Corruption karma? Citing culture is pure bunkum

The alibis for corruption in India—and for doing nothing about it—just keep getting longer: it's in our culture, it's in our history, it's in our DNA, it's in our destiny, it's sanctioned by our scriptures, and even our Gods validated unethical practices.

Heck, we even offer our Gods bribes in the expectation of out-of-turn rewards.

Which is why, the reasoning goes, our businesses don't abide by a "Western" code of ethics. And end up wallowing in corruption.

Against corruption. Reuters

The insidious message from repeated iterations of the corruption-as-culture meme is that enacting new laws, such as the Lokpal Bill that was aborted despite a high-decibel campaign last year, serve no purpose because we are too mired in corruption. Corruption is in our karma, they suggest, and cannot be changed.

The problem with that narrative is that it suggests that there is something unique about Indian "culture" that renders it particularly susceptible to corruption.

For instance, a Knowledge@Wharton study posited earlier this year that historically, "Indian society has placed great emphasis on loyalty to the collective, be it one's caste, village or family" and this renders the ecosystem vulnerable to corruption. That's because such a loyalty to a collective drives a culture of favours, friendship and clanship that "clashes with the Western concepts of conflict of interest and pure meritocracy".

More controversially, the study delved into the great Indian epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—and even the Arthashastra of Kautilya, a treatise on governance -  to point to the cultural roots of modern business' failure to abide by a notion of Western ethical standards.

"In both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata," the study noted, "even gods resort to deceit and trickery to accomplish their ends. In the latter, Lord Krishna repeatedly devises 'underhanded' methods to defeat the opposing army -- going so far as to encourage the protagonist, Arjuna, to attack and kill an unarmed adversary."

Likewise, the study notes that the Arthashastra commends the "use of deception" and sometimes brutal measures for the common good.

But just a cursory look around the world shows up the fallacy of the claim that there is something unique in Indian culture or tradition that renders it particularly prone to corruption. From the most developed economies, where presumably businesses abide by a Western code of ethics, to the India's peers in the universe of developing economies, they are all grappling with corruption on varying scales of intensity.

As an incisive rejoinder to the 'corruption-as-culture' theory pointed out, it is folly to read anecdotal events in the epics as offering a justification for unethical business practices in modern times. In fact, the Mahabharata, and particularly the core message of the Bhagavad Gita, encapsulate the concept of performing righteous actions, without any attachment to the fruits of one's actions.

Writing in the Indian Express, commentator Meghnad Desai too peddles a somewhat suspect social theory to propound that corruption may be as Indian as daal chawal.

Desai recalls that in his first job in the US, his boss did not invite any of his colleagues to his daughter's wedding because "his daughter’s wedding was not related to his work". He contrasts that with the prevailing social and professional mores in India where "giving a gift to your superior for Diwali, or on their birthday or their daughter’s wedding is not only not frowned upon, it is approved of. "Indeed", he reasons, "your fellow workers competing with you for promotion would be busy outdoing you in size of their gifts."

Desai's larger point: In India, there is no separation between formal rules of behaviour at work and family or kin relation behaviour. "As soon as you can, you make your superior your ‘uncle’, his wife becomes your mausi. You are expected to invest resources in maintaining your status in your workplace." And that, he reasons, lays the foundation for corrupt behavior.

"All this requires money over and above your legal pay and perks. It also counts as corruption... And yet the sort of behaviour is not only approved but applauded."

Desai's observations of social and professional practices in India are, of course, correct, but his theory overlooks the fact that in the West, the behavioral norms at the workplace to avoid potential conflict-of-interest situation evolved over time from office regulations.

In fact, he himself cites the instance of BK Nehru who, while serving as a young ICS officer, was pulled up by his superiors for accepting a free cinema pass from a cinema owner. But rather than point to the redundancy of laws and guidelines in combating corruption, the episode illustrates the importance of drawing lines in the sand - or a laxman rekha that must not be crossed.

The only way to combat corruption is to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to it. And that, at the first level, requires stringent laws that are rigorously and faithfully implemented. And since corruption at the lower levels of the bureaucracy would be harder to perpetuate if the top ranks are corruption-free, it is at the top rungs that the effort to strike at corruption must be targeted at the first stage.

It is this that the Lokpal Bill sought to address by providing for a truly independent investigative and prosecutorial agency. But of course, that effort was effectively thwarted by slicing and dicing the debate in a thousand ways.

It may be true that the failure to implement existing anti-corruption laws has over time fostered a 'culture of corruption' in society. But that is no excuse not to have anti-corruption laws - or to perfect them by giving them more teeth. And to invoke suspect social theories on the immutability of the 'culture of corruption' because "we are like that only" (as Desai does) and to argue therefore that no new laws are needed is to offer an egregious alibi for the perpetuation of corruption.

Updated Date: Jul 16, 2012 16:52 PM

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