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No, Mr Katju, we can't fight corruption by sitting on our hands

When it comes to offering alibis for India's failure to do anything definitive to combat corruption in the 65 years since independence, our politicians — and media commentators — are extraordinarily inventive. The fact that a Lokpal, an independent anti-corruption agency that was first conceptualised more than 40 years ago, has still not seen the light of day, should give cause for serious reflection. Even if you don't believe that social problems like corruption are best tackled by establishing an agency such as the Lokpal, the colossal failure to even begin to do anything meaningful to combat corruption in public life, the scale of which has grown exponentially in recent times, ought to rankle. But it evidently doesn't.

If anything, far more time and energy has been expended in picking apart the now-defunct Team Anna for their advocacy of a strong anti-corruption agency and of the need to provide the CBI functional autonomy while carrying out anti-corruption investigations.

Columnist Tavleen Singh, for instance, noted recently (here) that when she appeared on a panel discussion on corruption, she was subjected to "mob fury and violent abuse" by Anna supporters "every time I opened my mouth."  Why? "Because I dared to point out that China had been unable to end corruption despite a law that allows corrupt officials to be shot."

It's true, of course, that some of the erstwhile Team Anna's supporters have been exceedingly — and indefensibly — feisty in challenging any alternative narratives that aren't congruent with their monomaniacal focus on a strong Lokpal. But Tavleen Singh's reason for dismissing the demand for a strong Lokpal by pointing to China's failed experience is flawed, and certainly merits a robust challenge.

Katju's argument that societies automatically become less corrupt with industrialisation is disingenuous.

China's anti-corruption laws that Tavleen Singh cites, and the showcase trials of  corrupt officers that end in death penalty, are an elaborate smoke-and-mirrors exercise that mask the fact that, as this commentator notes, China is "a kleptocracy of a scale never before seen in human history."

The children of top leaders of the Communist Party of China are among the biggest beneficiaries of the corruption that thrives in China. The ongoing trial in the case of Bo Xilai, a second-generation top-rung rising star politician who is now in detention for assorted serious crimes, has exposed the underbelly of the Communist Party, which operates in some ways like the Mafia (more here).

The showcase trials of "corrupt officials" that Tavleen Singh cites don't signal any official earnestness on the part of Chinese authorities in combating corruption. As this commentary notes, far more often, it's possible to see the shadow of inner-party struggles, particularly at the top, in the prosecution of officials on grounds of corruption.

The showcase trials are somewhat in the nature of the charade that goes on in India too, where the Congress was blind to the monumental corruption of YV Rajasekhara Reddy, but turned on his son Jaganmohan Reddy merely because he fell out with the Congress. So long as corrupt official don't get in the crossfire of top-level leadership tussles, they can get away with murder — so long as they're discreet about it.

And since courts in China aren't independent, the authorities can get a guilty verdict if that's what the party wants. Likewise in India, so long as the CBI is not truly independent, any corruption case is only as strong as the prosecution wants it to be. It is that that the campaign for a strong Lokpal highlighted, but which the UPA government rejected.

Writing in the Indian Express today (here), retired judge Markandey Katju offers another elaborate alibi for the leaders' failure to do anything about combating corruption.

Corruption, argues Katju, is "the normal feature" in any transitional society (such as India's) that is passing from a feudal, agricultural stage to a modern, industrial stage. Citing the instances of Europe and America, he claims that corruption can be tamed only if societies complete the transition to a fully industrialised stage. And since, in his opinion, India would take about 15 to 20 years more to attain that stage, there is little to be gained from responding emotionally — in the way that Anna Hazare and his merry men have done — to corruption.

"I submit that corruption will continue in India for another 15-20 years, but will considerably disappear when the process of industrialisation is complete after this period," Katju prophesies.

Katju's recommendation, in effect, is that we should all sit back and tolerate corruption, because it is as much a part of the system — and will go away on its own accord. Such an approach is not just fatalistic, it ignores the very real experience of anti-corruption movements and legislation efforts in those very societies that he cites that contributed to making them relatively corruption-free. People in these societies didn't evolve on their own to become better and less corrupt over time: it is because contemporaneous laws raised the disincentives for being dishonest that people and politicians and societies gradually learnt to stick (for the most part) to the straight and narrow path.

Far too often, Team Anna's critics make the mistake of conflating the anti-corruption movement and the people behind it. Yes, Anna's team — beyond its exertions of last year — hasn't exactly been crafty about its strategising, and its supporters have not exactly distinguished themselves in the manner in which they have engaged with dissenters. But the underlying merit of establishing a strong anti-corruption agency with independent investigative and prosecutorial powers is more difficult to dismiss.

In any case, the experience of societies like Singapore and Hong Kong is rather more illustrative.  Alongside the sweeping economic reforms that propelled their trading economies, it was the establishment of a rigorous anti-corruption framework that cleansed their societies and rendered them relatively corruption-free.

It is perfectly permissible to have differing views on the nature of the anti-corruption framework that India needs as it evolves into an industrialised society. But to suggest that we don't need any foundation at all, and that our societies will all become naturally honest over time because it's all pre-ordained is more than a little disingenuous. The brazenness with which we've seen corruption being perpetrated in recent years, and the scale at which its scope has expanded, does nothing to reinforce Katju's manifest faith that "all eej well"  with us, and we're destined for an evolution of Darwinian proportions that will allow our moral chimpanzees to become humans in the natural course of things.