As we close in on 20 years of Manmohanomics, it’s worth remembering one chant the chattering classes uttered, first with pride, later to console themselves with. “Whatever you say, we have the most honest man in Dr. Manmohan Singh. And no one can speak a word against him.” It’s less heard now — those affections having been transferred to other punters in the honesty sweepstakes. But growing numbers do say this daily: the honest prime minister presides over indisputably the most corrupt government in our history. And therein lie many lessons.
Dr. Singh’s decision to meet weekly with editors tells us which lesson he has drawn from the mess. That his government’s problem with corruption is a public relations one. This, even though the media, while barking at politicians in the 2 G scam, has steered clear of the corporate core of all such rackets. Dr. Singh sees the media acting too often as “accuser, prosecutor and judge.” (He may have got that one right). Yet, he wants a weekly meeting with them. So is this a PR exercise? Or does he believe India’s editors possess a wisdom unknown to others that will end corruption in all sectors (bar their own)? I hope the former.
Totting up his government’s scams is like a Census operation. A large and complex count. There are scams done and buried, there are those alive and breathing. More are exhumed by the day. There are others in the pipeline, about to be pulled off. Still others where the media remain helpfully silent. And yet more in planning and process. We have a Union Cabinet that is possibly richer than most earlier cabinets put together. That is, they’re worth – and this is only their self-declared worth, not an income tax or other independent assessment — well over Rs. 5 billion or $ 112 million. And in spirit, a cabinet reminiscent of the bungling mob in Jimmy Breslin’s 1969 book The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Only this mob rakes it in where Breslin’s collapsed swiftly. And this crowd runs a large country, not a few blocks in New York.
There are of course many causes of corruption and everyone has their favourite story. But there are three sources which, if ignored, render analysis worthless. One: the structural inequalities of Indian society, including huge concentrations of wealth and power, class and caste, gender and other embedded discrimination. Two: the whole edifice of economic policy that has (more rapidly in the past 20 years) deepened, driven and legitimized those inequalities. That has, for instance, made corporations far more important than citizens, mocking the Indian Constitution. And three: the culture of impunity and arbitrariness — with very little accountability. That allows the powerful to get away with almost anything. Where a judge in one state bans all protest rallies on week days because his car got stuck in one on the way to work. Where sundry god men can break every tax law ? so long as they don’t challenge the ruling regime. (We have recently found that a single temple had cash and valuables worth $ 22 billion – no whisper of taxes ever having been paid on this.)
Tackling corruption without addressing its sources is like trying to mop the floor dry – with all taps open and running. The sources are old. Their (man-made) scope, size and damage are pretty new.
The past 20 years have seen unprecedented concentrations of wealth, often by awful means, mostly enabled by economic policy. The state stands reduced to a tool of corporate enrichment. It is there to facilitate private investment. Each budget is written for (and partly by) the corporate world. The last six have gifted them $ 471 billion in concessions on just direct corporate income tax, customs and excise duties. In the same period food subsidies and agriculture have suffered cuts.
The neo-liberal economic framework assigns the state the role of wet nursing the corporate sector at public cost. This is why we live in the age of privatization of just about everything. It is the state’s mission to hand over scarce national resources of all kinds, land, water, spectrum, anything, to further bloat corporate profits. It is this process of peddling a nation’s resources to private agents on preferential terms that is the main source of corruption in our time. The scams are the symptoms, a state that serves corporations not citizens is the disease.
Those who rightly worry about election spending also need to make other connections. There is a class of people who have much more to spend — and illicit funds to spend it from. At levels unheard of since 1947. In many states you cannot hope to contest an election without being a crorepati.
Take the case of 825 MLAs elected this May to the legislatures of four states, one union territory (and the bypoll in Kadapa.) Look at their declared assets. Thanks to the alert National Election Watch (NEW), a coalition of over 1200 NGOs spearheaded by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), we have data that’s fun to analyse.
ADR data tell us the total self-declared value of these 825 MLAs is around $ 478 million. As many as 231 of these MLAs are into their second term. This lot increased their assets by 169 per cent on average, between 2006 and 2011. That is, they may well have collared more wealth in their first five-year terms than they had acquired in the rest of their lives.
Now think of 825 landless labor households. We cannot compare their ‘assets’ with those of the MLAs since the landless households have none and are drowning in debt. How long would it take, working on the MNREGS for instance, for them to earn money equalling the wealth of the 825 MLAs? The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is our flagship welfare program. It offers rural Indians just a 100 days of work in a year on which they can make a maximum of Rs. 126 ($2.8 in a day or $280 in a whole year. Importantly, that 100 days is not per worker, but per households. Poor rural households tend to have more than five members).
The most they can make in the 100 days of work the MNREGS grants them is — on national average — around $ 280 a year. The 825 landless households would require over 2,000 years to touch that $ 478-million-mark. And they’d need to abandon frivolous habits like eating. But let’s make that 10,000 labor households. They would need close to 170 years to hit the jackpot. Even a million households would take well over a year to get close. (Recall that over a fourth of those MLAs acquired most of their assets in 60 months.)
Of course, given the profound inequalities, the laborer households will never have any assets, leave alone $478-million worth. They will remain indebted. And the interest they will pay off on those debts will likely add to the assets of the MLAs — some of whom are moneylenders. Yet the wealth of those MLAs is paltry compared to the huge state-led enrichment of the corporate world. It would take a million laborer households around 275 years on the MNREGS to earn the close to $ 8 billion the government has doled out on annual average in the past six years, to the corporate sector.
And then there’s the impunity. Dr. Singh can juggle his cabinet, but will it change much? An agriculture minister who spent more time on cricket — and helped transform that national passion into a tawdry, commercial swamp of sleaze. Another, the minister of Heavy Industries, shamed by the Supreme Court for helping moneylenders ? then promptly promoted to Rural Development Minister. Even if dumped, their replacements, however youthful, won’t alter that. For it isn’t about lax governance or poor rules only. It’s about corrupt policies.
Want to fight corruption in our time? Move to dismantle structural inequality, the disease of neo-liberal economic policy and the culture of arbitrariness without accountability. Do we need a Lokpal? Yes. Should it be a supra-government? Above constitutional structures and answerable to no one? You’re begging for trouble. Can it tame the Great Trinity of inequality, economic policy and arbitrariness? No. It’s not geared towards that. That’s a larger battle for people as a whole and their institutions. As the old saw goes, your rights are only as secure as the process by which you defend them.
At this moment battles rage across the country over displacement, forced land acquisition, the plunder of resources, over forest and other rights. These may be ‘local’ battles but they challenge corruption on a large, even global, canvas. They are fighting inequality and discrimination. They resist impunity, greed and profit. They try to hold their rulers accountable. Some fight unjust laws (as in the case of Irom Sharmila). Others for the just application of laws (as with some forest rights struggles). Almost none, however, place themselves above the nation. Or declare that they will lay down laws which others must obey. Nor assert that they are answerable to no one. Yet, they fight for their rights and ours too and help make oppressive structures more accountable.
There’s a little amnesia on this. A corrupt and degenerate government and Congress Party know that well. Barely 36 years ago, a man placed himself above all structures of the Constitution. A one-man supra-government. It produced a massive crackdown on civil liberties, fundamental rights, countless thousands languished in jail; for 21 months without trial, there extra-judicial killings and also, forced sterilisation imposed on hundreds of thousands of poor people. It’s sad to recall how many PLUs, middle class people and even some intellectuals wound up cheering this man and his era. His name was Sanjay Gandhi and the period was called the Emergency. The rest is history.