Both hands are skilled in doing evil, the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire - they all conspire together”.
The Book of Micah 7:3 The Old Testament
Anna Hazare Jee’s indefinite fast on the issue of the Lokpal bill underlines the starkness of the situation. There is a growing perception that despite the urgency of the situation the institutional response to the problem of all pervasive corruption has been inadequate. Instead of a grim determination to fight corruption or a cogent strategy to contain it, what has been in evidence is brazen compromise for survival. Corruption in public life, we may recall, was one of the main planks of the bloodier, longer lasting JP movement. Regimes have changed several times and yet decades later the same issues are being revisited and the malady if anything has become more virulent. So while discussing the current crisis one must constantly be aware of the historicity of the problem.
Anna Hazare Jee is galvanizing public opinion not only on the immediate issue of the Lokpal Bill, but against corruption in public life in general. The response has been overwhelming and everybody seems to be in a great hurry to come on board. It is a little surprising, considering the fact that everyone is with Hazare Jee- politicians of all hues, film stars, merchant bankers and corporate leaders, social activists, civil servants, academicians , and yet the enemy is still looming large. Therefore, one must take stock of our strengths and weaknesses recognise our friends from enemies and beware of opportunists and fifth columnists, carnival lovers and the feisty publicity seekers.
Democracy attributes good sense and judgment to its citizenry at large and it is supposed to exercise its control over the day to day functioning of the government through public opinion,(as if there is a body of opinion, fully formed, ubiquitous and all knowing, which once alerted to wrongdoing, will come down like a ton of bricks and ensure immediate remedial measures. ) That, alas! is not true. Generally speaking people are ignorant and indifferent, people are resistant to mobilization and sustained activism. Wrapped in their own petty little concerns and anxieties they are easily satisfied with cosmetic changes. As a worst case they get used to everything – just about everything. This is where the charismatic leader comes in.
The fourth estate is one of the seminal institutions of an open society. As its watchdog, it guards our interest by keeping an alert and ever watchful eye on the functioning of the three estates. Its criticism has no coercive, corrective function but it creates a climate of opinion in which the government decisions could be tested on the touchstone of legitimacy and public interest. The nature of its job demands that while holding a mirror to the other three estates it must subject to the public scrutiny because its moral authority depends on the basis of the impartiality and public spiritedness of its stance.
A society can never be – has never been – run by decrees. To enforce the obedience of its constituents to a certain conduct, the appeal of “unwritten laws” is more important than the coercive powers of law. Many of us have violent quarrel with our spouses but very few resort to violence, not because they are afraid of the police, but because they fear what their neighbours will say. Public stigmatization, branding and ostracism are time honoured methods of enforcing socially useful behaviour. Sustained campaign of exposure in the media, highlighting their wrong doing is very useful deterrent against white collar offenders and other wrong doers. But the stereotype of the untidy, unshaven, journalist unmindful of threats and impervious to the lure of profit, reinforced through countless films and folklore has now been replaced with the “Radia Tapes” variety of wheeler-dealer. Never since our independence has media been the target of such generalized distrust.
It is the political class which is finally responsible for the institutional remedies. It is they who feed the agenda in legislative forum. Their attitude can be best summed up by the draft Lokpal Bill. It has been more than forty years and more in the making and when finally it does arrive, it is a case of too little too late, as Anna Hazare ji would have us believe, and the tokenism of the gesture is in an appallingly cynical disregard of public aspirations.
As far as one can remember, in its battle against corruption, the political class always frames the issue in polemical rather than constructive, moral terms. It is always –“worse immoralities have been seen in your regime”;”My corruption is good, yours is bad.” The issue has never been couched in simple terms – that all corruption is venal and equally reprehensible. There is no scope for moral relativism or comparative, competitive excuses.
Needless to say the political class has been so deeply mired in corruption that if it were to fight its battle seriously, it would be equivalent to the mythical bard sawing off the branch he was sitting on. Therefore, its phony battles are staged, to the accompaniment of the necessary sound and fury, more in order to distract the mildly inquisitive public. The cut and thrust in the debating forum are in the nature of a highly stylized form of combat which in Mark Danner’s vivid imagery is , “…. like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless….”
The quota of public servants arrested “red handed” for accepting bribe, or unearthing of the disproportionate assets of the occasional civil servant, measured in terms of flats jewellery and bank balance helps to keep the constituents peaceful and pacified. But when it comes to the full scale depredations of robber barons in cahoots with the political elite, investigation is hard pressed to find by ways and blind alleys to hide in.
