The Corruption Brouhaha – A Reality Check

This is a conversation on the issue of graft in the country at various levels, between Q and A. Q is a middle-aged, mid-level executive based in Delhi who works for a Telecom firm whose business ethics are questionable. As part of his official duties, Q has no hesitation in corrupting people to get the job done when it is warranted and when asked to do so by his bosses to expedite matters. A is a worldly-wise budding entrepreneur who claims to have ‘been there and done that’. He is quite opposed to corruption in all its forms but realizes that there are times when one reaches a dead-end without ‘greasing’ individuals who help to keep the wheels turning. He also has a good enough understanding of structures, systems, and processes.

Q. This corruption in high places is really ‘killing’ the country. It has never ever been so bad before, has it?

A. If stunted development of educational facilities, poor infrastructure, lack of minimum standards in healthcare, slowdown in economic growth, gross inequities in income levels, runaway inflation & inadequate employment generation are not killing you, why is corruption alone killing you?

Q. Its just not fair, these guys making so much money on the sides, stealing our money actually? They should be brought to book & severe punishment should be meted out to them.

A. Aah, so you are primarily worried about big-ticket corruption? What about small-ticket corruption, harassment bribery? Doesn’t that bother you?

A representation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka...

The Lion Capital of Ashoka

Q. All kinds & types of corruption bother me, big or small. The small guys should not be left alone either.

A. Can you put your hand on  your heart, look your colleagues in the eye & honestly state that you have never ever either indulged in or encouraged, either tacitly or overtly, small-ticket corruption?

Q. I didn’t want to, but I had no recourse. I was stuck and without paying there was no way out. Everybody pays up in these situations you know.

A. Ok, let’s get to big-ticket corruption. How does that affect you directly or indirectly?

Q. It’s my money that they are stealing, isn’t it? Makes me mad.

A. Not really. Big-ticket corruption is usually between two individuals or institutions, one of whom has the power to provide a certain service or grant a favour and the other feels a need for that service or craves that favour for certain anticipated gains. Supposing we reclassify it as a fee being paid for a certain service or favour, would it still bother you so much?

Q. But it’s wrong, it’s dishonest and it’s hurting the country, isn’t it?

A. In some cases it may be speeding up a product or a service which, in the normal course, wouldn’t have been available for a while. Don’t you therefore think that sometimes it may have a salutary effect?

Corrupt Legislation. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lo...

Corrupt Legislation : A mural by Elihu Vedder

While China may be somewhat better than India as far as corruption is concerned, it still remains quite low down in the ‘corruption rankings’. Most corruption in China is ‘institutionalized’ and of the big-ticket variety. Do you think corruption has impeded in any way the dazzling progress the country has made, virtually in all spheres, over the last two decades?

Q. My blood boils when I think about how corrupt our leaders are!

A. Look, corruption has always been a fact of life in India, particularly during the days of the license-permit Raj. The nexus between big business & politics has always been a reality. With accelerated economic growth & a quantum jump in the size of the projects executed, naturally the total amounts changing hands have increased significantly.

It is also a fact that the media has opened up a lot more than earlier and while certain sections of  the mainstream media

Pranab Mukherjee, Finance Minister

may be aligned with certain political parties there are enough other players in the arena who are always sniffing around for news of this kind and are not either afraid of or inhibited about putting it out. In fact both the 2G Telecom scam as well as the CWG mess were first brought to the notice of the public by smaller media players before the mainstream media picked up the refrain after some months.

Kapil Sibal - Union Minister for HRD & Telecom

The RTI Act which came into being in 2005 is also a pretty powerful tool which can be used both by the citizens and the media to get at certain facts & uncover them. And the growing popularity of social media has ensured that information dissemination and exchange of facts, thoughts & views can take place very, very quickly over cyberspace. It has also given rise to a degree of ‘citizen journalism’ even though this may be in its fledgling stages currently in India.

