Corruption: An Alternative Interpretation

While the slogan against corruption is presently flying high in India, I think we need all the insights as possible to make sense of this phenomenon. A few questions come immediately to mind – What is corruption? Has it got anything to do with morality at all? How can it be or does it even have to be overcome in the Indian state?
 In common parlance, give/take of bribes as well as baksheesh for getting a job done or for escaping social punishment is taken to be corruption. So narrowly defined, corruption is primarily understood as a negative monetary phenomenon. So be it a give/take of a few hundred rupees to avoid a traffic ticket, or for a politician to take a few hundred crores to grant a business license both are taken as standard examples of corruption. With the media boom and its churning of millions of impressions, we in India are on one hand either immune to the political forms of corruption that adds daily to the 480 billion dollars taken out and stashed outside the Indian economy or relish in the process of scapegoating. A successful sting operation by someone like Tehelka and a videotape or a phone conversation that catches a minister ‘red-handed’ brings the whole nation against this monster who rapes her booming economy. Even the political class immediately joins the public outrage with righteous indignation and without batting an eyelid is seen condemning its own, the one chosen to be crucified, to be sacrificed so that the entire class can be redeemed. This game has been played out so often in our media in different versions that its stale plot has become rather boring – neither entertaining nor infotaining. However the public also faces the corruption phenomenon in its daily life, where it is required to give money to get legitimate works done within the public domain. For example to get a house registered or to get a driving license or a ration card or anything of utility from the government, one is required to give baksheesh. This is probably what raises the hackles of the public.
– Personal Moral Weakness or a Mechanism of Redistribution—
 This daily ritual is immediate and affects both my wallet and my bank balance directly. The millions that get siphoned off regularly do not really affect me, or so I think, but the physical rupees that I pull out of my wallet and hand over to the clerk or the constable – this enacted ritual of appeasing the smaller deities of power, though with symbolic prashad, is real and my embodiment of this ritual leaves me with a deep experience of this holy/unholy exchange – ugly and painful as I hand over the money but washed away and absolved into holy pleasure of untold ecstasy even as the god grants my boon and the license finds space in my hands. I weep with joy at His mercies and His love for low-lives such as me, who though undeserving have found favour in the Lord’s eyes and have been blessed with both the home registration and the driving license. However, as the euphoria subsides, and realization is obtained, the deep pinch of the loss of the gandhis is felt within the deep recesses of one’s soul, and the enacted ritual takes on a contrary interpretation. Secular sensibilities kick in, and you cry – he is not a god, I am god. Matter of fact, he is my servant given a job to do my beckoning for which he will get his due pay. How dare he then charge me? How has the servant become the master? The baksheesh ritual seems to suddenly go against the very grain of my religiosity and secular sensibilities and I proclaim it as corruption, a moral wickedness and great depravity. My liberal sensibilities regained, I try and find a rationale for this unholy act – greed I say, hmmm, no selfishness and greed. Why is he not satisfied with his pay? Why does he need more money to do what he is justly paid for? Can’t a servant be satisfied with his wages? Why should he aspire for more? Thus the phenomenon is quickly interpreted as a moral breakdown and corruption is seen as moral weakness.
 This interpretation of corruption as a moral malaise has largely come from one who either holds or is influenced even unconsciously, by a liberal view of society and state. A liberal state while it is completely supportive of entrepreneurship and free market, is a strong state that has control over the economic processes within it. Every dollar profited is taxed at source and social processes are in place to ensure that those working for the state are paid handsomely from it. The redistribution is managed optimally not because of the liberality of a state, but rather because of the immense control exercised by the liberal state on the capitalism it reigns over. The entire economy is built around utilitarian principles and Adam Smith’s principle of personal greed. Though it has been institutionalised even greed has to have moral principles. Thus bribery or its Indian equivalent baksheesh is seen as a sign of extending the boundaries of legal greed, and as a personal moral weakness that goes against the processes set up to maximise wealth-generation. Simply put baksheesh ultimately goes against the grain of institutionalised greed and that is unacceptable, completely unacceptable. That is why, within a liberal state, corruption is seen as a personal moral weakness and is condemned, while what gets hidden and actually supported is institutionalised greed that not only rapes both the environment and weaker economies but is worshipped as the new god of liberalism.