All these decorous gestures are part of what Leo Strauss would call the “necessary lie”. Democratic elites are aware of the actual state of things but they are obliged to keep the people in a state of blessed ignorance. But truth has a way of getting out and the public odium that renowned political leaders were heaped upon the moment they tried to hitch their wagon to the cause is proof enough that the political class also stands thoroughly discredited. Its minion the bureaucracy, never the darling of the people, has been given up on, long ago.
The response of people at large is even more ambiguous because it is rooted in the fact that they are themselves “half victims, half accomplice, like everyone.” Their lack of combativeness and venom, the extraordinary passivity of the people stems from the fact that they tend to be comfortable with the idea that corruption is an inescapable fact of governance and political morality.
Hoederer’s admonition to Hugo (who refuses to “dirty” his hands) in Jean Paul Sartre’s play Dirty Hands would induce a curious sense of déjà vu in those of us who have tried to take a stand against the contemporary wisdom:
“You cling so tightly to your purity, my lad! How terrified you are of sullying your hands. Well, go ahead then, stay pure! What good will it do, and why even bother coming here among us? Purity is a concept of fakirs and friars. But you, the intellectuals, the bourgeois anarchists, you invoke purity as your rationalization for doing nothing. Do nothing, don’t move, and wrap your arms tight around your body, put on your gloves. As for myself, my hands are dirty. I have plunged my arms up to the elbows in excrement and blood. And what else should one do? Do you suppose that it is possible to govern innocently?”
The ambiguity in the public attitude towards ill-gotten money is the result of our peculiar situation. Our economy is half white and half black, half over-ground and half underground. We condemn black money but deal in it, nevertheless. Under our very eyes, criminals and gangsters acquire wealth, then political power, then more wealth and with it acceptability and social esteem. Political banditry as a mode of creation of surplus value has long been accepted as a legitimate vocation. To displace the awareness of these contradictions, we have devised various overt and covert strategies to acknowledge and accommodate the criminality with in our midst. Lawyers, chartered accountants, investment advisors, honestly work for the legitimization of dishonest earnings by politicians, government officials, corporate CEOs, etc. Dirty money courses through our formal and informal financial system in different ways, with different consequences. We do not seek to know hard enough about the offshore funds being routed in our economy for fear of discovering their actual provenance. We are so enamoured, even over awed with power and manipulation that we tend to ignore what David Bell calls “the economic fulcrum underneath”.
But these are truths not revealed to us. In an age when God has abdicated in favour of 24/7 cable TV, we live in presence of media rather than in presence of God, and truth or fact-hood is not an independently verifiable, objective state of being. Fact-hood has to be conferred. Even gossip, when aired by the media, commands greater credibility than established fact. Criminals are being revealed as the conduits for the ill-gotten funds of political stalwarts; political stalwarts are being unmasked as the source of strength and immunity that they enjoyed in the eyes of the enforcement agencies but the media presentation of the issue lends to the whole issue a stance of moral neutrality.
To intensify the asymmetry further forces larger than all of us taken together – the forces of history- seem to have overtaken us. Bukharin’s premonitory fears of the development of "state capitalist trusts”, where the state bureaucracy is reduced to being an agent of capital accumulation may be on its way to being fulfilled. The 2G scam is the most compelling and detailed validation of this thesis. To lend a dramatic irony to the desperate nature of the battle against corruption now that it has been joined in right earnest, some of the best lawyers, the sword arm of the civil society, have been claimed by the other side and a lawyer of right credentials and requisite merit is hard to come by for prosecuting an important scam!
Leviathan lives in a state of sin, rulers are by nature profligate and rakish. Corruption has been a trapping of power, regrettable but unavoidable, throughout the ages. In the days before media saturation, the distant rumours of corruption in high places never got beyond rumour. But now the high and mighty are in the open glare of publicity thanks to cable TV. The current crisis is that all the people, even the poor to whom traditionally the role of remaining honest has been assigned, have lost their purity. A corrosive cynicism has eroded not only their self belief, but their faith in the entire array of institutions. All that they are left with is their cold unfocussed anger. Their helplessness or lack of belief is not as much a cause for worry as the fact that “when people stop trusting the elites, they perceive that the throne is empty, that the decision is now theirs.” I heard Jasmine Revolution and Tahrir Square mentioned in this context because they have now become the staple of public discourse. The radicalization of the masses is a good thing, provided the issues are clearly formulated, achievable and as free of rhetoric and ethical absolutes as possible. Tahrir Square is not an unmitigated blessing.