Q. Thank god that people like Anna Hazare & his group of ‘activists’ brought this issue centre stage!

A. If you carefully check out the facts, big-ticket corruption issues like the 2G Telecom scam & the CWG scam have been very much in the public domain almost for a couple of years before Anna Hazare & his people first emerged on the scene. The media kept on relentlessly highlighting it, it was a hot topic of discussion on social media & the opposition picked up the gauntlet as well, forcing the govt. to appoint a JPC to look into the 2G Telecom scam issue. The Supreme Court also kept up their relentless vigil on the whole issue and did not allow the various government agencies to brush the investigations under the carpet. In an unprecedented move a sitting Cabinet Minister was sacked, investigated and sent to jail along with various other players, including a M.P. who belongs to one of the constituent parties of the UPA and is the daughter of the party’s founder and the erstwhile C.M. of Tamil Nadu.  Several owners & CEOs of Telecom organizations who were the beneficiaries of the Telecom Minister’s benevolence have also been jailed. Suresh Kalmadi, a sitting M.P. of the Congress and a key member of its Parliamentary party who has also been the long-time & undisputed chief of several powerful sports bodies including the Indian Olympic Association has been jailed for the CWG scam together with several of his top officials. Actions of this kind against such powerful politicians, officials & prominent businesspersons has never before been seen in independent India. Bapat (Anna) Hazare and his group leapt into the fray after all this had taken place and thus can be suspected to be possibly crassly opportunistic.

Q. But Anna Hazare is a true Gandhian and is committed to Gandhi’s methods of fast & non-violence to pressurize this corrupt government.

Anna Hazare - Delhi

Bapat Baburao Hazare aka Anna

A. This government is one elected through a true democratic process. However flawed Indian democracy might be, the media is free, citizens can check out vital information through the RTI, contrary views & opinions can be voiced through the media or through many other forums set up for the purpose. There may be good and bad elements who are a part of the government. One may also agree or not agree with what the government does. If one does not agree with most of the govt’s actions & decisions one always has the option to vote out the govt. after 5 years, provided a majority feel the same way. Hence tarring the entire govt. with a black brush is in a way akin to blackening your own face.

Q. Who is going to wait five years every time. Besides all politicians are corrupt and need to be taught a lesson. India badly needs an ‘Arab Spring’ kind of revolutionary change. Jantar Mantar could soon become the new ‘Tahrir Square’.

A. What are your alternatives?  You could dismantle the present democratic structure of course, but then what do you plan to replace it with? Invite the Maoists for a shot at ruling the country? And if you think all politicians are venal, why don’t you actively help in getting a better person elected from your constituency the next time elections are held. Maybe you could stand yourself.

Also have you taken stock of what the ‘Arab Spring’ has achieved so far, if at all. Changes have happened in only two countries, one of which, Tunisia is an inconsequential state even within the Mid-East’s pecking order of nations. The other, Egypt, is in a state of transition with the army in charge currently. While Mubarak’s regime has been dismantled, already Egyptians are divided over whether he should be tried in a court of law and punished for his alleged misdemeanours or left strictly alone as a senior leader who also did a number of good things for the country. When elections will take place and what kind of government will come to power eventually is still anybody’s guess.

Q. Are you trying to say this government has provided good governance and done the right things as far as issues like

Baba Ramdev

corruption are concerned?

A. Not at all. They have had major issues concerning governance. There are many intrinsic problems, including an ‘appointed’ Prime Minister who is a classical wimp and is apparently answerable only to the party chief, Sonia Gandhi. The party chief and her son, Rahul Gandhi, who is one of the General Secretaries of the party, seem to be involved in making all the major decisions behind-the-scenes but they are really accountable to no one in particular. In addition to that there must be major internecine battles going on within the Congress party. All this adds up to a chaotic situation where no one is really in control firmly. This leads to an environment where governance aberrations start becoming more the norm rather than the exception and things just don’t get done.

Q. That is why Anna and the ‘civil society’ took up the cause of eliminating corruption strongly.

A. If you analyze objectively, they have actually made things worse. They ‘pushed’ their way into a government committee, comprising senior cabinet ministers, and got caught between the devil and the deep sea.  The team, including Bapat Baburao Hazare, doesn’t inspire confidence, consisting as it does of a sitting Lok Ayukta from Karnataka whose track record till date is quite poor, two activist lawyers with dubious antecedents who also happen to be a father-son duo and an activist who was till sometime back a civil servant and now runs an NGO.

After a few meetings they restarted the circus and started mud-slinging publicly and going on well-publicized single-day fasts even. Can you ever imagine two sets of people abusing & denigrating each other publicly and then sitting in a meeting and achieving anything substantive at all?

Q. But they have been demanding that the Lok Pal should have jurisdiction over all ministers, including the Prime Minister. Is that an unfair demand?

A. Provided there are enough checks & balances it is not. But then have you given a thought to the process of selection of the Lok Pal and his office? An ‘independent’ ombudsman who may turn into a rogue can be a serious threat to the administration and to an elected government. Such a ‘rogue’ ombudsman may bring decision-making and executive action about any issue to a virtual standstill. A well thought-out system of checks & balances needs to be implemented in parallel with the office of an independent, all-powerful ombudsman. The supervisor needs to be supervised.

