Cultures of Corruption

Kalpana Kannabiran

We are a country given to idolatry – both the erection and demolition of idols a favourite pastime that buries under the rubble questions of ethics and constitutional morality.   While this penchant for idolatry raises larger questions,  I will concern myself at this point with the effigy (or the idol upside down) called corruption.

While there has undoubtedly been a marked shift in the languages of corruption in the neo liberal era, calling for new and different strategies to combat it, the fight against corruption is not new.  When women’s groups campaigned decades ago against the testing of banned drugs and contraceptives on poor people by the ICMR, the question that was raised was about the nexus between pharmaceutical companies and state actors that involved deals for which poor and vulnerable communities were pushed to the guillotine.  With Bhopal, the question came up again on the deals between multinational companies (Union Carbide in this case) and the government that violated every principle of human rights, natural justice, constitutional morality and the ethics of care in governance.  Was the derailment of justice effected without corruption at every level? Apart from providing care to the affected, was not the struggle for justice in Bhopal a struggle against corruption?  When the People’s War Group (as it was then called) abducted an elected representative two decades ago (who was later released), the reason they gave to the negotiators was that he misused public funds in the district and asserted that theirs was a fight against corrupt representatives.

A visually challenged dalit woman president of a self help group publicly testified in the tribunal on the World Bank held at JNU a few years ago, on the normalization of corrupt practices in the disbursement of funds, and on the use of the power of caste and gender to beat down opposition from people like her.  Faculty and students of a prestigious public university resisted and stalled the allocation of university land to a corporate medical facility, a case in which informed media reports exposed major irregularities in the agreement (a euphemism for corruption).  Civil liberties groups for decades have been fighting corruption in criminal justice and investigation (in which the forensic medical fraternity is complicit) on a case-by-case basis.  It was the collective struggle of large numbers of people of the working class in Rajasthan, whose livelihood depended on daily wages that was responsible for the passage of the right to information act.  The fight for justice to the survivors of Gujarat 2002 has still not ended because the resistance to the corruption of the state machinery is far from easy in operational terms.  And yet, struggles there have been – memorable and tenacious ones that have spanned the little hamlet and the national stage.  And the struggle against corruption has had heroes who have paid with their lives and others who have lost their livelihoods for resisting it.

In the sudden snowballing of the movement led by Anna Hazare, there has been a reduction of corruption to its effigy out there that can be burnt or disfigured.  But yet, when we think more carefully, it strikes us that corruption is in fact a question of culture, of a way of life and ways of negotiating with the daily business of living; it is about a way of thinking about ourselves, our kin, and the spaces we build – familial, community and institutional besides the public space of government; thinking about corruption is about setting out the non-negotiables that will govern us as much as it will govern others; and most importantly, in the context of the Jan Lokpal Bill, it is about preserving the fundamental principles of human rights even at the most heady, euphoric moments of resistance.

When the builder “regularizes” a manifestly irregular construction; or another slaps a public servant on duty and gets away with it; when aspiring industrialists of Indian origin want to “fast-track” their aspirations by having all stops removed; when doctors in the towns and metropoles cosy up to the much vilified RMPs (registered medical practitioners) in the peri-urban and rural areas; when lawyers in courts of original jurisdiction or those seeking senior engagements cultivate the habit of approaching some senior colleagues and not others with an eye on kickbacks in fees; when members of the respectable elite feel a tinge of regret (embarrassment even) in unequivocally castigating an IT giant who landed in jail for criminal corruption;  when we encounter the cash-for-mobility policy that governs the movement of files in a government office; when we witness the brotherhood of health care blooming and growing through mutual payoffs between different care providers, the burden of which must be borne by unsuspecting care seekers, we are witnessing and negotiating with the culture of corruption that is not as far removed from us as an effigy.

When we believe that we must remove customary stops and we can ignore simple caveats to bring scarce jobs, projects, positions and seats to people we love or those we owe a “return gift” to – because after all love translates into the removal of hardship; when defeat translates into victory with a single whir of the money machine; or when we make our peace with “chai-pani” so that we can get on with our work rather than waiting endlessly, we are after all participating in the culture of corruption and fortifying it from within.

These are difficult and arduous struggles, often life-threatening, but when the going gets really tough, Bollywood shows us the way:  Anil Kapoor, who in a single day as chief minister sets right all of Bombay’s ills, or the even more celebrated Sanjay Dutt, who teaches us that Gandhigiri is the best way to tackle corruption.  It was puzzling initially, to see references to Annasaheb Hazare as the new age Gandhi.  But suddenly it all falls into place.  The recall is “Munnabhai” who immediately catalyses “gandhigiri” signaled by the anna-topi and the jan lokpal bill.  Annasaheb and his illustrious work in the villages in Maharashtra fades from view.  The constitution with its caveats and the rule of law have no place here.  Cameras roll overtime, anchors squabble for bytes and scream, taking the hysteria to a crescendo.   Film stars, cult leaders, the ordinarily sedate upwardly mobile, urban middle class across ages, and aspirants to the national political stage all occupy the screen, while mobile phone providers make a killing with chain sms-es flying back and forth.  Standing uneasily with this motley group are public figures known for their commitment and their work, who have inexplicably capitulated to the headiness of the moment.  The tide ebbs, the advantage of the moment is surrendered to “consensually” decided representatives, and the issue of corruption has been “tackled” by the vibrant and watchful citizenry.

But the fact is that the going is tough.  The struggle against corruption at any level is the toughest of struggles. There are questions of culture and ethics, but also importantly questions of the rule of law.  So we are back to the question we started with.  But there is also an ethical question that must be addressed in this case.  Does every “representative” in this group come to the drafting table with clean, unsullied hands?  Has every member of the group entrusted with the onerous task of putting in place a roadmap for constitutional morality and ethics in public and private life resisted the culture of corruption beyond dispute?  Or have we yet again surrendered the moment to idolatry that guarantees immunity to the idol?

 

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