Here’s the real reason why sociologist Ashis Nandy should be in the dock of public criticism. There is almost no evidence whatsoever to substantiate his observation that the backward classes and Dalits are seen as more corrupt because they are less good at hiding it than their upper class compatriots.
Nandy is facing police investigations for saying at the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) last week that “most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the scheduled castes and now, increasingly, scheduled tribes, and as long as this is the case, the Indian republic will survive.” (Read the full text here)
It is obviously the first half of the sentence that got everyone’s goat, not the second. In fact, if at all India has more corrupt people from the OBCs and SC/STs, it can only be because they constitute a much larger share of the population. The upper castes don’t exceed 15 percent of the population, while OBCs/SCs/STs constitute more than 70 percent.
The convoluted logic Nandy used to make his observation was not intended to show Dalits or OBCs as more corrupt, but merely as being more inept. He is effectively saying that the upper castes are more sophisticated in their corruption while the backwards are really backward in their ability to hide the stuff.
Is this really so?
This morning’s Indian Express investigates Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati’s alleged corruption. The story reveals a level of sophistication comparable to those practiced by the so-called upper classes or castes. Says the Express story: “During Mayawati’s third term as CM…the real estate business of one of her younger brothers, Anand Kumar, expanded like never before… Kumar’s companies constitute a key link in an elaborate network of business associations that involve builders in Noida and Greater Noida, national real estate giants Jaypee, Unitech and DLF, and a company linked to the son of Mayawati’s aide and Rajya Sabha member Satish Chandra Misra.”
Anybody who can create a web starting not with oneself, but a relative is hardly unsophisticated. In contrast, we have upper class YS Jagan Mohan Reddy currently cooling his heels in jail for his own property and related deals.
Let’s also not forget, Mayawati has paid no political price whatsoever for any of her land deals, but BS Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat from Karnataka, had to sacrifice his chief ministership for his inability to hide them well. A Dalit has got the better of someone who’s not so backward.
Consider what Nandy said about poor Mayawati’s inability to hide potential corruption compared to the upper classes. “If I do a good turn to Richard Sorabji, he can return the favour by accommodating my nephew at Oxford; if it were in the United States, it would be a substantial fellowship. Ms Mayawati doesn't have that privilege. She probably has only relatives whose ambition was to be a nurse or run a petrol pump. If she has to oblige somebody or have somebody in the family absorb the money, she will probably have to take the bribe of having 100 petrol pumps, and that is very conspicuous, very corrupt indeed. Our corruption doesn't look that corrupt, their corruption does.”
Even when it comes to petrol pumps, Nandy has proved himself wrong.
It is worth recalling that it was the sophisticated upper class ministers of the BJP-led NDA who were caught in a petrol pump allotment scam in 2002.
Not only did a Mayawati not get embroiled in any petrol pump scam, but one should contrast the sophisticated web of firms created around her younger brother with the unsophistication of a Sukh Ram, a Brahmin former Telecom Minister in Narasimha Rao’s cabinet, who was caught (and later convicted) for hiding crores in currency under his bed.
Next, let’s hear what Nandy had to say about the inept corruption of tribals. “To the best of my knowledge, the only unrecognised billionaire in India today, in dollar terms, is Madhu Koda. He's a tribal and I can assure you that Mr Koda must have been a very insecure, unhappy, tense person. And in this kind of situation, the only people you can trust are your own relatives... And if you fit your experiences within this model, you will recognise why this insecurity is there, because politics looks a very impersonal, contractual work to a large part of Indians. They are new to politics. And your family members do not have the capacity to absorb the additional money in a more clever, intelligent way.”
Koda must surely have messed up, but one swallow does not prove Nandy’s theory about guileless tribals. Test this claim against reality – one involving Brahmins and tribals in the same web of corruption.
Brahmin PM Narasimha Rao was convicted for trying to bribe tribal-based Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MPs during a trust vote in the early 1990s. As for the JMM MPs themselves, they were not only all acquitted, but have even been able to keep the bribe money as a tax-free “political donation” (read here).
So much for upper caste brilliance in corruption, and tribal underachievement in the same department.
Next, consider Nitin Gadkari, a Brahmin supported by those ultra-Brahmins of the Sangh Parivar. So messily has he organised his Purti Group, that he became an object of ridicule for doing stupid things like making his driver a director. He is having to be rescued by the Pawars of the world.
Contrast this with Andimuthu Raja, a Dalit. You may say that he has got caught, but consider the sheer sophistication of his arguments and behaviour. While his arbitrary change in cutoff dates for allotting spectrum may still get him jail, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has not got anywhere with the money trail. If Raja has made money, he has hidden it well. Not only that, Raja managed his scam brilliantly by keeping P Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh in the loop, and this is the main reason why these gentlemen are facing a diminution in their reputations. They were saved only by the skins of their teeth and shown to be overlooking Raja’s scams.
And let’s not forget. If Raja did end up in jail, a whole lot of super-sophisticated businessmen – who should know every trick in the book and outside it – also went to jail with him. The Dalit, if anything, did not fare any worse than businessmen with platoons of high-powered lawyers to aid their misdeeds.
It does not matter if Raja actually gets convicted or not, but the fact that he managed to pull a fast one with two Congress politicians from the upper classes tells us that the so-called lower classes are not backward when it comes to corruption.
About corruption of the OBC type, Nandy had this to say: “In the case of Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh, and people like them, exactly…there is a sense of desperation, utter desperation and insecurity. Even if you make through corruption millions of rupees, you suspect that you will not be able to get away using the machinery of law or cleverly manipulating your investments in the right way with the right connections because you have none...”.
Can this statement be even remotely true of Mulayam Singh, who is even now sitting pretty and could be a potential PM candidate in a third or federal front in 2014? As for Lalu, when made an accused in the fodder scam, he smartly manoeuvred to make his wife CM of Bihar, and never paid any kind of price for the fodder scam. As far as the national media is concerned, he is still good copy. And he himself has said he does not rule himself out as a future PM.
When it comes to corruption, the truth is no one is backward.