The problem

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Karmaye vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshu kadachana.

The Bhagwad Gita

SOME years back when, as our contribution to the golden jubilee of Indian independence, we decided to work on a book on corruption (Foul Play: Chronicles of Corruption 1947-97), we were accused of a negative mindset, a fixation to play the current-day Katherine Mayo. ‘Hardly the way to celebrate a national landmark,’ we were told. There were other, more mundane objections. ‘It’s hardly a secret that everyone in power is corrupt. What is there to add? It’s passe.’ The greater apprehension was that the chronicling might contribute to the glorification of the corrupt, much in the way the ‘angry young man against the system’ films of the ’70s glorified the anti-hero. ‘Why, you might even add to their repertoire of strategies.’

Tehelka proved, whatever else it may or may not have done, that public fascination with corruption rarely palls. And perchance, if you can capture the ‘act’ on film, you are guaranteed a sellout audience, more so if the image is of the powerful and well-known. There is the salacious pleasure of being proven right; there is also a deepening of distress. Is nothing sacrosanct? Yesterday the lathi-wielding cop, the clerk in the sarkari office, the MTNL linesman; today, the army officer. Do we stop at nothing?

One may wish that there would be more anger. But if the image of Bhavana Pande, co-accused along with B.P. Verma, our senior-most revenue official, is any indication – the flashing teeth, the confident victory sign – the corrupt hardly feel trepidation about public reaction. If anything, many of the accused remain defiant. Jayalalitha, despite being debarred from contesting elections after being convicted of corruption can, with confidence, assert that the ‘people’ want her back, and in fact has been sworn in as chief minister, constitutional proprieties be dammed. Laloo Yadav, another accused, waxes eloquent about conspiracies and continues to rule via his wife.

No one has forgotten the images of stacks of banknotes found in telecom minister Sukh Ram’s house. Narasimha Rao, whose regime marked a new high in corruption scandals, including the remarkable urea scam, remains firmly ensconced as a respectable senior statesman. If anything, there is hardly a regime or a political party, including the Marxists, which has remained untainted by suspicion of sleaze.

Is the message that corruption – as graft, bribe, amassing unaccounted wealth – does not matter, not at least when seeking public vindication through elections? Is, if we focus on the misuse or misappropriation of public office or property, the feeling that ‘rulers’ are entitled to a special dispensation? That, as so evocatively captured in Premchand’s Namak ka Daroga, ‘yeh sab to unka haq hai’. Nevertheless, the concern refuses to die out. Be it the 1989 V.P. Singh campaign on Bofors, or the BJP claim of being a party with a difference, the hope of inheriting a political class that will be more concerned with public good than private interest remains.

But, if the cancer has continued to spread relentlessly and we have only added to the cast of dubious characters – from the underpaid babu and the topidhari neta to the sophisticated corporate executive – it is only because of our systemic inability to successfully prosecute the corrupt. Witness the brazenness with which the Enron Corporation can admit to expenditures incurred on ‘educating’ Indian decision-makers when negotiating the DPC contract, the yearly pocketing of excise by cigarette manufacturers, or the diversion of fertiliser subsidy from the farmer to fertiliser companies.

The above, incidentally, is often not seen as corruption, only smart business practices. Matchfixing in cricket may not be on, manipulating tax structures at the level of policy formulation or evasion with the help of smart chartered accountants and lawyers definitely is. The practices might even make it to the MBA courses.

Are we then fated to be hapless victims of a process – widespread, deep-rooted, hydra-headed, one which has demonstrated immense versatility in reinventing itself in the search for new avenues in new contexts? We believe not. No matter what Orientalists claim, it is not that we as a people or culture are inherently predisposed towards a bending of public rules, norms and procedures for private gain. Nor can we explain away the phenomena by asserting that it is global, across space and time, that even Kautilya in the Arthashastra had to devote space to measures to control corruption. Similarly, characterizing corruption as a ‘weapon of the weak’, a strategy to redistribute social wealth, is no answer.

The fact is, and comparative analysis helps explicate this, corruption is both a systemic and individual phenomenon. The rules and procedures for generating wealth, the rights and entitlements of citizens, the degree of openness in the systems of governance and rules, and incentives and disincentives for ensuring that those in public positions stick to the straight and narrow do matter. Reform demands a strategy and studying successful cases helps.

Singapore, in less than a generation, was able to convert a corrupt colonial bureaucracy into one envied by all. It started by changing the earlier patrimonial system of recruitment and promotion, one which foregrounded loyalty to another based on merit and performance. The city state also enhanced compensation beyond private sector levels to reduce temptation while simultaneously trimming numbers to keep overall expenditures in check. Hong Kong reformed its police by involving the public, facilitating the filing of complaints, ensuring protection to those who did, and guaranteeing quick results. Despite the entrenched role of Triads, those who identify the corrupt today do so openly. Equally important was the role of the Public Education Cell – facilitating a process in which citizens both know about and are encouraged to exercise their rights.

Even Japan, forever in the news for corruption scandals about its politicians, has successfully maintained a silk curtain between the political class and the officialdom. Monies, and large amounts, may exchange hands but not in the dealing with ordinary citizens. Surely given the frequency with which we hear complaints about political interference, there is something to learn. Solutions are possible if there is a will.

In our own case, it is not that we lack knowledge of either what enhances corrupt practices or what could be done to reduce their incidence. There are dozens of reports with detailed recommendations on checking political, bureaucratic, fiscal and police corruption. So far, action if any has remained half-hearted, and since few have faith in self-regulation the emphasis has been on deterrents and disincentives. Which in turn raises the question of policing the police.

Reforming rules and procedures is one answer. Ensuring transparency through freedom of information is another. Strengthening the criminal-justice system to ensure speedy resolution of disputes/complaints is an obvious need. Nevertheless, macro-reforms need to be matched by a personnel policy – of ensuring that the right people are in the right jobs, and that they have the freedom to act without fear of undue reprisal.

None of the above is likely to happen to any significant degree unless we, the citizens, become active subjects. Recently, a public interest litigation sought directions from the Delhi High Court for modifications in the electoral law, necessitating every contestant to a public office to file a statement of qualifications, income/assets, and criminal record. This was not to be a means to debar some, but as public information so that we, as citizens, could be facilitated in choosing ‘cleaner’ representatives. Though the Election Commission backed the move, the Union government opposed the High Court directive. Why?

The Right to Information Campaign which took off from Rajasthan and has now spread across the country, involved a wide cross-section of common people demanding transparency in public expenditures. It also innovated with forms of public audit. The movement has impelled many state governments to bring in a Right to Information Act, with a national act on the anvil. This should help.

An unintended consequence of globalization has been both access to knowledge of other contexts and practices as also unusual linkages across borders to pressure governments as well as corporations. Much as some may find it strange, best practices impel replication as much as crime does.

Nothing, however, is as important as the desire to be engaged, to not accept the status quo as given, to struggle. This issue of Seminar is a modest attempt at giving strength to the growing movement for accountability.