A Key Arrest in India’s Commonwealth Games Scandal — Big Change or Big Show?

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Is India serious about getting rid of corruption? The government is certainly using a much heavier hand. Suresh Kalmadi, the chief of the scandal-ridden 2010 Commonwealth Games was arrested yesterday in New Delhi on charges of conspiracy. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation alleges that he manipulated the bidding process for the timing system of the Games, to ensure that a Swiss company would win the contract. Kalmadi has denied any wrongdoing.

His arrest, coming just six months after the closing ceremonies, looks like progress in a country where corruption cases can drag on for decades. In addition to the legal charges, Kalmadi was  suspended from the Congress Party (he is a member of Parliament from Pune) and stripped of his leadership role within the Party. Here’s what Congress Party spokesman Manish Tewari said after the arrest, according to AP:

 “Let there be no ambiguity…appropriate, demonstrable and visible action will be taken.”

The operative words here are “demonstrable and visible.” While investigators and the courts handle the legal case against Kalmadi, the Congress Party’s leaders are under intense pressure — from the public and the opposition — to take substantive action on their own to root out corruption. But aside from making a public spectacle of his arrest (he has only been taken into custody and will likely seek bail), there is much more that the Congress Party could do to make India’s government more transparent. It could give law enforcement agencies the power to bring corruption cases against government officials without requiring the consent of the government. It could require that all public officials declare their assets. Those who already do, like MPs, could be required to account for sudden, exponential increases in their assets. India’s chief economic advisor, Kaushik Basu, has even floated the controversial idea of making bribe-giving legal in certain cases. His reasoning is that it would give bribe-givers an incentive to expose and testify against bribe-takers.

Whatever you think of the idea, it certainly is a novel way to push the Indian government to actually act against corruption rather than just give the appearance of doing so. Appearances do matter, of course. In that case, perhaps someone in the Congress Party might suggest that Kalmadi resign from the Parliamentary Committee on Ethics.