Corruption is a moral problem, not a political one. It is political only in civilised nations where it is an aberration. There the high resentment of our middle class, the unpunctuated wail of our media is appropriate.
In cultures like India’s, where corruption is everyday and inescapable (I would say the majority of Indians are corrupt or corruptible), it is wasteful to spend national energy – media reporting, audiences watching, courts aggressive, parliament dysfunctional – on this.
We will not be rid of corruption if this entire lot of leaders is overthrown tomorrow from the Gandhis to Mayawati to Jayalalitha.
It will recur in the next generation, and the next, and the next. We are fighting it in the wrong place — politics — when it germinates in society. Our energy is spent in chasing the latest scam, not in examining why the scams are omnipresent and not episodic.
The second thing is that Indians have the wrong focus. Our focus should be corruption (bhrashtachar – an invented word, it doesn’t appear in my dictionary of classical Hindi), rather than on bribery (rishwat-khori). What’s the difference? What is corrupted in the act of corruption is the office. It is degraded, thus affecting society. But that’s not what concerns Indians.
Our anger is about bribery, the giving and taking of money by individuals, which is the more immediate, and less important, aspect. It is the anger of one who has missed out.
The classical words for bribe are ‘upchar’ and ‘upada’. They mean practise and gift. Both are of normal usage, lacking the sense of something immoral. It appears our culture accommodates the practise of giving and taking. A brilliant SMS forward I got was: “Kya hum yeh corruption… kuchh le de kar… Khatam nahin kar saktey?” (Can we not end corruption, with a little give and take?)
If we were to speculate on root causes, my view is that in India religion is separate from morality. This may need more space than is afforded here, but briefly: The corrupt person in India will believe himself religious, and will be devout. He will make an offering to God. The Karnataka minister Janardhan Reddy, in jail for illegal mining and bribing judges, gave a crown worth Rs 45 crore to Tirupati’s deity. The temple’s priests assured him he was blessed because of this act.
Muslims say “Sau choohay kha kar billi Haj ko gayi”. The strong moral resistance to corruption that comes from religion in the west is missing here.
In the absence of moral regeneration, and I do not know how we will bring that about, corruption will remain commonplace on the subcontinent. We can continue being angry at the new scam, and there is one every week, but it won’t stop.
This is not to say we shouldn’t be worried about, or shouldn’t be reporting about, corruption. But for it to get more debate space, as it surely does, than education, than health, than the economy, is absurd.
Our single-minded focus on it as the primary political issue in India is damaging us, even if it isn’t a total waste of time, which I think it is.