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Some Bigger Questions About Corruption

By Arpita Banerjee

11 April, 2011

My humblest respect and support to Anna Hazare, who is fighting against corruption and in favor of Lok Pal bill, in the form of hunger strike till death. We get to see an unprecedented unison of people who are fed-up with the extent of corruption present in India. The media is taking significant part in delivering the message and the inspiring environment to Indians across the country and the globe. The social networking sites are abuzz with calls to ‘support the cause’. Some are even finding similarity between the Jantar Mantar of Delhi and Tahrir Square of Cairo. Whether that similarity is far-fetched is a separate but important question, but at this point, there are some more questions that demand addressing, if we want to rout corruption from India.

It may sound dampening to the spirit of people who are engaging in this so-called ‘revolution’ in India, to step back and do a dissection of the issue. But nevertheless, it is better to think before taking a step than to find ourselves fooled just one more time. There is no dearth of failed ‘revolutions’ in India or anywhere else, and the sentiment that the ‘public’ has proved itself to be a futile force to bring in any change.

If we try to make a list of the social phenomena that curve out our survival in a country like India, corruption may well be one of the toppers. But what is corruption? It is the effort to influence and/or the abuse of public authority through the giving or the acceptance of inducement or illegal reward for undue personal or private advantage. This is the most accepted definition in the field of research on corruption. But clearly there are two parties involved in the process. One who receives the inducement or bribe and the other who gives it. Most of the time we find the former more unacceptable than the latter, and the reason could be that we see the latter as a prey of the former. That latter is ‘us’, the ‘common people’, the ‘robbed victims’. While this is not entirely untrue, there is much more to this predator-prey dualism. When Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda accepts some $2 billion or more in bribe and is put behind the bars, we breathe a sigh of relief that Indian judiciary did the right thing convicting an evil politician who dared to take bribe. Fair enough, but do we know who paid the bribe? Clearly, it has to be someone (or may be more than one) or some corporation who could foresee a manifold financial advantage in getting permits/contracts in return for the bribe. Do these corporations/private capitalists fall into the category of ‘poor victims’ of government mal-practices? Can we see them as one of ‘us’? If yes, then we need to redo our own cost-benefit analysis. And if not, then let us start paying attention to our dualistic understanding of government and the rest of us. A counterpart of the definition of corruption is that of fraud. A fraud is any deliberate misrepresentation of facts and/or significant information to obtain undue or illegal financial advantage. It is not too hard to understand who benefits from frauds, at least not the brigade of ‘common man’, unless we are willing to put the shady building contractors, real estate promoters or the private agencies that repair bridges. Rent-seeking is a frequent and integral part of many private businesses. How do we plan to accommodate them into our world of dualism?

Things get even murkier if we think about the pervasion of corruption or fraud in our lives. How do we come to terms with the system of dowry? Is it too different from a bribe? Can the Jantar Mantar become a Tahrir Square, if we agree at all that it has on the corruption issue, on the issue of dowry? It is hard to believe, as that is not a national problem with dire consequences like corruption in the conventional sense. Or is it not really? It indicates towards the class dimension of the on-going ‘revolution’ against corruption. We could not motivate ourselves enough, neither at the Jantar Mantar nor on social networking sites when 200,000 farmers committed suicide. Again, we did get celebrity endorsements and high-profile support when it was Bt Brinjal’s turn, unlike the case of Bt Cotton. We the middle-class care for genetic modification of our food, but not so much for the lives of the cotton farmers of Vidarbha who fell prey to the politics of Bt Cotton seeds.

Even the class dimension cannot deny the fact that corruption is a real problem in countries like India. That is why, Anna Hazare’s politics and the stream of support for it is significant. That brings another question, which on one hand should prevent the supporters of the movement from stopping at passing the Lok Pal bill (which is precisely what Anna Hazare is demanding for). And on the other, it should compel us to recognize and find the solution to the disconnect between passing a bill and getting rid of a problem. Can legality be the solution to such an epidemic that has the government, the people, and the corporate alike under its spell? There is no lack of bills and laws in India, but which one of them was able to stop child labor or dowry or sex-determination of the fetus? A successful passing of the Lok Pal bill will hardly become the end of corruption. Then why are we calling this demand for passing a piece of legislation ‘a movement to end corruption’?

For ‘common man’, the State and corruption has become synonymous. Yet, the irony is that we ask, demand, and petition the perpetrators to pass a bill that is meant to put a check on them! After all we are faithful citizens.

Arpita Banerjee teaches economics at Hamilton College, New York. She is also a part of the Bengali journal 'Tepantar', published annually from Kolkata, India and also a part of Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia based in Boston.



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