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India’s Selective Rage Over Corruption

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By Falakyar Askari:

India is no longer considered a soft state as political scientists once used to call it. It has now become a kleptocracy, a consideration state, where everything to be had can be had for a consideration! The picture that emerges is that of a great country in a state of moral decay.

However, India, the sleeping giant of an economy, is at last, slowly stirring from its long night of slumber, drugged as it has been for decades with the opiate of corruption. This, amazing sub-continent with its mosaic of colours, cultures, contrasts and maddening contradiction, always has, thanks to the vast quantities of its own indigenously manufactured red tape and venal politicians, been held in thrall for so long.

It is only now, and that too hesitantly, that India is realizing the dreaded menace in which it has entangled itself — the menace of corruption. People have begun talking and the outrage is quite apparent. But, do we realize the double standards of the so called “civil society” headed by Mr Hazare and the largest section of the population — the selective outrage over corruption!

The best thing about Indian politicians is that they make you feel you are a better person. Not surprisingly, Indians often derive their moral confidence not through the discomfort of examining their own actions, but from regarding themselves as decent folks looted by corrupt, villainous politicians and government servants.

This is at the heart of a self-righteous middle-class uprising against political corruption, a television news drama that reached its inevitable climax in Delhi on 5th April, 2011 when the rural social reformer Anna Hazare was about to set out for his death fast — the second one he had attempted last year to press his demand for a powerful anti-corruption agency.

He was arrested by the police, ostensibly in the interest of law and order.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his Independence Day address to the nation, took digs at Mr. Hazare and his tactic of using hunger strikes to twist the arm of an elected government. Mr. Singh said that he did not have “a magic wand” to end corruption in India.

The anti-corruption movement has the simplicity of a third-rate fable.

There are the good guys (the reformers and the average Indian citizen) and the bad guys (the politicians, bureaucrats and government servants). But the real story is not a fable but art cinema.

Indians have a deep and complicated relationship with corruption. As in any long marriage, it is not clear whether they are happily or unhappily married. The country’s economic system is fused with many strands of corruption and organized systems of tax evasion. The middle class is very much a part of this.

Most Indians have paid a bribe. Most Indian businesses cannot survive or remain competitive without stashing away undeclared earnings. Almost everybody who has sold a house has taken one part of the payment in cash and evaded tax on it. Yet, the branding of corruption is so powerful that Indians moan the moment they hear the word. The comic hypocrisy of it all was best evident in the past few months as the anti-corruption movement gathered unprecedented middle-class support.

Ms Kiran Bedi, who makes a big hullabaloo about the prevailing corruption, herself, allegedly fraudulently secured a seat in AIIMS against the Mizoram quota for her daughter. She stayed in Mizoram for just two years and got a “Permanent Resident Certificate” fraudulently, as alleged.

When Mr. Hazare went on a hunger strike in April, 2011 to protest against political corruption, the film stars of Mumbai added much glamour to his cause by coming out in unambiguous support. Two months later, when a yoga instructor called Baba Ramdev went on a fast demanding that the government investigate “black money” hidden in foreign accounts, the film stars went silent. For good reason!

Following Mr. Ramdev’s fast, when the government agreed to investigate Indian money hidden in foreign banks, The Times of India ran an intriguing essay that argued that the law should make a distinction between the “black money” of corrupt politicians, earned through kickbacks, and the “black money” of businessmen who had moved their cash abroad years ago to save themselves from unreasonably high tax rates in socialist India. The essay implied that corrupt politicians were the real evil and that the tax-evading businessmen were just smart.

Corruption is such an integral part of Indian society that the chief economic adviser to the government, Kaushik Basu, had suggested legalizing the payment of bribes. In an informal way, Indian society does grant legitimacy to the bribe-payer because “bribe-payer” is a description that fits most of the country, including many of Mr.Hazare’s nicely dressed supporters. This legitimacy is a bit absurd when extended to corporations.

If the lament of Indians is that political corruption pilfers public resources, then who are its chief beneficiaries? It is the companies that secure licenses at discounted rates in exchange for kickbacks.

But the public rage is directed only at the middlemen — the politicians.

There are several reasons for this. Among them is the plain fact that many of the new supporters of the anti-corruption movement are corporate executives themselves, and there is a common perception that, while a company has to be practical, a politician has to be virtuous!

Also, the mainstream Indian news media are efficiently controlled by corporations, which can threaten to pull advertisements in the face of any negative coverage.

