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

Some Thoughts on Corruption

Tuesday 6 September 2011, by Mukul Dube

A friend (another grouchy old man like me) says that it is impossible to wipe out corruption in India. He says that we Indians always want things out of turn, we want things and privileges to which we are not entitled, that we are unwilling to wait for others or with them. He gives the example of a queue at a post office, which is never straight and orderly because no one wants to wait his turn and so tries to jump ahead. Another example is the car driver who is not content to stay behind the vehicle in front but will always try to sneak past it from this side or that, even when that blocks other traffic.

Another friend holds that corruption is, in India, a way of life, something that has been around for centuries or longer. My own experience at age nine bears this out. I was witness to money changing hands for the grant of what was no more than an ordinary right. This puzzled me and I sought an explanation. The only answer I got centred around the word “dastoor”. Its meaning was that bribes had always been given and would always be given: and the ordinary people should just go on giving them without raising irrelevant and unseemly questions.

Later, in my twenties, I saw that villagers in western UP knew exactly what they would have to spend to get what they wanted from the sarkari persons in charge: not privileges but actions which were the duty of the officials. In the same way, the touts at the Tilak Marg Regional Transport Office in Delhi could rattle off from memory the current “rate chart” for different services. The official rate chart was painted on a large board, but that was of no value to someone going for a driver’s licence or a duplicate registration certificate.

For decades we have had the myth of the “trickle-down effect”, which says that if the rich make money, some of that will go down to the poor. This is, of course a justification for not having arrangements to ensure that the moneyed and privileged do not feast overmuch on the labour of the toiling people.

In absolute terms, the poor do gain as a result of this “trickling down”. It can be asked, however, if their gain bears any relation to what is gained by the rich and powerful. Today’s India gives a clear answer. While the middle class can have modern motor vehicles and consumer durables comparable to those in the West, the labourer or the mill worker or the artisan still cannot afford a cheap bicycle, only partly because even the cheapest bicycles are no longer cheap. Nor can the tailor who mends my clothes afford the hundreds of rupees now needed to treat his child’s simple viral fever: to him the many luxurious new hospitals that people crow about are as irrelevant as fancy hotels where tea and a samosa would mean two days’ wages.

It is said by supporters of the Lokpal project that all will benefit if corruption is checked: the salary earner and the halvai and (to be “politically correct”) the safai karmachari too. A silly dream which cannot ever be permitted by the crowning vileness of Indian society: the caste system and, in particular, the idea of untouchability.

The reality today is that Dalits must pay the same bribes as everyone else, but they must also purchase a temporary exemption from Dalithood, a one-time licence to not be discriminated against. Even if the bribes are removed, they will continue to be required to pay for the right to be treated as human beings. I speak here only of equality under the state. The larger and more funda-mental matter of equality in society cannot easily be bought, and for the foreseeable future the Dalits will continue to be discriminated against, to be exploited, to have atrocities perpetrated upon them.

I agree with those who hold that the underlying inhumanity is the worst form of corruption, which no Lokpal can dent even slightly. Our societal arrangements are corrupt at the core: no other evil in the whole world even comes close.

The Constitution of India is not perfect, but there is no denying that it has done much good for “low” castes and for religious and other minorities. If nothing else, it has protected them from the many bad things that could have happened to them. There are many who see in the present Jan Lokpal proposals a threat to that document, which has formed the basis of India’s admittedly faulty society and democracy since Independence. They fear, and I think with justification, that the even limited benefits of protective discrimination will be taken away from them.

The talk we have heard of “licence-permit raj” is one expression of the view that it is the bureaucracy that is the root of corruption in India. The size and powers of officialdom have been growing constantly (I am reminded of the old joke that this will not stop until every Indian is, from infancy, a sarkari afsar). It is difficult to see how corruption, if indeed it is a product of bureaucracy, can be banished by adding yet another arm to that already very bloated structure. Simple logic tells us that more officials can only mean more bribery.

Given that Shri A. Raja, Shri Kalmadi and a few others are in prison because of the existing laws, it would seem rational to ask not for a gigantic separate mechanism but only for the laws we already have to be implemented rigorously. This will probably need amendments and further legislation: but it will be far less damaging than the setting up of an edifice with an unheard-of concentration of powers that will place it above Parliament itself. There is truth in the adage that two workers cannot at once use the same hammer on the same piece of wood.

NO discussion of corruption in India can at this time be complete without speaking of Shri Kisan Baburao Hazare. Here is an extract from Mukul Sharma’s widely read article on him: “A belief system of force and punishment, liberal use of Hindu religious symbols, strict rules and codes, evocation of nationalism and ultra-nationalism, ‘pure’ morality and caste hierarchies, with a marginalisation of women, Muslims and Dalits, form the core of his village regeneration.” (http://kafila.org/2011/04/12/the-making-of-anna-hazare/)

Despite Hazare’s denials in the face of Congress accusations, there has been a connection between him and the RSS. Here is a report on Swayamsevak Narendra Damodardas Modi: “Even as he thanked activist Anna Hazare for having praised his rural development activities in the State, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi claimed it was the RSS that had first educated him about Hazare’s work in villages.” (http://www.hindustantimes.com/Heard-of-Hazare-through-RSS-Modi/Article1-684107.aspx) The RSS is not known for praising people whom it does not support totally: and those are usually members of its “family”. Apparently it praised Hazare constantly, for Modi wrote to him, “national leaders of the RSS who came to attend our meetings invariably discussed your rural development activities...” (Ibid.)

I cannot resist the temptation to reproduce Hazare’s denial of any association with the RSS, a marvel of juvenile Gandhian-military psychiatry. “Social activist Anna Hazare on Saturday slammed the Congress for alleging that his agitation was backed by the BJP and the RSS. ‘People who are saying such things should be sent to mental hospital,’ he said.” (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article2375617.ece)

Some say that the Hindutva brigade is “riding piggy-back” on the Anna Wave, while others say that it is guiding the wave from behind the scenes. I see no reason why both should not be correct. I see no reason why Hazare should not be described as essentially a mascot. That he seems to be having a grand time is neither here nor there.

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