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Corruption is dominating Indian politics at the moment. Powerful Union government-run agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate are investigating a host of Opposition leaders in the states. The former deputy chief minister of Delhi from the Aam Aadmi Party and the education minister of West Bengal from the Trinamool Congress are in jail. Almost every major Opposition party, from the Bharat Rashtra Samithi to the Congress, is under investigation for corruption.

The Opposition, though it lacks the ability to jail major Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, has made its own allegations of corruption against the ruling party. The just-concluded Parliament session started off with the Opposition making a hue and cry about claims that the Narendra Modi government has unfairly favoured the Adani Group, which is under a cloud after widespread allegations of financial malfeasance. In Karnataka, the opposition also has made corruption a central plank as it attacks the BJP-run state government as the state goes to polls.

With India just a year away from the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, what does this hectic activity around the issue of corruption mean for voters? Will it dominate the polls, edging out topics such as religious and caste identity or standards of living?

The answer, like so much else in India politics is: it’s complicated.

Voters’ perceptions

To begin with, here’s some counterintuitive data: whatever might be the discussion in the media, the Indian voter rarely votes on corruption. Unlike identity or inflation, studies have consistently shown that voters do not place a lot of emphasis on corruption at the ballot box.

For example, a study analysing Lok Sabha candidates in 2004 and 2009 found that as many as 60% of candidates facing cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act won their parliamentary seats. Another more in-depth study used data to refute the widely held notion that corruption had caused the defeat of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2014.

The study found that not many voters knew about the allegations of corruption in coal allocation and 2G spectrum in the first place. Even if they did, it did not change their vote. “The difference in the probability of a voter voting for the BJP after hearing of a scam and one opting for the BJP without having any knowledge of a scam is zero,” the authors wrote.

Another analysis by Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that “corruption does make voters unhappy and angry with political parties, but during elections, the voting decision is not primarily guided by this opinion”.

Anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon abounds. In the 2016 West Bengal elections, for example, the Trinamool had a host of corruption allegations against it. This was in stark contrast to the clean image of the opposition Communists. However, what swung the deal for Mamata Banerjee was that her party had turbocharged rural development after decades of stagnation under the Left. The Bengali voter, it seemed, was fine if her leader was taking a bribe as long as she had good roads, rations and hospitals.

Calculated move

This is an eminently rational strategy, , if you think about it. The vote is the only lever most Indians have to influence the state. Why would the voter waste it on something as abstract to her day-to-day life as big-ticket corruption when she could use it to gather direct state benefits for herself and her family. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the next government will not be corrupt.

However, this hardly means that Indian politicians do not have to be concerned about corruption. Take the case of the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance that began in 2009. While the electorate might have voted on issues other than corruption and, in fact, the allegations of corruption were actually found to untrue, this does not mean they did not harm the government. For one, an unusually belligerent Supreme Court seized the issue to take over crucial parts of governance that lay with the Union government, arbitrarily cancelling the telecom licences at the heart of the controversy.

This, in turn, allowed the Congress-led government to be pummelled everyday in the media. Far from the “godi” or lapdog media that we see today, with television channels obsequiously courting the government, the second term of the United Progressive Alliance saw a media frenzy attack on the Union government.

By the time of the 2014 elections, the constant allegations of corruption gave the United Progressive Alliance government the air of defeat – a damning thing for any first-past-the-post system, where voters are wary of wasting their vote on a losing party. The corruption allegations and the loss of moral prestige that accompanied it allowed voters to air other grievances such as inflation.

Learning from their mistakes

Narendra Modi, who came to power as a result of this situation, has managed to avoid both pitfalls. When it came to allegations of corruption in the BJP government’s purchase of Rafale fighter aircraft from France, for example, the Supreme Court played a role that was the opposite of the one it did during the United Progressive Alliance regime: it delivered a quick clean chit to the Modi government just before the 2019 elections. Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who headed the bench, was later made an MP by the Modi government. Of course, in the current circumstances, most major media houses do not criticise the Modi government on any issue, much less corruption.

With the Modi government still occupying the moral high ground, India’s voters have struggled to articulate even bread and butter grievances such as the lack of employment. This prevents any strong opposition from coalescing. However, this dynamic might not hold in the states, where Modi’s clean image does not roll over to the BJP’s state leaders: a case in point being Karnataka, where the Hindutva party’s government is under attack for corruption.

Despite this, the clearly partisan nature of the central investigative agencies means that corruption allegations against the ruling party might not stick. The BJP, with its vast media resources, will do its best to combat these allegations in the run-up to 2024. The fact that Modi recently characterised attempts at Opposition unity as “the corrupt joining hands” points to that strategy.