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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Corruption in Public Life and The Absconding God

( “The act of God” remark in the context of the Calcutta bridge collapse and the  indigence senior civil servants and police officers as reflected in their property statements triggered these musings. Some of the remarks and statements have appeared in my interviews or articles published elsewhere. After all you can’t have something new to say everyday on the  timeworn old issue of corruption. )

Eradicating corruption is an impossible task.Impossible, because it would be a suicidal act for the governments, for the political system, for the society; and suicides are not the norm. Apart from the practical difficulties there are important objective, historical reasons for it. The integrity of a people depends upon their social and cultural context. Scandinavian societies tend to be more honest; the societies in the Indian subcontinent fall far short of the ideal. Our system of values favour clientelism, favouritism and nepotism (Casteism, is the main culprit but of that later). Problems of corruption are also rooted in structural causes; they are inscribed in the pattern of governance. The system we have inherited was created to encourage corruption and suits us fine too.

We may be a corrupt people but on the scale of hypocrisy and self image we must award ourselves full marks. Under populist pressure and competitive moralistic posturing the definition of corruption has been steadily enlarged just as the moral stature of public servants has diminished in equal measure. More and more areas of conduct of public servants are being labeled as corrupt. Stringent corruption laws are being brought on the statute book setting extravagant public goals and giving rise to enormous public expectations. The issue of corruption naturally comes to occupy the centre stage of public concerns and governments who are dead keen not lose support need to be seen to be doing something. The idealistic ambition and puritan rage are writ large in our approach to anti – corruption strategies. 

 At the same time impracticable, unenforceable laws are made for no other reason than that we have elected lawmakers and progressively there has been a radical contraction of the formally unregulated space yielding ever greater areas of our concern to bureaucratic scrutiny and control.  As if this was not a bad enough thing in itself, poorly drafted rules and regulations open up many more opportunities of rent seeking and bribery.

 In a crony capitalistic order in an advanced stage of state capture, “society naturally divides itself into the very few and the many” according to the “unequal faculties of acquiring property” of its constituents. Such a differentiation of traits is most likely to occur in civil servants, politicians, powerbrokers, pimps, and all others who owe their ascent to nontraditional means of economic climbing- proximity to power. The several fold increase in public spending dramatically enlarges the “corruptive interface “.The poverty alleviation programmes not only do not alleviate the poverty of the poor as pollute the public space. (See my “The Poor Must Prevail”

How do democratic governments handle so many contradictions? As a matter of public policy they resort to what, Leo Strauss calls “necessary lie” wherein, the rulers, in a bid to displace awareness from what is terrible or inescapable in our lives, feed the people fables to keep them peaceful and pacified. Anti corruption strategies are palliatives, reduce public anxiety and assuage their sentiment. Hence zero tolerance to corruption becomes the avowed goal of governments with exaggerated self image.

 Officers manning the anti corruption / vigilance outfits know the futility of it.  That is why they do not not take the official anti corruption policy proclamations of the government too literally. Too well aware that even people in the highest echelons are corrupt, they nevertheless allow ourselves to be used as props in this absurd theatre. Every day news papers are full of stories of lowly government servants being arrested accepting petty sums of bribe. It is presumed that such a strategy of making an example of the lowest of the low works, even if nobody believes in them. In fact the “knowers”know that a cynical attitude towards it is what is actually required; for   the zero tolerance policy to be taken seriously and acted upon in right earnest is what would be catastrophic   both for the government as well as the na├»ve civil servant.  I learnt it the hard way, too late in the day in fact, to benefit from it.
Our politicians are clever, inventive fabulists. Making public the assets of all the public servants including that of the Chief Minister is one such latest and deeply layered fable. It is also the supreme exemplar of the idea of “necessary lie”.  Implicit in this move are several fallacious assumptions but its sheer capacity to mesmerize the common man makes it a potent tool of propaganda. For one thing, is it being suggested that the dishonest public servant will grab this offer of the government and invite for public inspection all the fruits of his forbidden pursuit? The other equally comic notion is that the people, once they are aware, each one of them would assume the role of amateur investigators, and try to dig out the unaccounted property paving the way for prosecution under the PC Act for disproportionate assets. The mother of all fallacies is that the issue of corruption is treated as   an ‘idealist’ problem of knowledge. The mere awareness of corruption would trigger radical resistance in the people. The truth is quite the contrary. The people know it only too well. They realize that corruption is the ghost in machine which runs the system.  There is no point antagonizing it beyond a point, if at the end of the day one has to live with it .Some would merely leave the corrupt to be punished by God.In such a context, is it any wonder that falling bridges are called acts of God; non performing loans worth a million crores of rupees, or the coal scam and many others scams may equally be called acts of God .No wonder again that God, unable to answer so many charges has absconded from our midst.

 But come March and we celebrate the great festival of lies when the public servants of all hues  declare their assets with great fanfare ; the public servants lie collectively; the government proudly displays the lying product of their ingenuity; the media enthusiastically propagate it; and we the people consume it with great relish. What endless source of mirth and merriment do the disclosures provide? And, Oh! how much more comfortable is to escape to the enormous bubble of lie where at least corruption has been banished and the  poor uncomplaining, slaving public servants live within their means.