OVER the past three decades that I have made a living by weaving words, corruption has regularly cropped up in public discourse. Predictably, the debate has had a higher decibel level when the practise hogged headlines due to an unravelling scandal. The first ringside view of the great Indian corruption story came in my professional life in April 1987 with Swedish Radio alleging payment of kickbacks in securing the Bofors deal.
Besides providing me with the chance to log in a few ‘exclusives’ over the next couple of years, the episode also resulted in the ushering out of Rajiv Gandhi in the 1989. This indicated that allegations of corruption had a negative impact on the electoral fortunes of even against the high and mighty. The erosion of almost ten per cent of the vote share of the Congress between 1984 and 1989 was not because of a single factor – but corruption was among the significant ones.
The election that year was fought on a campaign that was run for two and half years against corruption in high places and remains an important watershed in the history of the politics of corruption. This verdict is often used these days to argue that corruption as an electoral issue has run its course in India as it is argued that polls now do get impacted by corruption allegations like in 1989. The recent electoral verdict in Tamil Nadu was not seen primarily as a rejection of a party against whom corruption charges are being probed. In any case there is a case of personal corruption being heard against Jayalalithaa in the Bengaluru High Court. Similarly in Kerala, the electoral campaign was built both by UDF and LDF around the argument: “Your corruption is more offensive than mine,” which means that the choice for the voter was not between the corrupt and non-corrupt.
Analysis of these events is used to buttress the claim that “Indians are inherently corrupt” – that this is a matter of culture, a basic value system of the land. And that after having chased the mirage of a corruption less society, Indians had come to terms with it. It is contended that this corrupt trait has historically made Indians ‘stand apart’ from more ‘civilised’ societies. The argument is motivated like the one made by India’s colonial rulers whose raison d’être was that India had to be colonised because a more civilised race owed it to the world to ‘uplift’ the condition of the wretched of the earth. In the modern world India does not stand a chance because of its inherent corrupt ways, it is argued now.
In the discourse over corruption there is unanimity that the ‘bribe giver’ is as corrupt as the ‘bribe taker’. So if the allegation that kickbacks were paid for securing the Howitzer deal in the mid 1980s had any substance in it, then what was AB Bofors doing it also not joining the great corrupt bandwagon. This has not been the only instance when there has been an allegation against the Indian political establishment for securing slush pay offs in return for smoothening a deal with both foreign and Indian firms. There have been several other occasions when foreign companies are alleged to have secured valuable contracts after payment of slush funds.
The fact that enterprises in First World countries encourage corruption in Third World countries to secure business deals demonstrates that corruption is per se not a civilisation affliction. Transparency International releases a global corruption index every year and India not only languishes at the bottom of the least corrupt nations but has also been slipping in recent years. Many would in fact argue against the authenticity of the index and question the methodology of TI. But if we leave aside that debate and look at the list, we will see that the majority of countries in the bottom of the list are those that have a history of being colonised by countries that now make up the First World.
Like most countries that have gone through the experience of colonisation, India also had to suffer on account of indigenous development of modern systems of governance being marred by the colonial experience. Post-independence, the legacy of colonisation was so overwhelming that barring transfer of power from one group of political elite to another, little really changed. The basis system that fostered corruption was not dismantled and in the past six and half decades has further strengthened.
If one were to conduct a survey on the first personal experience of average Indians to corruption, then we will find that the level was extremely petty and related to securing normal services due to citizens. Exposure to corruption also comes for most Indians recourse to the most common rights and safeguards spelt out under the law of the land. The Raj left behind a massive bureaucracy that was essentially comprised of thousands of underpaid petty officials. This was a colonial legacy and it denied to the average Indian basic utilities that she or he needed to streamline existence. In the era of subsidised food items securing a ration card was a virtual impossibility unless one paid a bribe. Securing driving licenses was not a seamless exercise and one had to go through a plethora of forms and procedures which acted as hurdles at every step and to overcome these there was always a friendly ‘tout’ with access ‘inside’ to get the job done quickly. In the times when securing a cooking gas connection meant ‘arrival’ on the social scene, the smoothness with which one could get an illegal connection was amazing. ‘Black’ and ‘do number’ were phrases common to the Indian existence through the 1950s till well into early 1990s.
If anyone assumed that liberalisations – kick started exactly 20 years ago – would put an end to this system, they were sadly mistaken. Ration cards may have become redundant for the bulk of middle classes but securing one’s legitimate Income Tax Refund has become an equally difficult exercise. The only difference being that the amount of bribe that is demanded is now several times more with the added problem of identifying the ‘right’ person to offer the bribe as one has to now deal with faceless call centre operatives before meeting the ‘right’ official. E-governance is now touted as a major achievement in the country but without any major structural change of the manner in which basic services are delivered to the common citizens, there has been no escape from a corrupt system. The common man thus has to take recourse to paying bribes for each and every small service.
As far as corruption in high places is concerned, the amount of slush funds has increased. No political party has made any attempt to bring greater transparency in governance and in the decision making process. This has resulted in each and every regime being guilty of promoting the system of corruption. Be it the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Left parties and the motley group of parties comprising the Third and Fourth Fronts, each and every regime has had corruption charges levelled against them.
The media explosion has made a significant difference with technology enabling the media to actually demonstrate exchange of funds for undue favours – be it for asking questions in Parliament or for influencing the decision making process. The Hindustani phrase: Hamam mein sab nange hain, could not have been more apt when describing the political class and its relationship to corrupt practices.
In every post-Independence decade era and in every political party there have been political leaders whose personal integrity has remained unquestioned. But this has not enabled Indians to begin leading a corruption free life. If the Prime Minister or the party President remains personally incorruptible what difference does it actually make to the ground reality if systemic changes are not made? The top political leadership has to make effective changes in structures of parties and government to ensure that adequate safeguards are created to prevent corruption. Checks and balances have to be put in place for the political leadership first and only then can the bureaucracy be reined in. The so called tectonic change in the attitude towards corruption at the societal level can only come last. All debates about which office is to be brought under the ambit of an ombudsman and which office is to be kept out of its purview will only serve to amuse the ordinary Indian. Till this does not happen, corruption will remain a circumstantial necessity for most Indians.