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.

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.

Did the founding fathers create a perfect democracy?

If you’ve read Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi, you’ve probably also read the author’s epilogue in it. Although it is titled ‘Why India Survives’, what Guha writes there is why he thinks the Indian nation survives, not India the country. In reality, the question ‘Why India Survives’ is as unnecessary as the question ‘Why Clay Survives’. There is no special enquiry required because survive India does as long as parts of its landmass do not plunge into the ocean and settle at its floor, or something. The proper question is ‘Why the Indian Nation Survives’, i.e., ‘Why the Clay Sculpture Survives’.

Relying on what he calls the ‘primitive techniques of the narrative historian’[i], Guha suggests that the reason why the Indian nation survives (why India survives, as he puts it) is that the ‘forces that divide India’ viz., caste, language, religion and class and gender are nullified by the great power of democracy and something ‘which can only be described as an Indian spirit’[ii]. Yes, a magical, surreal and inexplicable spirit of a kind—to use Gandhi’s words—‘unknown in other parts of the world’. Crediting the founding fathers with planting a ‘sapling of democracy’, Guha writes:

It is in the nature of democracies, perhaps, that while visionaries are sometimes necessary to make them, once made they can be managed by mediocrities. In India, the sapling was planted by the nation’s founders, who lived long enough (and worked hard enough) to nurture it into adulthood. Those who came afterwards could disturb and degrade the tree of democracy but, try as they might, could not uproot or destroy it.[iii]

Thus, whatever problems one sees in India today, due to which, presumably, Guha himself says that India is a ‘phipty-phipty’ (or fifty-percent) democracy today[iv], are the handiwork of ‘those who came afterwards’. Perhaps unintentionally, Guha makes it seem as if the nation’s founders themselves (the British were the original founders of the Indian nation, but I mean the Indians who founded the independent Indian nation here) have nothing to do with those problems; they apparently had the special ability to turn off one hundred percent the negative influences of ages of societal corruption in India’s history, and possessed the uncanny ability to create a democratic nation with one hundred percent perfection and effectiveness. Democracy, a concept of public affairs ‘brought into being on an Athenian hillside some 2,500 years ago’[v], was Indianized by the founders with no errors whatsoever, and a perfect sapling was planted. While the founders were apparently infinitely above ‘mediocrities’, it’s only ‘those who came afterwards’ who disturbed and degraded the tree of democracy.

This view of the creation of the Indian nation betrays the fact that rational evaluation of the process leading to the founding of nations often stops the moment the figures of the leaders are cast in bronze and garlanded. This also betrays the seemingly uncontrollable urge to think of nations as divine and infinitely incorruptible in spite of all moral evidence to the contrary. Perhaps there is something about history which makes it appear divine, even to historians. They often make us feel that the problems of the present are entirely of recent origin, the past being golden. But is it not obvious that the past was the present one day, and therefore, that it could not have been without its ‘mediocrities’?

Unless we throw away all the societal corruption that our forefathers had perpetrated in India’s long history of ‘socialized tyranny’ (to use Rabindranath Tagore’s description of the caste-system)[vi] into the surreal mist of blind nationalism; unless we believe in angels with mysterious powers who materialize out of nowhere and create ideal democracies irrespective of the social history of the people; or both; an important truth emerges as we carefully read India’s history. Upon rational scrutiny, one realizes that while the founders of the post-independence Indian nation were certainly visionaries who did their best to relieve Indians from the oppression of the British, they made mistakes in the process. They did not emerge out of thin air or remain all their lives completely uninfluenced by those who had come before them. They too were ‘those who came afterwards’. The feeling that most historians spread, that there could have been nothing amiss in the ‘sapling of democracy’ planted by the founders of the Indian nation is, therefore, to be discarded.

The very fact that an oversized and overly-strong central government was created, by usurping the powers of the people and the hundreds of princes and depositing them in New Delhi, is sufficient proof that a perfect democracy was not put in place by the founders. Guha narrates many of the happenings of this period in a detailed chapter titled ‘Apples in the Basket’, but fails to admit that the basket was actually taken away from the people and presented for consumption in New Delhi. Fruits of the people which were grown for the people and which were being enjoyed by the people of India were all basketed and taken away from the people, but Guha does not feel the need to point this out. No, this was the unique Indian method of creating a democracy!

Even today the tendency in India is to centralize anything and everything possible by taking away powers from the people and the states. Indian democracy rests on the principle of absolute power which must sit thousands of kilometers away from the citizen. Political and economic power are not in the hands of the people but concentrated in the hands of those who have assumed lordship over them, just like in the days of the British. Guha describes this as the functioning of a vibrant and well-behaved democracy with all its twists and turns—a reason ‘Why India Survives’.

