Voters crowd outside a polling booth in Basti district, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, 2012. (Jitendra Prakash / Courtesy Reuters)
More than ever, Indians believe that their government is not keeping pace with their expectations. In the last two years, India has seen two groundswells of popular protest in which crowds largely composed of middle-class urbanites have taken to the streets to demand a more accountable and responsive government. Beginning in the summer of 2011, tens of thousands of citizens joined in anticorruption demonstrations led by Anna Hazare, the social activist who agitated for reform after a series of high-profile scandals implicated ruling politicians and their cronies in taking billions of dollars of graft. More recently, thousands assembled to mourn a 23-year-old woman who died after being brutally gang-raped and to demand greater government protection of citizens’ safety.
The moral outrage is entirely justified, and the factors linked to India’s governance woes are well known -- a rise in corruption, cronyism, and criminalism among the ranks of elected officials, and a crushing government bureaucracy. However, the root causes mostly go unexplored. For starters, the apparent increase in corruption and criminalism in India is, in part, the product of two positive developments: increased transparency and rapid economic growth. In addition, the proliferation of elected politicians with criminal records, although deplorable, is a direct response to rational voter choices -- voters select the politicians who they believe can work India’s ineffectual state to their advantage.
In turn, the remedies to these problems are somewhat counterintuitive. Although India is often accused of having too much democracy (a billion and a quarter clamoring voices makes policymaking difficult), it could actually use more: a more engaged citizenry, more institution building, and a better-staffed bureaucracy.
THE BEST DISINFECTANT
In part, Indians feel corruption now more than ever because of improved transparency: dirt is more visible where there is sunlight. Recently, agencies designed to increase government accountability, namely the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), have started
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