How Can India Cleanse Its Politics of Dirty Money?

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.

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India’s Futile Attempt to Root Out Sextortion Through Anticorruption Legislation

A recent series of brutal rape cases in India, which attracted international media coverage and provoked domestic protests, seems to have finally prompted India’s government to take more seriously the problem of sexual violence. For instance, India’s Parliament has created a number of new sex-related crimes—stalking, disrobing, voyeurism—and is now considering an executive order introducing the death penalty for rapists of children under the age of 12. Strikingly, even India’s new anticorruption legislation—the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act, 2018 (Amendment)—tries to address the sexual violence problem as well. The Amendment, passed in July 2018, introduced a number of changes to the country’s thirty-year-old anticorruption legislation (the PCA), which criminalizes bribery involving public officials. Among the changes is an expansion of what corruption and bribery can entail, to include not just money or material goods, but also sexual favors. Previously, the PCA had defined bribery as providing a “financial or other advantage” to public officials, but in response to criticism that this language was too narrow, the Amendment replaced this phrase with the term “undue advantage,” and further specified that “undue advantage” is not restricted to those advantages that are “pecuniary” or “estimable in money.” This means that the law, while not explicitly mentioning sex, now apparently covers the offer, request, or extortion of sexual favors as something covered by the criminal prohibition on bribery of or by a public official.

On its face, expanding the scope of the anticorruption legislation to include corrupt sexual extortion, or “sextortion,” seems to be a move in the right direction. And indeed there’s a good case to be made that recognizing the extortion of sexual favors not only as a crime of sexual assault, but also as a form of public corruption, is compelling. But in fact, by implicitly treating sextortion as essentially the same as the extortion of monetary bribes, the Amendment will do little to combat sextortion as a form of corruption, and in fact is likely to do more harm than good. There are three interrelated reasons for this: Continue reading

Corporate Liability for Corruption in India: Some Notes on Reform

Last month, the Indian legislature passed sweeping amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act. If accepted in their present form, those amendments portend a major shift in India’s antiquated legal regime pursuing corporate criminal liability, making it much easier to go after corporations on corruption charges. (The amendments make other changes as well, which I have discussed elsewhere. Here, I only focus on the changes that would pertain to corporate liability for corruption offenses.) The amendments do make some welcome changes, but they do not go far enough to update India’s antiquated legal regime for corporate criminal liability. I’ll touch on three features of this regime and discuss how the new amendments do or do not effect significant changes. Continue reading

India and Ireland Enact Anticorruption Compliance Program Laws

Legislation just approved in both Ireland and India create a powerful incentive for businesses to establish anticorruption compliance programs.  Both give firms a defense to criminal charges if one of their employees or agents is caught paying a bribe. Section 18 of the Irish Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018 provides that a “body corporate” can avoid liability if it can prove that “it took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of the offence.”  Under section 9 of India’s Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill 2018, a “commercial organization” escapes liability if it proves it “had in place adequate procedures in compliance of such guidelines as may be prescribed [by the Attorney General] to prevent persons associated with it from undertaking such conduct.”

The compliance provisions differ, as the quoted language shows, in two respects.  India imposes liability on any “commercial organization,” which includes not only corporations but partnerships and business associations “of any kind,” whereas the Irish law is limited to corporations alone.  Second, while the Irish Minister for Justice and Equality has the discretion to issue guidance on what constitutes “all reasonable steps” and “all due diligence” to prevent employee bribery, the Indian Central Government must, “in consultation with the concerned stakeholders . . .  prescribe such guidelines as may be considered necessary which can be put in place for compliance by [commercial] organizations.”

The Indian requirement follows a report of the Indian Law Commission on an earlier version of the bill.  Noting the “immediate and significant impact” the bill would have on corporations, particularly smaller ones, and that both the U.K. Bribery Act and the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act require law enforcement authorities to issue compliance guidance, the Commission recommended that the liability provision cum compliance defense be effective only once the Central Government published guidance on what was expected of companies wanting to assert a compliance defense.  An earlier post noted the burgeoning literature on compliance programs by governments, international organizations, and commentators alike evidences a broad consensus on what constitutes an effective compliance program.  Hence in practice the requirement shouldn’t lead to any real difference between what will be required under Indian law and what other nations with a compliance law already require.

The Nations with Anticorruption Compliance Laws table shows Ireland and India are now the fourteenth and fifteenth nations to enact legislation creating a defense to a criminal charge for businesses that have a compliance program.  (Readers are asked to submit a comment if I missed any country.)  With the six countries plus Quebec that require certain firms to have a compliance program, and with the United States, which both tempers corporate liability for firms with an “effective” compliance program and requires those winning public contracts of any appreciable size or duration to have one, the number of jurisdictions with some type of compliance program law now stands at 23.

What are the other 163 parties to UNCAC waiting for?  Why aren’t they enlisting their private sector in the fight against corruption?  Do they really think they can win the fight on their own?

