Bad eggs don’t help

In a brilliant talk titled Does the news do us any good? Alain de Botton, a Swiss-British writer, philosopher, and television presenter in the UK, says:

The thing about the news is that it’s obsessed by bad eggs. It’s obsessed with the Watergate paradigm which associates everything that’s wrong in society with a few bad eggs… who’ve done some things wrong… and you can try and identify them… and then put handcuffs on them… and then take them to jail… and all will be… well. The thing is that most of the things that are really wrong with our society… you can’t bundle someone in a prison van and take them away. There are systemic problems that arise not from evil or crookedness but from lazy thinking, lack of inspiration, etc. The news is very bad at seeing systemic problems…

This is, in some sense, my point of departure in The Pyramid of Corruption. Those were times when there was so much hype about the Anna Hazare movement that I was forced to think what really corruption is all about. Will all be really well if the bad eggs are identified and sent to jail? And then I realized that we are so used to blaming individuals about our political problems that we tend to forget that they’re systemic.

The definition of corruption as ‘abuse of public power for private gain’ has nothing in it which requires us to attach it only to individuals. I argue that entire groups of people can indulge in it. The very foundation of the modern Indian nation is afflicted with such group corruption. I call it India’s Primitive Corruption. It’s impossible and pointless to point at individuals – contemporary or past – and blame them for it. We have to get out of this individual-bashing mindset to understand what’s fundamentally wrong with the Indian nation.

Why corruption?

By the time I completed writing The Pyramid of Corruption, the Jan Lokpal protests led by Anna Hazare had nearly come to a halt and the UPA government had begun to take the matter seriously. There were claims that the protesters had ‘won’. The so-called Aam Aadmi Party, whose stated objective is to eliminate corruption in India, had not yet been formed.

Fast-forwarding to today, Anna Hazare is out of the game and the public hysteria over the Lokpal Bill is gone; and a subset of the protesters have formed the Aam Aadmi Party. The latest news is that this party has already managed to get into its own alleged corruption scandal. One can hear arguments that this new ‘party with a difference’ is no different, after all.

Of course it’s too early to say whether or not the corruption charges on AAP are genuine. Even if they are, since there are much bigger and dirtier fish in the game, the new tiny fish in the pond is certainly one of the cleaner ones. Since AAP has carved out a niche for itself by opposing the corruption in parties such as the Congress and the BJP, it may be reasonable to expect, perhaps, that it will fare better, if not a lot better, at what is known as being clean.

But the problem with this whole approach to ‘cleanliness’ in politics is it recognizes only what can be described as operational corruption. This is the corruption in the functioning of existing systems of politics and economics, not in their definition or construction. Put differently, this approach assumes that the nation by itself is infinitely incorruptible; that everything that has transpired in the process of its establishment is free from corruption, even divine; and that the only thing wrong with the nation is the character of the people running it today.

But this is far from true. As I show in the book, the very foundation of the Indian nation is steeped in corruption which fits the popular definition of the term, ‘abuse of public power for private gain’. This can be called the nation’s primitive corruption, to distinguish it from operational corruption.

The Aam Aadmi Party, whose motto is to ‘clean up the system’, cannot be said to have an all-India ideology or philosophy of its own. All it proposes to do is bring execution excellence to, or remove the painful friction from the working of, the Indian nation. AAP’s declared focus, therefore, is not on where India should be going but how to take it there effectively and efficiently!

India’s primitive corruption has ‘contributions’ from people from the very first pages of India’s history, the British, as well as the original Indian National Congress which, of course, played a crucial role in the independence movement. This primitive corruption is not even recognized by AAP or other parties, or in fact, anybody currently seeking to ‘clean up’ India.

Cleaning up, as understood today, can at best result in the creation of one hundred percent clean Congresses, BJPs and public offices of all descriptions. Contrary to popular belief, this would be a disaster because, then, there would be no impediments thwarting the career of the primitive corruption embedded in the foundation of the nation – one that threatens to consume hundreds of millions of people, all amidst the vulgar songs of patriotism.