The necessity of (operational) corruption

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I don’t discuss operational corruption, which is the usual corruption you hear of in the news. The book is about India’s primitive corruption, which is ‘abuse of public power for private gain’ of a completely different kind, embedded into the very foundation of the Indian nation. I talk about abuse by the system, not of the system.

If you want to understand operational corruption, I think Shiv Visvanathan’s essay titled The necessity of corruption, which I discovered just yesterday thanks to Shri Akshara K.V. of Ninasam, is a good starting point. He argues that corruption (he doesn’t call it operational corruption, but that’s what it is)…

…performs three services. Cognitively, it is a knowledge economy, in fact the first of the great modern knowledge economies. It provides life-giving or life-denying knowledge about access or entry. Second, it is a ritual service, where the tout and the clerk provide a priest-like knowledge of the system which is formidable in its intimacy. Third, the tout familiarizes one about the system, domesticates power in a paternalistic patron-centred language, creating a pastoralism of a parallel kind. For example, it redefines access as ascription, rather as an achievement or legal rationality. It embodies power, especially the power of intermediaries so the system acquires concreteness. Who you know determines how you enter. The Punjabi English question ‘koi approach hai, koi contact hai?’ sums up the rules and techniques of entry. Power rather than becoming abstract and remote becomes approachable.

In short, instead of blindly blaming those who indulge in operational corruption, and believing that everyone is morally degraded, Shiv Visvanathan makes the only known attempt to understand why the phenomenon exists. I have myself remained aloof from the topic because I have always felt that primitive corruption is much more important to understand and deal with. I am often asked how primitive corruption and operational corruption are related, but my answer has been “I don’t know, I haven’t studied it.”

However, this much I know: the ideas for dealing with primitive corruption which I give in the last chapter, if implemented well, will automatically reduce operational corruption. For example, if the Centre holds only defense and external affairs portfolios, there will be no question of cronyism there. It moves to the states but the intellectual task of understanding operational corruption becomes much less daunting at the state level for the simple reason that the number of parameters to deal with is considerably smaller.