Q. You have been mostly talking about what won’t or may not work. Why don’t you talk about what will?

A. Curbing corruption is a complex issue. It needs a whole series of structural, administrative and legislative changes, in addition to a change in the mindsets of people. One of the major sources of corruption is the electoral process in the country. To curb this, political parties need to be closely scrutinized and audited for their sources and usages of funds. Campaign finance reforms need to be initiated at multiple levels. One doesn’t quite see the proposed Lok Pal bill laying any emphasis on such issues.

There was a suggestion sometime back by the Chief Economic Advisor, GOI, about ways of curbing small-ticket corruption or what he termed as ‘harassment bribery’. Do browse an interesting discussion on the issue to appreciate the complexities of the task here.

In the absence of a well thought-out initiative, merely the addition of a Lok Pal may just mean addition of another layer of bureaucracy which, while pandering to populist sentiments, would hardly be effective in curbing corruption. At best, the incremental effect may be fairly marginal, at worst, nothing may change eventually.

A. I don’t want to listen to all your depressing arguments. My friends are right now calling me to join a candlelight march on the issue which they would be starting in the next one hour. I have to leave now. We will win, come what may. { Anna ….. Anna ….Baba …Anna….Baba…..Vitthala …..Vitthala ….Guruji }

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  1. #1 by mitraroger on June 17, 2011 - 1:02 PM

    Comments from Facebook:

    Abhijit Roy

    If we ponder on some of the core issues of why corrpution takes place we should also think of the quality of people the government recruits. Most of these people are from the middle class like ourselves who have , I expect, grown up with family values and ethical way of behaviour in their schools and colleges. Then how do they suddenly become corrupt? All of us I am sure remember a college friend who was idealisitc and a good person at heart, but the same guy takes almost a 360-degree turn and joins the corrupt brigade in his or her professional life. Why does the same thing not happen in other countries? Why does the US cop refuse to accept a petty bribe when he or she stops a speeding automobile? Why does a taxi driver in Europe stop the meter if he has taken a wrong turn so that the passenger would not have to pay extra even for a few hundred yards? I think we need a lot of introspection about our own behaviour. Charity begins at home.

    My response

    Interesting point. Let me narrate an experiment which was carried out in a small town in Canada & is mentioned in Richard Dawkins’ book.
    This small town was supposed to be a real safe haven and its inhabitants model ones who could be held up as an example to the rest of the country. People often used to leave their front doors open even during the day and early evening.
    Then one day it was announced that the cops and all security services were taking a 48 hour break and won’t even be available for duty or for taking calls from residents on any issue.
    Within the first 24 hours, several instances of burgling houses & commercial establishments happened including one mugging too, which fortunately wasn’t fatal.
    We live in a materialistic world and there are very few, if any, saints. Often, it is the fear of retribution of some kind, visible punishment or the fear of being shamed in front of one’s family, colleagues or social circles that acts as a deterrent. Also in a world where a lot of people are forever endeavouring to keep up with the Joneses, the sight of a colleague or associate really living it up and building up assets owing to his corrupt practices can, on many occasions, push people to take the plunge themselves.
    A really ridiculous Indian variation is, IMHO, the practice of placating the gods or godmen with a ‘cut’ in terms of cash or jewelry, in the belief that doing so would balance one’s debits & credits at least in God’s account books. The assumption, I suppose, is that the gods are not above a little ‘cut’ on the sides and the godmen, as his chosen representatives, are quite happy to get a bigger ‘cut’ too!

  2. #2 by mitraroger on June 17, 2011 - 1:21 PM

    Abhijit Roy ‎

    So you feel that we as Indians are at peace with corruption because we have paused before a temple and bowed our heads in a slient prayer before going to office and accepting a few hundred rupees concealed in a packet of cigarettes?

    My response:

    In the pecking order of things, it is firstly important to avoid detection, exposure & retribution from various earthly creatures. That having been taken care of, it is important to placate the Gods. In an increasingly materialistic world, most affluent, prosperous Indians specially assume that God can be induced to turn off his spycam & develop a state of amnesia at least about the various sins one has committed, including using corrupt methods to get ahead in life or to acquire wealth. Apparently large donations in cash or kind to temples, religious charities or one’s favourite godmen do the trick. If one can then contribute to the building of God’s images cast in gold, temple annexes or better still, temples or mosques themselves, God apparently becomes quite benign & accommodating about this little matter of sins, including corruption. 🙂

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