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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 37, September 3, 2011

In a Society that Bribes God Himself, Corruption becomes Part of Life

Tuesday 6 September 2011, by T J S George

The ultimate question remains: Can corruption be abolished by law? We are a society in which dowry and child marriage and untouchability and khap panchayat atrocities continue despite laws banning them. They continue because they are deeply ingrained in the national culture and the political will required to wipe them out is simply not there.

Ditto with corruption. Kautilya said: “It is impossible for a government servant not to eat up at least a bit of the King’s revenue.” He famously listed 40 ways in which revenue officers embezzled money, from pratibandha (creating obstacles) to apahara (stealing). He worked out impressively cruel ways to punish the corrupt. It helped. But that political will disappeared with him.

Baksheesh is a coinage of India (Mughal vintage). Its ubiquity turned it into an English word. The Mughals also witnessed the system of field commanders taking bribes to win or lose battles. Robert Clive used this to devastating effect.

British history books taught us that Clive’s victory in the Battle of Plassey won India for the Empire. It was hardly a battle. The Nawab of Bengal’s field commander, Mir Jafar, was generously bribed by Clive whereupon Jafar surrendered with his troops.

Clive and his successor, Warren Hastings, turned plunderers, encouraged by the climate and culture of India.

Flabbergasted by the vast wealth with which Clive returned to Britain, the Parliament there held him to account. His response was that, considering the wealth available in India, “I stand astonished at my own moderation.”

Hastings, impeached for being obscenely rich, was acquitted after a seven-year trial. But look at some of the phrases prosecutor Edmund Burke used to describe Hastings: “Captain-general of iniquity”, a heart “gangrened to the core”, “ravenous vulture devouring the carcasses of the dead”.

What the British did the Maharajahs continued, ravenously devouring the living carcasses of their subjects.

Extortionate taxes of princely India were a scandal. They levied duties on trees, cattle, marriages. In Travancore, where the Sree Padmanabha Temple treasures have become a marvel, taxes were levied, based on size, on women’s breasts.

No doubt officials had plenty of scope for amicable negotiations. High taxes were always a sure way to promote corruption.

TO all this must be added the hallowed Indian tradition of bribing God to grant us favours. Bhakti is a powerful force in our everyday life and we make it a point to propitiate our chosen God with hundies placed anonymously, jewelled crowns donated conspicuously and novenas offered arduously. It has gone deep into our mental make-up that God’s blessings can be purchased. It follows that a Minister’s blessings can also be bought though Ministers may charge
higher rates.

History has stood still for us, but time has not. Kautilya, whose count stopped at 40, will be shocked if he were to see how corruption has expanded in scope, range, size and potential in modern India. We pay 5 billion US $ annually as bribes (Transparency International figure for 2005; it must be double that now since mega scams like the CWG and 2-G have raised the stakes sky-high).

Corruption is today accepted as part of life. To the government it is not a problem; only when its hands are forced, it takes action— reluctant half-measures. We have become immune even to the moral dimensions of corrup-tion. Anna Hazare’s big strength was the moral power of his persona. He jeopardised it by assuming rigid positions and setting an impossible deadline for passing his Jan Lokpal Bill. When pressure tactics become inseparable from blackmail tactics, they lose their moral force and become another form of corruption.

We all think that corruption is something that other people practice. In fact it is systemic in our social structure and our public life; everyone, willingly or otherwise, consciously or otherwise, is a participant. The real issue is not this Bill or that law. The real issue is: How do we change ourselves?

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