 Within the Indian context, those influenced by liberal sensibilities naively mimic the liberal condemnatory position against corruption and look at it as a personal moral weakness. But by naively doing so, they ignore the real processes taking place within the un-liberal Indian economy. The process of corruption needs to be understood in a deeper fashion within the Indian state, and not from a liberal position, that presupposes a strong egalitarian state where anyone circumventing the state system is termed corrupt. In my opinion, India has a very weak state machinery and its systems are riddled with so many holes that one sometimes wonders if we have a state at all. India can claim to be liberal and secular and even have these terms inserted into its constitution, but that says nothing about the state of affairs of the Indian state. One must look below the words and terms to look at the processes that hold the Indian state machinery together. This is of course not the place to do that, but only to look at a snapshot of why baksheesh and bribery though condemned as a personal moral weakness by a liberal position which has institutionalised greed, has to be interpreted in a different manner within the Indian economy – maybe even as a redeeming process.
 Indian society has not undergone the version of modernization and liberalization that Europe went through in the modern era. Europe has been able to either abolish its monarchy or make peace with them in a secular and liberal democracy. We have already critiqued the negatives of a liberal society in its institutionalisation of greed however it also has its positives that must be extolled. Especially in America, the opportunity to flourish and the capabilities needed to flourish are provided institutionally to nearly all in its society in a mostly egalitarian manner. So new social equations are formed constantly and there is no honour or pressure to maintain traditional equations.
 However, the Indian situation is very different. The modern Indian state is built upon traditional equations, which were to be honest, sloppily repackaged into a secular liberal state at the time of Independence without making any fundamental changes within society at large. The kingdoms became constituencies. The kings became Members of Parliament. I do not mean that this happened everywhere that would be a gross generalization but we do know where it happened. But more importantly, the mindset that powe
r is for a select few and it has to be respected and honoured has continued to remain as a dominant part of the Indian psyche. The traditional king got replaced by the politician and the bureaucrat and the masses continued to live as subjects. Hence the attitude that getting a driving license or a house registration is a boon and an act of grace rather than a right fulfilled. Where the traditional king lost out in the new kingdom, new kings were crowned and they obviously needed the wealth that came with the title. Thus the quest for wealth in the macro-level was seen as normative. It was only enabling the new kings to come to be at par with the old ones. Otherwise how would they have equal voice within the new kingdom of democracy? How could they have the resources even to compete against the traditional kings in elections? The old kings have not been asked to abdicate or have not been dispossessed of their wealth, so all that the new kings could do, in a society of subjects that respected and honoured wealthy kings, is to gain wealth. Obviously they wouldn’t rob a bank, or maybe they ought to and thus would. Thus in India the coming of the democratic state only deepened this divide between the masses and the kings. Even though the king-class has increased its numbers and allowed new entrants, it is still a tiny group that controls and rules over the masses. But in the new kingdom, the masses have roles and positions in the government and because in name the new kingdom is a democratic kingdom, the new kings cannot exercise complete control over their ministers and court officials as they would do in their traditional kingdoms. And these second, third, fourth class officials, with little power look for innovative ways to undercut the kings and to ensure that wealth is not purely retained in the hands of the royals but gets distributed to the other levels. Because the regular state systems have not taken equal opportunities, or equal re-distribution of wealth into consideration, these officials of the kingdom have had the need to evolve an informal system of baksheesh that will offset the total rape of the economy by the royalty and attempt at a redistribution of wealth even if it is only to their advantage. So while the politicians make their billions, the policeman on the beat makes his hundreds. Thus the accusation of corruption in all levels of power! But is this really corruption, in the sense of a personal moral weakness, or is it a counter-mechanism, a mechanism of revolt against the royalty and is in fact one of the means of re-distribution of wealth. Now, this is my take, to interpret this merely as a case of moral weakness would be to miss the larger structural inequalities that enable this nexus between power and wealth. By reducing the process of corruption to issues of morality would be to play a liberal position that would suggest an institutionalization of greed as the solution. But what may be a better way would be to explore how kingship and power have to be redefined and re-invented within modern Indian society. So on one hand this exploration has to be true to the vision of a ramrajya and not necessarily a liberal state while on the other hand it must strive to take advantage of modernity and liberalism that is inevitably upon our twenty-first century society.
Brainerd Prince, Oxford