Democracy And Corruption

By Sunil Kumar

Endless debates on television channels notwithstanding, today I’m going to write about “Democracy and Corruption: A View from the Green Zone“; a fascinating insightful lecture by Dr. Thomas Blom Hansen.

India Against Corruption

Visit India Against Corruption (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although Dr. Hansen, in my humble opinion, suffered from the usual affliction of a parsimonious Western perspective that could be blinkered and often is; it showed us all some warts that exist in India‘s collective national psyche.

As spiritual gurus; the media, and vigilante activism from national parties remind the Indian citizen daily about endemic corruption; the depiction of this nation as a corrupt society did not come as a surprise. However Hansen was systematic in detailing the origin of graft; starting with the East India Company that institutionalized corruption. The idea of one country; as countless sociologists, economists and historians remind us is a new construct; but it is also undeniable that there was a Hindu ethos before the hordes of Islam and the evangelical half-informed British arrived on our shores. The rogues who took over Bengal, Bihar and Orissa in the beginning had accumulated so much wealth in a short time; that this evoked condemnation in old England itself; and led to the trial of Warren Hastings; an old governor general.

For anybody who’s read Dickens and other 18th century Victorian literature; a passage to India meant accumulation of riches; something that led to the building of immense fortunes and as Dr. Hansen informed the gathering; even the establishment of a prestigious Ivy League university, Yale. How is this relevant to the present day sixty-five years after independence? Most of our industrialists have been educated abroad; including Tata, Mahindra, Ambani; a vertiable laundry list of privilege that encompasses other interest groups such as politician’s sons and daughters.

Even though these people try to hoodwink the public by giving us dope on “swadeshi education”; the sad fact is the state of educational facilities in many of our towns and cities. Even premier institutions suffer

. I am a great fan of the idea of India; and earnestly wish that our living standards improve; but until everybody moves beyond the realm of hypocrisy, posturing, television debates and moves on to practical change; there is precious little going to happen. Maybe all of this is pointless; an endless verbal barrage soothing everybody’s grand conception of himself or herself; only to be taken up by another meaningless issue next day. Or all of this has led to change; incrementally, one step at a time; bringing in inclusion and equality; so that there is collective improvement.

Back to the lecture. It was a look at India’s dark side; something we are acquainted with. Hansen detailed his early dealings with crooked government agents in Orissa; who openly discussed ways of milking the system for favor and privilege. Not that this comes as much of a surprise; but there were more examples Hansen gave to illustrate the rickety backbone we possess.

Post-independence India in the 50s and 60s saw the country flirting with Gandhian moral baggage, various committees and the establishment of a Central Vigilance Commission. A good point made by Dr. Hansen was that corruption is not a moral epidemic but a fundamental structural problem. He was good on manufacturing new concepts and verbal flourishes; but he raised some relevant points; that defy answers. In Pune, Hansen encountered corruption in police stations; a religious movement the Osho Commune indulging in not-so-ethical behaviour; and his bailing out by somebody from “upar”(above); in this case a BJP local representative.

As an anthropologist; Dr. Hansen discussed three different people from Mumbai and Aurangabad to illustrate the chronic struggle most people have to undergo in the Indian state; that sounded like a typical Bollywood flick. Admittedly; the democratic experience in this country is unique. Especially in a Western perspective; as it was given when only 16% of our population was literate in 1947.

To balance things out; he would do well to look at Shashi Tharoor‘s analysis in “Pax Indica”; where he mentions the systemic deprivation the British inflicted on this country; leading to a time between 1900 and 47; when the country’s growth figures were abysmal, negligible. Countless economists have also buttressed these arguments in multiple academic publications and research papers. Mr. Hansen rightly placed the blame with the former empire builders; but could not help condemning the shaky fabric of the Indian nation-state.

When I asked him to analyze Columbia professor Stiglitz’s remark that corruption in India was not extraordinary; and his opinion on corruption in China and Uncle Sam itself; he retorted that India’s case was simply unique, without parallel. This does not detract from my point that in terms of recent illicit outflows(volumes); China is No 1; a position that it can happily take in this case.

But his assertion was valid that the country needed to eradicate the malaise; and get rid of its warts. This as any sane individual knows; will take some time atleast; in a country of India’s size, complexity and obvious social polarization. A fascinating discussion that questioned the IAS, the kleptocracy at the top(the politicians and other vested decision-makers); the underclass’s involvement; and middle class soul-searching, angst and attempt at concerted change.


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