If the most recent WikiLeaks revelations about India have the country in an uproar, it's not because they allege anything startlingly new.
Some members of parliament apparently sell their votes for cash? This hardly comes as a news flash for the average Indian. American diplomats, like their counterparts from every country, assess cabinet reshuffles and other major political developments through the prism of their national interest? Yawn. Did American officials who supported the landmark 2008 U.S.-India civil nuclear deal warn their Indian counterparts that the U.S. Congress would frown upon Indian coziness with Iran, and scrutinize its stance toward the Middle Eastern nation's rogue nuclear program? You would have to have been living under a rock to assume otherwise.
That said, the triteness of the revelations does not make the outrage they've triggered any less real. Since last week, when the Chennai-headquartered newspaper The Hindu began front-paging U.S. diplomatic cables about India acquired from Julian Assange, a dismayed nation's response has bubbled up in angry op-eds, agitated television talk shows, and opposition calls for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's resignation. Written with a pungency largely absent in Indian public discourse, the cables capture with startling verisimilitude the freewheeling political culture of the world's largest democracy and second-fastest growing major economy.
Take the most widely quoted cable. In the run-up to a crucial July 2008 parliamentary vote of confidence on the nuclear deal, an alleged aide to Satish Sharma, a senior Congress Party leader known for his proximity to the Gandhi family, purportedly showed a U.S. embassy employee "two chests containing cash," and boasted of a $25 million slush fund "lying around the house for use as pay-offs."
At the time, the going rate for an MP's vote was apparently $2.5 million. Though as the aide, apparently familiar with the murk that marks Indian politics, pointed out, accepting the cash did not necessarily guarantee voting as promised. Another Congress Party insider told an embassy official that then Commerce and Industry minister Minister Kamal Nath was doing his bit for the cause. "Formerly he could only offer small planes as bribes," said the party official, but "now he can pay for votes with jets."
Mr. Sharma and Mr. Nath have both denied any wrongdoing, and to be fair to them the allegations in the leaked cables don't rise above the level of plausible scuttlebutt. Nonetheless, by capping a season of scandal stretching back to the bloated Delhi Commonwealth Games in October, which includes a still unraveling $40 billion telecom scandal and a high-profile real estate scam in Mumbai, the new accusations could not come at a worse time for the government.
They also underscore a deeper anxiety reflected in the newspapers and on television each day: That in the booming new India everything—from pilot's licenses to mining permits to medical degrees—is for sale to the highest bidder. Taken collectively, the scandals paint a picture of a country that has lost its moral bearings.
For now, it seems unlikely that the latest scandal will fell Mr. Singh's government. Few MPs will want to face the electorate again barely two years after the last election, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, beset by infighting and serious allegations of corruption against one of its most prominent leaders, Karnataka Chief Minister B. S. Yeddyurappa, is not in the best position to capitalize on the government's discomfort or the middle class's disgust.
Nonetheless, with investor interest in India slowing sharply—foreign direct investment in 2010 shrunk 32% to $24 billion, less than a quarter of what China received in the same period—India can hardly afford to pretend that it's business as usual. The Supreme Court has stepped in by forcing the government to aggressively pursue former Telecom Minister A. Raja, the most public face of the $40 billion so-called 2G scandal in which the government allegedly sold valuable mobile telephone spectrum at throwaway prices. Suresh Kalmadi, the Congress MP who led the Commonwealth Games debacle, is also under investigation.
But for India to begin to make a serious dent in corruption it must do more than prosecute the most high-profile offenders. To start with, it should accept that in a poor country crass populism cannot be wished away. For instance, last week the ruling DMK party in Tamil Nadu, to which Mr. Raja belongs, released a party manifesto that promises voters, among other things, free mixer-grinders, laptops and bus passes.
Abolishing absurdly low election spending limits and allowing parties to raise as much cash as they need openly from corporate contributors will help by bringing regulations in line with widely accepted reality. In a similar vein, India ought to borrow from Singapore's experience by paying senior civil servants and politicians well not merely by Indian standards but on par with their global peers in the private sector. This will not end corruption, but it will certainly reduce the incentives sharply.
At a deeper cultural level, Indians need to stop making useless distinctions between personal probity and systemic rot. Prime Minister Singh may have never taken, given or witnessed a bribe in his long and distinguished career. But instead of simply graduating from bribing legislators with small planes to bribing them with jets, India must embrace a modern view of corruption—shared by most of the advanced industrialized world—that leaders are judged not merely by how they conduct themselves, but by the kind of conduct they permit on their watch. By that measure, sadly, the famously upright Mr. Singh is a miserable failure.
Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.