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The Insolence of Power

Corruption and its Discontents

by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN

Hazare ke Khwaaishen bhi aisi ki har Khwaish ho-hum nikale
Bahut nikale thay 
demand lekin phir bhi kam nikale

(with apologies to Mirza Ghalib)

Judging from the New York Times and the Washington Post, urban India is abuzz with the idea of banishing corruption. Photographs of peaceful marchers filling a giant overpass have made front-page news. Anna Hazare, whose arrest and fast have ignited the stir in cities all across India and amongst Indian groups abroad, is now a well-known figure. The fast, meetings, and protests are being billed as nothing less than a second Freedom Movement.

That last accreditation is in perfect pitch with an intelligentsia cut adrift from any sense of proportion, as befitting one that till the other day was equally capable of considering Manmohan Singh a more significant reformer than Mahatma Gandhi.

Amid all the din it is easy to forget the lofty purpose of the Second Freedom Movement. It is for the appointment of an ombudsman and a subsidiary bureaucracy to oversee allegations of corruption amongst government officials. One may just as soon label a demand for Web access to one’s income tax records as the second Declaration of Independence. Or descry in Barack Obama’s election the culmination of the civil rights struggle (wait, we already did that).

The merits of the proposed bill – both the one proposed by the government and the Hazare version – are less important than the larger context of corruption.

Many years ago I was visiting Brooklyn, New York. As we were walking one evening after dusk, my companion who lived there mentioned that the area we were walking through was absolutely safe. The reason, she explained, was that it was a mafia neighborhood. In Saudi Arabia, friends tell me, one may roam the streets at any time of night or day without fear of being molested. It is certainly true, in both instances, that one is ‘safe’. But the safety is purchased at some considerable price. In one, suspicion of falling in with the wrong gang might land you at the bottom of the Hudson with a cement block tied to your ankle. In the other, possession of the Bible or the Gita might mean a long stretch of unpleasantness if not worse.

Owing perhaps to his experience as a lawyer, Gandhi did not view some new law as the panacea to every social, economic or political problem. He pinned a lot more importance on the renewal of the human being. Gandhi believed that the quality of any country ultimately depends on the quality of its people:

“You may get the finest constitution that is conceivable dropping upon you from the House of Commons. It will be worthless if there are not men and women fit enough to work that constitution.”

His abhorrence of technical cleverness as a means to fixing human problems is best illustrated by EF Schumacher in his classic, Small Is Beautiful,

“Gandhi used to talk disparagingly of ‘dreaming of systems so perfect that no-one will need to be good’. “

The essential anarchist in Gandhi rejected external constraints as a means to a better self. Even on an individual plane referring to the need to weigh every word,

“Silence of the sewn-up lips is no silence. One may achieve the same result by chopping off one’s tongue, but that too would not be silence. He is silent who, having the capacity to speak, utters no idle word.”

That corruption is the scourge of daily existence in India as in few other countries may be entirely true. Ordinary people in everyday life have to pay bribes all the way from getting a driver’s license to obtaining a housing permit. Certainly many of these are paid to government officials, big and small. The same government officials have to bribe others in their capacity as applicants. Corruption is many things to many people.

Anna Hazare and his acolytes seem to forget that corruption is not limited to the government, which is, after all, made up of Indians. They also appear to believe that the appointment of eminent Indians to some overseeing council would somehow ensure moral chastity. If credentials alone, or even a personal reputation for incorruptibility, were such strong safeguards, the administration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should be a showcase for civics textbooks on model governance. Instead, it is considered the fount of malpractice and graft on a gargantuan scale, with many reckoning it presides over the most corrupt dispensation in independent India’s history.

Neither the protesters nor the government want to address the issue of corruption in its deeper essence. Is it corruption when someone can build a 60 story building for a personal residence in the country where millions of children go to bed malnourished? Gandhi again,

“Every palace that one sees in India is a demonstration, not of her riches, but of the insolence of power that riches give to the few, who owe them to the miserably requited labours of the millions of the paupers of India.”

Even though there seems to be a palpable correlation between the size and scope of corruption in India and Manmohan Singh’s neoliberal initiatives starting in the early 90s, Anna Hazare and his wise counselors don’t seem to want to see the connection. And amidst all his ineptitude in dealing with this latest crisis, practically the first words out of the Prime Minister’s mouth were to caution that it would be wrong to connect corruption with economic liberalization.

As the veteran journalist Alexander Cockburn is fond of saying, “never believe anything until it is officially denied”.

In 1991, Manmohan Singh, finance Minister in a minority government, kicked off a ‘liberalization’ program laying the foundation for a two decade neoliberal spree. It has turned some 250 million Indian citizens into celebrated ‘consumers’, but distorted any measure of what Professor Amartya Sen would call ‘public choice’. In this new order, what is good for consumerism and high living is good for India, whatever its cost by way of farmer suicides, the uprooting of entire villages, the pollution of the water table, or the handing over of India’s agricultural future to the GMO boys at Monsanto and elsewhere. The lone measure of success in this Eastern Wild-West is something called growth rate; the ethos it has spawned would both amaze and gratify Gordon “Greed is Good” Gecko.

Every leader is willing to point out what’s wrong with the other side. Gandhi had the guts to point out what was wrong with his own. He would ask, as he did in Hind Swaraj,

“The English have not taken India., we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them… In order to become rich all at once we welcomed the Company’s officers with open arms. We assisted them. If I am in the habit of drinking bhang and a seller thereof sells it to me, am I to blame him or myself’? By blaming the seller shall I he able to avoid the habit? And, if a particular retailer is driven away will not another take his place? A true servant of India will have to go to the root of the matter. If an excess of food has caused me indigestion. I shall certainly not avoid it by blaming water. He is a true physician who probes the cause of disease, and if you pose as a physician for the disease of India, you will have to find out its true cause.”

Gandhi’s diagnosis and cure to India’s corruption epidemic would probably involve a lot more pain than a few marches. He might point out that in a milieu where leaders openly promote moneymaking as the most important virtue, and an elite esteems itself by the extent of its ostentation, corruption would only find a conducive habitat. He would reject recourse to some bill, not on some technical shortcomings, but perhaps saying that reliance on such measures would do nothing to “add to the moral height” of Indians. Even as his khadi movement urged Indians to boycott foreign cloth and adopt the rougher and costlier homespun, instead of a fast outside the Viceroy’s palace pleading for a ban on English mill imports.

The fervid and often uncivil jousting between “civil society” on the one side and the gentleman Prime Minister’s cabinet on the other, poring over the fine points of an anticorruption bill while taking care never to mention the 800 pound gorilla parked in the middle of the room, reminded me of something I had read long ago.

“One of the greatest of the Bengali novelists of the 20th century, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, has summed up the underlying principle of Hindu behavior in a neat, if cynical, epigram. He makes a woman who had a low-caste paramour boast that although she lived 20 years with him she had not for a single they allowed him to enter her kitchen.”

– Nirad Chaudhuri, Autobiography of an Unknown Indian.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living in the United States. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.