Among the millions of understandably furious people who thronged to Jantar Mantar to support Anna Hazare and his team, corruption was presented as a moral issue, not a political one, or a systemic one – not as a symptom of the disease but the disease itself. There were no calls to change or dismantle a system that was causing the corruption. Perhaps this was not surprising because many of those middle-class people who flocked to Jantar Mantar and much of the corporate-sponsored media who broadcast the gathering, calling it a “revolution” – India’s Tahrir Square – had benefited greatly from the economic reforms that have led to corruption on this scale. (The same media has in the past ignored rallies of hundreds of thousands of poor people who have gathered in Delhi in the past because their demands did not suit the corporate agenda). It was not surprising then, that several corporate CEOs generously donated lakhs of rupees to support the campaign, cell phone companies weighed in with free SMS — here was their chance to undo the beating the public image of the corporate sector and corporate media had taken when the 2G scam hit the news.

When corruption is viewed fuzzily, as just a touchy-feely “moral” problem then everybody can happily rally to the cause — fascists, democrats, anarchists, god-squadders, day-trippers, the right, the left and even the deeply corrupt, who are usually the most enthusiastic demonstrators. It’s a pot that is easy to make but much easier to break. Anna Hazare threw the first stone at his own pot when he shocked his supporters from the left by rolling Narendra Modi onto centre-stage, in his “Development Chief Minister” clothes. Leaving aside the debate on Modi’s extremely dubious achievements in the field of “development” – many of us were left to wonder whether we were being offered a supposedly incorruptible fascist as an alternative to hopelessly corrupt supposed democrats.

I am not against having a strong anti-corruption body, though I would like to be reassured that it in itself does not become an unaccountable, undemocratic institution accruing great powers to itself. A dilemma which beholds and troubles me is the troubling recurring thought of the situation in which we would be if the Ombudsman himself is a corrupt person — won’t we then require a boss over the all powerful Ombudsman? However I do not believe that we can fight communal fascism or economic totalitarianism (that has led to us having more than 800 million people in this country living on less than 20 rupees a day) with only legal measures.

As long as we have these economic policies in place, the National Employment Guarantee Act will never be able to do away with hunger and malnutrition, anti-corruption laws will not do away with injustice, and criminal laws will not do away with communal fascism, the twin sibling of economic totalitarianism. They will, at best, be mitigating measures. As the historian Howard Zinn said “the rule of law does not do away with the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but reinforces that inequality with the authority of law. It allocates wealth and power in such complicated and indirect ways as to leave the victim bewildered.”

Will the Right to Information Bill or the Jan Lokpal Bill force the government to disclose the secret MoUs with private corporations it has signed in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand for which it is prepared to wage war against its poorest citizens? If they do, then these MoUs will disclose the fact that the government is selling the country’s minerals to private corporations for a pittance, a small royalty. It’s not corruption. It’s completely above board, it’s legal plunder which is more scandalous, and has economic, environmental and human costs that will outstrip the 2G scam several times over. If we do get the information, what will we do with it? I do believe that if anyone present at the “revolution” at Jantar Mantar had raised the question of the secret MoUs, the adoring TV coverage and a good proportion of the crowd would have disappeared very quickly.

Behind the power of India’s anti-corruption movement is the rise of a new emotion: Young urban Indians are more interested in their nation than ever before. As a consequence they are more politically aware!

Today, there is a perceptible increase in the number of young people who are acutely aware and interested in the fate of the nation. That is because they are different from the generations before them whose only objective in life was to escape India. Now that the world is what it is, there is no place to escape to. So they want their home to be a better place — where bribe-takers are punished and bribe-payers live happily ever after!

Less obviously, however, this kind of conflict (between the government and the larger section of the Indian citizenry) over corruption cannot be solved in the same way as ordinary conflicts. For the disagreement here is one of attitudes!

The immediate future seems to belong to the doomsayers rather than to the cheer mongers. We suffer from a fatty degeneration of conscience, and the malady seems not only to be persistent but prone to aggravation. The lifestyle of too many Indians bears eloquent testimony to the truth of dictum that single-minded pursuit of money impoverishes the mind, shrivels the imagination and desiccates the heart. The tricolor fluttering all over the country, as said by Nani A Palkhiwala, is black, red and scarlet — black money, red tape and scarlet corruption.

You must be to comment.
  1. Urmila Das

    I fully subscribe the view of the author. It really digs out the exact scenario of fight against corruption. Present state of affairs of fight against corruption is certainly a selective rage over corruption. I congratulate the author for writing such a scholarly article which is an eye opener.

    1. Vikas Rana

      The author is right. Anna Hazare’s movement is a farce.

  2. johngray123

    I agree with you about this.

  3. kamal

    I too congratulate the author for his unbiased insight into the matter.

  4. Neeraj Ramachandran

    Loved your article. One every young Indian can associate with!

  5. Tidu

    It is funny how three long paragraphs (From “Among the millions of understandably furious people….” to “indirect ways as to leave the victim bewildered.”) have been simply copied from Ms. Arundhati Roy’s piece, When Corruption is viewed fuzzily.

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