Some of my friends are very poor; the only thing that they have is money — Paulo Coelho
THE advent of economic liberalisation in India gave legitimacy to the pursuit of Mammon. In the era of so-called “Hindu growth rates”, the majority of Indians were disdainful of those engaged in furthering their personal wealth. Service classes, working people, small farmers, agricultural workers and middle class professionals did not approve of the ways of the proverbial “enemies of the people”. Because trade was essential; pilferage, some form of cloak-and-dagger operations, corruption at a daily level and even occasional instances of political corruption were known problems in society but there was no mass acceptance of such practices. People who used unscrupulous means were not given social acceptability.
The attitude towards those who were engaged in the quest of wealth changed from the early 1990s – doing nothing but thinking of ways of making money was no longer frowned upon. In the name of burgeoning middle classes and expanding capital markets, footpaths became new “gambling centres” with people jostling with one another for forms of public issues. The share market that had been considered “dirty” previously, entered middle-class drawing room discussions every day. The middle class intelligentsia whose support was essential till the 1980s, were encouraged by post-liberalisation into findings ways beyond their abilities and capacity. Correspondingly, they lost the capacity to act like moral watchdogs.
The market expanded and more people experimented with their professional careers and turned first generation entrepreneurs. In the process, some of the finest success stories of Indian corporate history were etched in this period. But this is the time when the guiding values of businesses were abandoned because both old players and new entrants also had to content with multinational corporations who were allowed entry and backed by huge resources to “restructure” Indian economy and business practices. Because of this a “problem” arose: the mindless and unscrupulous manner in which everyone – the new and the old – went about their business. Within a year of Manmohan Singh’s first budget, the securities scam exploded in the face of the nation. The Telgi stamp paper scam that came to light much later showed in retrospect that the rot began setting in the early 1990s. It suggested that new value system was all pervading and anyone who was not into making money was considered an oddity.
The scenario has been more or less like that in the past two decades with a growing consumer culture fuelling the mindless chasing of wealth. From the need-based value system on families, India’s middle classes have made a neat transition to desire-based ethos. One wishes for more lucre to buy more commodities, own more property but since ethical professional practises puts a cap of this, one resorts to bending rules. Since the system has permitted this for the past two decades, there are fewer qualms when crossing the Rubicon.
It would be worth recalling the situation in the American Wild West during the Gold Rush of the 1850s and 1860s. Anybody who did not want to be termed a foolish person was heading to California in search of the precious dust. Similarly, in India the past two decades has seen several such “rushes” starting with the public issues of the early 1990s. In recent years, the rush for coal, air waves, spectrum, agricultural land that is soon to get converted for urban use has drawn people representing every piece on the chess board – King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook and the pawns – everyone has headed for the party.
One is not arguing in favour of caste-like structure when it comes to professional pursuits – that children of doctors should take to the same profession or that a professor’s daughter has no business to turn an entrepreneur after completing her education. One is also not arguing for specialised engagement in industry – that a company which has been in pharma should stick to it and not venture into manufacture of car tyres. Indian industry has for long deified the likes of JRD Tata who built the steel to salt empire. But this has to be based on merit not because acquaintances would enable a quick buck, an easy entry-point and some form of subsidy in form of benami partnership or just plain loan (or call it equity).
In the name of diversification of business, one has seen people successfully jumping from poultry farms to tea gardens and eventually to manufacturing and dispensing medicines. It would have been perfectly fine if such people had restricted their activities purely to business. But they have also ventured into politics and are openly cultivated by political leaders. These relationships are built on the basis of the science of political funding and thereafter given the name of personal chemistry between the leader and the moneybag.
Politics and political parties have always needed resources and public funding of elections has been one of the long-pending issues in electoral reforms. It is not that the relationship between business and politics is a new one. Even during the freedom struggle there were close ties between Indian industrialists and political leaders. After independence, several people with business backgrounds entered public life and went on to become lawmakers and even ministers. But there was always a Laxman Rekha which was respected by both groups.
Even a few years after the process of economic liberalisation had been initiated, several young non-dynastic political leaders with ambitions of making politics their careers would be heard saying that before entering politics fulltime, it was important for them to strengthen themselves financially so that they would not have to use dubious means to maintain living standards while being active in public life. They would do so because of the pressure from senior leaders of their parties who did not brook those wanting to enter politics for amassing private wealth.
From a time when people did business to enter politics the situation has transformed to one where people are either routinely “buying” their way into political parties and legislatures or where they are using politics and their parties to advance their businesses. Earlier it was business for political entry points and now it is politics for clinching business deals. Why has this happened? Basically, in the past two decades ethical standards in public life have been lowered. The decay in the value system has quietly gnawed at the political and social system and has left very few among the political classes untouched.
It is not that the malaise that afflicts Indian politics is just a creation of economic liberalisation. From the time the Congress party won provincial elections in 1937 and formed governments in several provinces, the party was gripped with several maladies and this engaged both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Since the Congress was virtually the only political party with a significant nationwide presence after independence, all the ills that afflicted the nation first infected the party. The term Bhai Bhatijawad developed in the 1950s when the system of favouritism to near and dear ones became commonplace in matters of postings in plum positions, government contracts, licenses and quotas. The category of middlemen also emerged at this time whose specialisation was to fix a deal between the two “needy” parties – one needed the favours and the other wanted the goodies. The word “contact” has been part of the Indian political lexicon for six decades and all parties and governments have cohabited with it instead of eliminating it.
Frank Moraes, the respected editor of several papers in the 1950s and 1960s wrote in 1959: “Before independence, service to the Congress party was identified with service to the country…Today the popular mind regards the average Congressman symbolising self before service.” More than five decades after this observation was made, it has become applicable virtually for the entire political class because the Congress and its leaders are not the only ones wielding political power. Instances are galore when leaders in Opposition have used their acquaintances in government to curry favours, for themselves and their close associates and relatives.
Political power was intended to be an instrument of dominance of ideology and a tool for implementation of programmes. It has instead become a harbinger of personal fortune. From the time when a mere whiff of allegation of corruption against political leaders resulted in their decision to resign and stay out of office till they were cleared of the charges, the situation has changed to one where leaders across the political spectrum refuse to do so.
Has the development of political order stopped after the end of the Cold War and western liberal democracy became the ultimate political structure? Does being a democratic country also entail aping the social and economic culture of the West? Has economic liberalisation in India ushered in an era where the race for moolah and political power has overtaken every other consideration? Does this mean that routine corruption is India’s destiny from which there is no escaping?
Theoreticians in political parties and organisations that shape public discourse must evaluate these questions and evolve a new code of political ethics. This has to be coupled with a compliance mechanism within parties and organisations to start with and later universally.
The last few years has witnessed unprecedented erosion of credibility of the political class. The fact that so far protests have been “seasonal” cannot lull political parties into complacency. Every party must ensure that Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion. In the history of political change there are practically no instances of the spark coming from within the system. That is the responsibility of those who are not part of government. People expect the Opposition to perform the role it is supposed to. In the past two decades regimes have changed because hubris set in among the rulers. Unless corrective steps are taken, Indian polity will be said to be suffering from hamartia. That would lead to chaos and breakdown of social ethos and recovery will not be easy.
(The writer is a senior print and TV journalist. He is also an author, writer and anchors the weekly show A Page from History on Lok Sabha TV).