment factories on the upper floors instructed employees to work the next day to keep up with customer demand. The customers that the garment factory was trying to satisfy? Mango, Primark, Walmart, the Dutch retailer C & A, Benetton, and Cato Fashions, among other recognizable global brands. And yet none of the US brands accepted responsibility for the problems in their supply chains that enabled this disaster (unlike non-US brands that contributed millions of dollars into a victim support fund).
Years later, not much has changed. Despite some recent encouraging developments, the current legal regime still does not do enough to hold international companies responsible for health and safety violations by their suppliers, and two-thirds of corporations continue to turn a blind eye to supply chain corruption. Such corruption can lower production costs and increase profits by enabling suppliers to engage in a wide range of insidious practices, including cutting critical corners on labor, health and safety. And when an accident does happen, companies can walk away free of any liability for the practices of their subcontractors, as in Rana Plaza. The beneficiaries of these corrupt practices are not only the owners of the supply factories, but also the multinational purchasers and their consumers in rich countries, who get cheaper goods at the expense of the health and safety of disadvantaged workers in low-cost manufacturing hubs.
This is ethically unacceptable. And because we cannot expect companies to engage in responsible sourcing on their own volition, the right response is more expansive liability on companies that do not take sufficient steps to ensure clean supply chains. While the ideal solution might be some sort of broad international legal regime, that isn’t going to be feasible anytime soon, meaning that countries like the United States should act unilaterally and create a bill focused on bringing about clean supply chains.
The law I advocate here would have the following features:
In the past few months, there has been a healthy debate on this blog about “golden visa” and “golden passport” (GV/GP) programs, following reports by Transparency International-Global Witness and the European Commission on the corruption risk associated with these programs. In his post a few weeks ago, Professor Stephenson goes even further, contending that such programs carry no economic benefit and should therefore be abolished. I respectfully disagree. Even taking the status quo as is, the $28 billion these programs have brought in over the past decade make them a savvy tool for nations seeking to attract investment. All GV/GP programs are not equal, and there are vast differences in the transparency and potential for abuse across countries. Reforming GV/GP programs with high degrees of risk, as discussed previously on this blog, is a better answer than abolishing them, since the concerns raised are straightforward and addressable.
Professor Stephenson’s post focused only on the economic aspect of GV/GP programs, so my response will do the same, but it is worth noting that a lot of the criticism of these programs comes from the ethical questions they raise over whether one should have the “right to buy citizenship.” Though this objection is not my main focus here, I can’t help but point out the irony of worrying about the unfairness of a system that allows the wealthy to buy citizenship against the background of a system that confers the privileges of citizenship simply by an accident of birth, and in which immigration systems are so badly broken that, for example, immigrants to the US face a 150 year-long waiting time for a green cardthrough routine channels. But my main focus here is on Professor Stephenson’s argument that GV/GP programs lack a sufficient economicbenefit to justify the corruption risk, and on this question, I believe he is mistaken.
Let’s start with some top-line numbers: The sale of EU passports accounted for as much as 5.2% of Cyprus’s GDP in 2017. Portugal’s scheme has delivered close to €4 billion to the economy. Malta enjoys a budget surplus because of its growing trade in residency and citizenship. Over in the Caribbean, income from GV/GP programs has contributed up to 25% of the GDP, and even the majority of government revenue. The outsized impact of these programs is hard to deny. Professor Stephenson does not contest the accuracy of these or similar statistics, but he denies their significance for several reasons, each of which is flawed:
India’s 875 million voters make it the world’s largest democracy. Yet Indian elections, though generally seen as free and fair, have become the country’s “fountainhead of corruption.”Parties and candidates spend billions getting themselves elected—current forecasts predict $8.5 billion will be spent in the 2019 election, making it the most expensive election globally. Much of that money comes from illegal or at least questionable sources, a problem exacerbated by the fact that campaign financing in India is a black box, with no transparency into donors or income sources. Recent changes by the Modi government have made the process even more opaque. And much of the money raised is spent illegally. For example, up to 37% of Indian voters have received money for votes.
The massive amount that politicians are willing to raise and spend to win elections is understandable when the payoff to the winning candidate is considered. Putting aside any ideological or egotistical motives for seeking public office, there’s also a material incentive: studies have found that, in the years following an election, winning candidates’ assets increase by 3-5% more than losing candidates’ assets, and this “winner’s premium” is even higher in more corrupt states and for winners holding ministerial positions. The material benefits of office may also partly explain the alarming percentage of Indian politicians with criminal histories. Currently, over a third of Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of the National Parliament), are facing at least one serious criminal charge, and politicians with cases pending against them are statistically more likely to win elections. Moreover, the ever-greater spending on elections means that winners, in addition to lining their own pockets and saving for the next election, need to repay those who helped them prevail. The more money politicians spend on elections, the more they need to earn back or repay through political favors.
The high payoff to candidates who win elections (often because of the opportunities for corruption) both attracts dishonest individuals to seek office and encourages ever-higher election spending, which in turn inspires corrupt behavior to repay debts, whether through money or political favors. Therefore, any serious attempt to reduce corruption in India has to begin with electoral reform. The constitutional body tasked with administering elections in India is the Election Commission (EC). The EC oversees the election process, and it also can issue advisory opinions (though not binding decisions) regarding the post-election disqualification of sitting MPs and Members of State Legislative Assemblies (MLAs). The EC is also responsible for scrutinizing the election expense reports submitted by candidates. But the EC is in many ways a toothless tiger, able only to recommend actions and electoral reform to Parliament, without any real power to fix the electoral system.
There are, nonetheless, a few things that the EC could do now, acting on its own, to help address at least some of these problems. But more comprehensive and effective reform will require action by the legislature or the Supreme Court.