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May 13, 2013 6:52 pm

In the world of Indian politics corruption gets your goat

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In election time, unscrupulous politicians start looking to animal spirits, writes James Crabtree

Politicians hit by scandal can go to extraordinary lengths to save their jobs, but it still takes a special kind of desperation for goat worship to seem like your best survival option. Yet this was just the strategy employed by Pawan Bansal, India’s former railway minister, as he sought divine intervention against a growing corruption scandal.

The animal in question was spotted by television camera crews in the driveway of his sizeable New Delhi bungalow. Subsequent footage showed it munching happily on a handful of straw proffered by the minister and his wife.

Hindu mythology suggests that this feeding ritual, known as a puja, can bring good fortune – if not for the goat, which many fear was sacrificed in the name of ministerial longevity shortly afterwards. But it was not to be because Mr Bansal was sacked late on Friday by a government worried that his scandal could worsen even its already considerable reputation for corrupt practices.

The minister had been under pressure since his nephew was arrested in possession of what police said was a Rs9m ($164,000) bribe. The money is alleged to have been offered in return for help securing a position that just happened to be squarely within his uncle’s fiefdom.

Mr Bansal denies wrongdoing, as does his nephew. But even without the police evidence, many in India found the family link sufficient grounds for suspicion.

The country is by now wearily familiar with graft allegations involving political leaders and their relatives, almost all of whom are assumed to be on the take in one way or another. What are sometimes known as “jobs for sale” scams are one option, but there are plenty of others, involving favourable access to land or regulatory approvals.

Worse, such activities are expected to increase over the next year when the political class looks to raise money in advance of national elections. These will be the largest in human history, as is the case with every national Indian poll. But such sizeable festivals of democracy are expensive too, requiring plenty of illicit fundraising.

Widespread graft is viewed as routine in India, but Mr Bansal’s episode caused a degree of outrage nonetheless, if only for his brazen attempts to hang on to his job. Ultimately, the government’s decision to sack him seemed apt: if the goat was indeed sacrificed, it seems only right that the minister shared his fate.

. . .

Concrete evidence

Although widely assumed, dodgy dealings between Indian politicians and business leaders are often preciously difficult to prove. But evidence can be found, as with one especially ingenious piece of academic research examining, of all things, the cement industry.

“The way you often hear this story is that politicians will park their money with people involved in real estate,” explains Devesh Kapur, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who co-authored the study. “And they are confident the real estate guys aren’t going to run away with it, because they still need the politicians to get more land in the future.”

Come election time, however, the politicians call in their favours, asking business contacts to stump up the costs for everything from rallies to transport for party workers.

The hypothesis was that real estate magnates suddenly forced to plough scarce capital into electioneering would find themselves short of cash for other activities, not least of which involved putting up buildings. “Cement is an indispensable ingredient for construction, and so we looked for data to see if cement demand would fall around election time. And it did. In fact, the link shows up beautifully,” he says.

Mr Kapur is now hunting for further topics that might help him unearth dubious practices. Data on flight patterns for India’s growing fleet of corporate jets is high on his wish list, for instance, to test a theory that the country’s tycoons allow political friends to borrow their aircraft before elections to ferry around packages of illegally raised money.

“Mr Bansal was sacked because people thought his relative had taken a bribe, but really he should have been sacked because he was not very smart,” he says, referring to the relatively small amount of cash with which his nephew is alleged to have been caught. “Some of the other guys are playing a much, much bigger game. And in India, that is the real tragedy.”

james.crabtree@ft.com

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