Tuesday, August 20, 2013

India 2020: Dealing With Corruption

The Indian General Election of 2014 is quickly turning out to be a single agenda event - a referendum on corruption. The chequered records of the incumbent government necessarily makes it so: The continuing discovery of skeletons in its cupboard, its inability to deal with it due to the power politics of the coalition and the sheer scale and audacity of some of these scandals, make it almost the only story dominating the media. It is rather sad, as this steals the focus and detracts everyone from the great promise that India seemed to have shown early in the new millennium. The spectre of complete breakdown in governance makes people shy away from investing, even involving, in India. 

However contrarian this may sound, it is worth asking whether this should indeed be so: Whether we should single-mindedly focus on Government corruption at the expense of everything else. India is a big country with myriad of issues; some of those, like communal or regional harmony, is as at least as critical as corruption. Indeed, the picture may be different from inside India than outside. From the outside, corruption looks bigger, as this imposes a transaction cost on everything that a Foreign Investor or even an expat may do. It is, for them, more important than the supply of water, electricity, jobs or paved roads. From inside, however, someone living a life in India, those other facets of life may actually be at least as important. In a way, the General Election is, or at least should be, more than just a vote of confidence of the global bond traders and expats.

To understand how big an issue is corruption, and how one might deal with it, one must go beyond the political grandstanding of the hour: Because, despite the media frenzy on various corruption scandals, newsworthy as they are, it is not the number of cases nor the sums of money involved make it more or less relevant, and by extension, less or more solvable. It is rather the context of corruption, whether the prevalence of corruption is increasing or decreasing in relative terms (this is exactly what economists like Dr Meghnad Desai will argue), and whether and how much it affects the daily life of an ordinary citizen, that must be taken into account. Besides, given the well-honed myth that things happen in India 'despite the government', one may need to ask whether shrinking the government's sphere of influence, making the markets replace what the government had to do earlier, would be the answer to the corruption woes.

So to put corruption in context, here is a thought experiment: Remove the government and the hapless Prime Minister from the equation for the moment and ask whether the level of corruption has indeed reduced. This is not about what one sees on TV, but what one would experience first hand: Are the Doctors dispensing private advice do so with professional integrity? Are the teachers in private schools have a greater level of professional ethics? Do private organisations operate in a professional manner? Do private citizens display responsibility, compassion and commitment to each other?

Someone told me that the Golden Age always looks like the world one experienced when twenty years old, so I am careful not to go back on time and be nostalgic. However, when I ask these questions to people in India, or experience life first hand during my own travels, I get desperation: A big NO, there is a wholesale lowering of standard of professional life. Quite rightly, people blame the government, because, apart from being moral, it is the government's job to maintain professional standards and integrity in public life. However, with an expat's luxury of detachment (just like the other expats who see corruption at the biggest problem), I have to wonder about the direction of causation - is general life becoming more corrupt because of the government, or is the government is only reflecting the corruption of day to day life.

It is neither an idle thought experiment, nor an attempt to condone corruption, but merely an attempt to argue the following - one, that the problem of corruption is a many-headed hydra and it is unlikely to go away if the current Government is thrown out of power, and two, that it is necessary to discuss private morality while rallying against corruption. While these two statements are quite intuitive (at least to me) and should not need much debate, making such statements in India invariably attracts heated arguments, of taking sides and diverting from the core issue. This is the point I am trying to make: That the key issue about corruption isn't the Government. In fact, I am trying to argue that politicising corruption, as we tend to do now, shifts away the focus from systematic corruption that ails the day to day life in India. Politicising corruption, while allowing the journalists the opportunity to rant and rave, allows us to deny the gradual degradation of professional standards, social commitments and loss of citizenship values. There is nothing wrong is venting one's anger about corruption by voting out the ruling party, but by making the vote singularly about corruption, we are changing the nature of the discussion about corruption and obscuring the solution.

Indeed, discussions about private morality sounds 'utopian', but then 'utopian' has become a catch all term for all that is worth doing but not easy to do. I shall argue that it is quite practical to make private pledges - that I shall not give or take bribes or favours, I shall recognise and carry out my professional responsibilities with integrity, that I shall not let my behaviour be influenced if others around me behave differently and that I shall treat everyone as equal citizens - and make an effort in keeping them. And, the usual excuse that if you drive properly and maintain lane discipline, other people will overtake you, falls apart as a reason for not maintaining lane discipline and driving improperly. However, this is a difficult thing to do because this would expose the inherent hypocracy of our approach to corruption: We love to see it as a political thing, but when we ourselves cross the lines, it is always for a reason. This moral relativism is supported by our modern construct of Hinduism, where we boast about being flexible and treat moral relationships as one of paying off the Gurus.

Where this is 'utopian' is to expect the media to promote private morality. Such movements, and surely such attitudes form into movements, usually germinate at the private level, a small group of people started practising it. Such private movements can be started by people coming together with a commitment to the ethical practice of daily life. I am an optimist, but beyond my usual sunny vision of life, there is clear historical evidence that such movements happen, life gets better. Hindus in fact believe that when life becomes unbearable, an Avatar, Kalki this time, will appear: And, then, use the beautiful but self-defeating logic that 'everything will be alright in the end; if it is not alright, it is not the end'. The causation in History works in reverse, though: Social movements do not start with the appointed person, even a God's reincarnation. It rather starts with private persons, you and me, choosing to put ourselves on the line, accepting that the responsibility of setting things right is on us, and we must not wait till the end. I remain optimistic about India and Indians, and their deep practical sense, uncorrupted by mythical indoctrination and modern privileges, and believe that such a social movement is about to start. The conversations I hear on the streets of India gives me that sense, of despair yes, but also, at times, of initiative. It is on that hope, on those small, very private, efforts, I shall hang my hat: It is not the appearance of an Avatar, but the arrival of the common man which we are indeed waiting for. 

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