The irony of corruption in public life is that everyone likes to talk about it, but no one does anything to stop it. Sociologically, it may have roots in the Darwinian theory, ‘Survival of the Fittest’. Human beings are willing to compromise on values to stay ahead in the evolutionary race, in which the powerful call the shots. Paradoxically, the law applies both to the perpetrator of corruption and the ones who are subjected to it. The corrupt want to accumulate power and wealth, which they believe will perpetuate their lineage in a world strapped of resources. Those who submit to corruption do it because in it they see the means of meeting self-preservation and existential needs. Thus, the cycle of life continues.
The problem, however, occurs when the principle of proportionality is violated. It happens when the asks are not commensurate to the value of benefits traded. While this rule applies to all walks of life, it is more visible in the case of political corruption. That is the inflection point that the country appears to be going through.
Corruption is not new to India. The frailties of human character have been well chronicled in scriptures, mythology, and folklore. Graft has existed since time immemorial. As the plaster is falling off the façade of our colonial past, we are discovering that the British were no paragons of financial integrity.
Therefore, it would be inaccurate and unjust to assert that it is a feature of post-Independence India. Whether its scale and spread has increased in the past few decades can be the subject of another discussion—bits of it have been touched on by this writer in earlier columns. In the past, various innocuous labels have been applied to corruption—such as “speed money”—used by the Nobel Laureate and Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in this seminal book, Asian Drama. However, the normalisation of large-scale corruption that seems to be happening is a more recent phenomenon. On the one hand, after every raid by the tax departments or central investigative agencies, we hear accusations of political “vendetta” in chorus, drowning the allegations. Similarly, the rare instance of a ruling party politician caught red-handed with money bags is quietly removed from headlines. This is a matter of concern. Because if society starts having an amoral view of corruption, then the slide of a nation will be irretrievable as we see among some of our South Asian neighbours.
Narendra Modi came to power with the promise of “Na khaoonga, na khane dunga”. While the prime minister’s personal integrity remains above question, the jury is still out on the extent to which he has succeeded in reducing the level of corruption. The progress of investigations and rate of conviction in high-profile cases initiated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) do not inspire much confidence in the public to believe that there has been any substantive change in this situation. It will be disingenuous to say that corruption has been curtailed in BJP-ruled states and is a phenomenon limited to states where the opposition is in power. Karnataka has been hogging attention recently with elections round the corner, but the situation on the ground in other states may not be vastly different. Level and extent may vary but corruption remains a part of our national leitmotif.
Economists and political pundits believe that it will not be possible to eradicate corruption till a solution can be found for funding of elections. They are probably right. However, even they do not have a solution to the problem. Suggestions for state funding of elections is utopian, to put it mildly. Legitimising political donations was a minuscule beginning. The much-maligned Electoral Bonds (EBs) was a step in the right direction. Though far from foolproof, it is certainly a cleaner method of mobilising funds rather than black money transferred through hawala and suitcases. Often the system of fundraising in the US is cited as the gold standard. But even the US and European nations are not without flaws and are open to manipulation by big businesses in nexus with dodgy politicians.
Unfortunate as it might be, if corruption is systemic, people tend to accept it as a way of life and businesses factor it in costs of projects and operations. However, matters go out of hand when there is rent-seeking and extortion. Worse still is when public money is siphoned off and welfare schemes do not reach the beneficiaries. It borders on criminality when poor people are forced to shell out money for jobs, education, and even primary healthcare. Allocation of national resources—be it minerals or telecom bandwidth—to cronies for a price creates economic disparities, destroys level playing fields, discourages free markets and competition, and deters foreign investors. Ultimately, it is the citizens who must fund write-offs of public sector bank loans or pay higher taxes. Above all, it trades off the future of our children by holding up economic progress and development.
The problem is complex and there cannot be a “one size fits all” solution. There must be different strokes for different people as it were. Liberalisation, simplification of laws and digitisation to promote transparency, ease of living and ease of doing business are surely part of the solution towards which the present government has taken some rapid and decisive strides. However, the crying need is for police and judicial reforms, and independence of investigative agencies with clear accountability in order to ensure speedy justice and conviction. Alas, politics comes in the way. That is where people must seek accountability of our politicians. For that, one needs the next level of electoral reforms. Till then, naming and shaming is the only way. Arguably, raids and investigation achieve that to some extent even if it is used as a tool by ruling dispensations. One cannot throw the baby out with the bath water in fear of media criticism. That is what Narendra Modi appears to be trying to do.
Current affairs commentator
(Views are personal)