No Swords, But an Absolute Shield: India’s Over-broad Judicial Immunity Against Corruption Prosecutions

Over the past four decades, India’s “activist” higher judiciary (the state High Courts and the federal Supreme Court) has significantly altered the balance of power between branches of government. This has been done by liberalizing the rules on who can petition the court for relief, as well as expanding the scope of the judicial relief that can be provided. Today it is entirely normal for the Court to take up the task of monitoring the execution of government policies as well as the progress of criminal investigations. But this expansion of judicial power has not been matched by a coequal expansion of oversight mechanisms to ensure that judicial power is not abused—a significant problem given the serious corruption problem in India’s courts (see also here). Certain problems with the court system have attracted the attention of both commentators and the Parliament, including the Chief Justice’s unfettered power to assign cases to different judges and the system for appointments and impeachment. Surprisingly, far less attention has been paid to another instance of no oversight over the judicial branch: the doctrine of judicial immunity.

Across countries, judicial officers are conferred broad judicial immunity to allow courts to fearlessly perform their functions. Significantly though, in most countries this protection applies only to acts in furtherance of the “judicial function”; for acts outside that scope, judges are subject to the law just like ordinary citizens. Not so in India. In 1991, the Indian Supreme Court created a rule that no criminal investigation whatsoever could begin against a member of the higher judiciary without first “consulting” the Chief Justice of India (or, if allegations are against the Chief Justice, consulting with any other Supreme Court Justice). According to the Court, this rule was needed to protect judges from “frivolous prosecution and unnecessary harassment.”

Such a broad judicial immunity rule makes no sense, either generally or in the Indian context. While it’s reasonable to prevent a judge from being prosecuted for how she decided a case, it makes no sense to protect her for having murdered somebody, or for taking a bribe. Indeed, in addition to its other obvious problems, this broad judicial immunity rule creates serious difficulties for efforts to fight endemic judicial corruption in India. Continue reading

The Urgent Need for Innovation in India’s Public-Sector Appointments Process

A public sector job is one of the most prized forms of employment in India, for a variety of reasons including prestige, attractive entry-level pay, a multitude of employment benefits, and unparalleled job security. The selection process is governed by a constitutionally-mandated scheme involving competitive examinations, and the competition for places is maddeningly intense, with millions of aspirants vying for a handful of vacancies; many candidates spend years “waiting” to clear the exam. The competitive examination system for public service appointments dates back to a 19th-century effort by the British Imperial Civil Service to crack down on corruption and patronage; after independence, India choses to retain this selection method, for similar anticorruption reasons. But it hasn’t worked: despite “merit-based” appointments, the Indian public service has remained plagued with corruption and bribery—and all too often, as in the recent  multi-billion-dollar scams that hit Indian public-sector banks, public officials are at the heart of criminal conspiracies.

Common explanations for the persistence of corruption in the Indian civil service are the relatively low pay of government jobs (notwithstanding the benefits and perks), as well as the excessive size of India’s public sector overall. Both points are valid, but we also need to consider problems with the selection process itself. Worryingly, research has suggested that the Indian public sector attracts corrupt candidates (see here and here), which contributes to the persistence of a culture of corruption in the civil service. Two reforms to the current selection system could potentially help reduce this problem: Continue reading

The “Master of the Roster”: Reforming the Role of the Chief Justice of India

“There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution have been assigned by the chief justices of this court selectively to the benches ‘of their preference’ without any rational basis for such assignment.” This sharp critique of the Supreme Court of India was not leveled by a losing appellant or civil society group, but rather by Justice Jasti Chelameswar. On January 12, 2018, Justices Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur, and Kurian Joseph, the four most senior justices of the Supreme Court of India (other than the Chief Justice), took the extraordinary step of speaking to the public about their concern with bias in how Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra was assigning cases. The four justices accused Chief Justice Misra of selectively setting benches to shape the outcome of particular cases, which not only cuts against the rule of law and fundamental fairness, but also implicates broader concerns of judicial corruption. In publically criticizing the assignment practices of the current Chief Justice, these Justices set off an unprecedented institutional crisis for the court. Stabilizing the institution and combating corruption and bias requires serious action, including reducing the unilateral power the CJI has over case assignment.

To appreciate the significance of the CJI’s power of case assignment, and the ways this power can be abused, a bit of background on the Court is necessary. The Supreme Court of India is comprised of the CJI and up to 30 justices, although it currently only has 24 serving justices. The Court hears cases in division benches (comprised of two or three justices), and these division benches come together to form a constitutional bench (comprised of five or more justices) to settle fundamental questions of law. The CJI has the sole authority to set up division benches and assign cases, resulting in the label of the CJI as the “master of the roster.” That authority can be—and allegedly has been—abused. For example, in the Prasad Educational Trust case, although allegations of bribes paid to fix the outcomes of Supreme Court cases implicated Chief Justice Misra, he nonetheless listed the case in front of himself and several relatively junior Justices. When asked by an attorney in the case to recuse himself, the Chief Justice refused and threatened to hold the attorney in contempt.

In response to the criticisms leveled by his four colleagues regarding biased assignment of cases, Chief Justice Misra took a striking step of publicizing, for the first time, the Supreme Court’s roster, which details which types of cases will be heard by which justices. The publically released roster system, which took effect on February 5 and was recently altered, assigns cases based on subject category to different justices. For example, the Chief Justice himself is assigned, among other categories, social justice matters, election matters, contempt of court matters, habeas corpus matters, and public interest litigation (PIL) cases. The roster details subject categories for the twelve most senior justices of the Supreme Court, and there are overlapping categories (e.g. criminal matters, civil matters, etc.) between the justices. But while publication of the roster certainly makes the assignment process more transparent, it nevertheless falls short of addressing the CJI’s unchecked power and discretion in allocating cases for four primary reasons:

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