Or take the example of India’s currency notes. Anybody who has seen one might have easily overlooked the fact that the denomination is printed in fifteen different Indian languages other than Hindi and the language of the original founders of the Indian nation, viz., English. Those fifteen languages have to be literally located on the notes using a magnifying lens. When one ultimately finds them, one realizes that they are not meant for being read by humans. The small font-size used for those languages betrays the ‘importance’ allocated them in the Indian nation during its foundation. Even a dead language – Sanskrit – is given the same place and font-size on the Indian currency note as the living languages, and this speaks volumes of the importance that the Indian nation attaches to the living languages of India (other than Hindi) and their hundreds of millions of living speakers. However, on this topic, Guha happily declares that

The note’s denomination – 5, 10, 50, 100, etc. – is printed in words in Hindi and English (the two official languages), but also, in smaller type, in all the other languages of the Union. In this manner, as many as seventeen different scripts are represented. With each language, and each script, comes a distinct culture and regional ethos, here nesting more or less comfortably with the idea of India as a whole.[vii]

Guha fails to attach even the slightest importance to the fact that the ‘other languages’ are basically neglected by giving them only a ‘smaller type’. This is no trivial fact, but one that illustrates the undemocratic nature of the Indian nation where the languages of India are not treated equally, and where Hindi and English are given larger-than-life statuses. This is the silent rejection of that very idea of democracy on whose basis Guha claims that the Indian nation survives, but he calls this as the nesting of each language, script, culture and regional ethos ‘more or less comfortably with the idea of India as a whole’.

Guha’s failure to recognize such silent rejections of the principle of democracy in the Indian nation, while mechanically listing the raw historical data, is discomforting. Although not in degree, it can be compared in kind to the failure of the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison to appoint more than one sentence, ‘buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance’, to recount the genocide initiated by Columbus in America. Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, describes this method of telling history in the following revealing words:

One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide. But he does something else – he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important – it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect little what we do in the world.[viii]

Like most historians of Indian origin, Guha makes the reader believe that a near-ideal democracy was put in place by the founders of the post-independence Indian nation. The story to tell is one of the difficulties they faced in doing what they did, not one of the faults in the system they built – that would be unpatriotic! I would not go to the extent of saying that Guha lies about the past or deliberately omits facts, because one has to know the truth to do either. Guha, like most educated Indians, seems not to have looked at India’s past from a viewpoint which can reveal the truth of the silent rejection of democratic ideals in it. He, too, ‘mentions the truth quickly’ and gets on with other matters, including trivia. But unlike Morison’s use of the word ‘genocide’, Guha does not suggest, even in passing, that something undesirable took place during the founding of the Indian nation. He goes on to make the reader believe with an ‘infectious calm’ that whatever it is, it is ‘not that important—it should weigh very little on our final judgments; it should affect little what we do in the world.’

I concur with Howard Zinn that, like every other historian, Guha indulges in what is inevitable for a historian: selection and emphasis. My own reading of India’s history, which I present in The Pyramid of Corruption, is not free from them. ‘In that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history,’ as Zinn wrote, my reading is admittedly biased. I have chosen to rewrite the history of the Indian nation (which is nothing more than an ‘organisation of politics and commerce’[ix]) from the viewpoint of its victims, not beneficiaries. From the latter viewpoint, the only thing wrong with the Indian nation seems to be the operational corruption of mediocre followers: a bribing bureaucrat here, a money-laundering minister there, and the like. It is only from the former viewpoint that the corruption in the very foundation of the Indian nation, i.e., India’s primitive corruption, becomes visible.

I don’t have an answer to the question why the Indian nation survives. What I do know is that India’s primitive corruption is killing it at its own slow pace. Will we understand exactly what this corruption is and take necessary measures to remove it? This, as far as I can see, is the most important question in front of Indians.

 


[i] Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Picador India, 2008, p. xxi.

[ii] Ibid., p. xvii.

[iii] Ibid., pp. 756-757.

[iv] Ibid., p. 749. ‘Phipty phipty’ is the Hindi pronunciation of the English ‘fifty-fifty’, as acknowledged by Guha. The aspirated consonant ‘ph’ is pronounced by the speakers of Indo-Aryan languages of the north including Hindi, but not necessarily by speakers of languages belonging to other language families of India. Aspirated consonants are not pronounced by the speakers of the Dravidian languages of the south, although only Tamil script has eliminated them in writing. In south India, therefore, one hears either hear ‘pipty-pipty’ or ‘fifty-fifty’ without the aspirated first consonant.

[v] Ibid., p. 750, citing Sunil Khilnani.

[vi] Rabindranath Tagore (1941) Crisis in Civilisation, in Mohit K. Ray, ed., The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (2007) Vol. 7, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, pp. 980-986.

[vii] Ibid., p. 752. Incidentally, Guha is wrong about ‘seventeen different scripts’. The Devanagari script is used for five languages: Hindi, Konkani, Marathi, Nepali, and Sanskrit. The Bengali script is used for Bengali and Assamese. This makes the number of scripts thirteen, not seventeen. If one admits that the Kashmiri script is derived from the Urdu script, the number becomes twelve.

[viii] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present, p. 8.

[ix] Rabindranath Tagore (1915) Nationalism in the West, in Mohit K. Ray, ed., The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (2007), Vol. 4., New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, pp. 441-465.