Corruption: A conversation topic

 

Everybody has their own opinion on the subject, but there is a lot more to corruption than most people see

Mohan Guruswamy Delhi

Corruption is India's favorite conversation topic. We love discussing it and bemoan its all pervasiveness. Whenever two or more Indians meet the conversation inevitably moves to corruption. Sometimes I wonder what we would say to each other if there were no corruption about? We are all near experts at it and have all experienced it at in some form or the other and at all levels. Yet with so much collective experience it is an elusive topic to write about. Like our gods it takes so many myriad forms. It defies a simple definition. But we all know what it is. What Justice Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court said in the context of obscenity — "I know it when I see it"— seems equally applicable to corruption. And given the plight of a majority of our people it is even more obscene than obscenity, which we of course know when we see it. Corruption is customary and we know what it is.

Economists prefer to bandy about a different term when referring to corruption. They call it "economic rent". According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) "it is the extra amount paid (over what would have been paid for the best alternative use) to somebody or for something useful whose supply is limited either by nature or through human ingenuity." Quite clearly this definition excludes the moral dimension. But then our problems get even more compounded when we realise that morality itself is very elastic and varies depending on time, place and context.

Take for instance the case of prime minister, Manmohan Singh. He is one of the few prime ministers we have had whose personal integrity seems above question. But as far as the rajya sabha is concerned, he is a tenant of Ms Hiteshwar Saikia and is a resident of Guwahati in Assam. We know that is not true and that he has been ordinarily resident in New Delhi from ever since we came to know of him. The leader of the opposition,

LK Advani, has been just as peripatetic. At one time he declared he was a resident of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh for the sake of a rajya sabha seat. And of course, Anil Ambani is a resident of Uttar Pradesh and Vijay Mallya is a resident of Karnataka even after officially becoming non-resident Indian . But if you and I were as cavalier and flexible with facts as this in declaring our place of residence, say for the purpose of obtaining a passport, we could end up in prison.

Economic rent takes other forms, which tax the common good much more. High import duties, for instance, meant to restrain imports actually serve to increase prices and profits for domestic manufacturers. The Hindustan Ambassador, that immortal symbol of a mindless and rapacious bureaucracy, actually gave its manufacturer and employees as much joy as it gave sorrow to those who owned or drove those cars. Did you notice how all car tyres or batteries cost about the same? Or how all similar sized air-conditioners and refrigerators cost about the same? Or till recently how all air tickets cost the same and an arm and a leg at the same time? Adam Smith explained it best by noting that "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public."

These conspiracies cannot succeed without the active connivance of the politicians and bureaucrats. We know what they mostly do but thanks to the exertions of Aniruddha Bahal, purporting to represent an industry association, we have proof for the first time of this. Our MPs have much to thank Dr Manmohan Singh for conjuring up the MPLADs (MP's local area development scheme), but the then finance minister probably never contemplated the likes of the venerable Sakshi Maharaj who turned the scheme into one of personal development. But the two stings involving MPs caught on video are as different as chalk and cheese.

The money for questions business is as stock as a traffic cop collecting money from errant drivers. The payment itself is a punishment for the truancy and it does not seem to matter very much where the money paid ends up. We learn our lessons from it. But when the cops collect for registering a first hand information report or for no rhyme or reason, it belongs to a different class and we are truly outraged. I therefore believe that MPs who took gratuities for signing on letters asking questions should not be treated the same as those who were demanding a cut from the MPLADs. The question raisers were collecting economic rent and did not cost the state anything, while the MPLADS lads were actively conspiring to milk the nation.

The superior camera work of the Bahal sting, which captured on video the glitter in the eye and the crackle of crisp notes, did make a more vivid drama. And when the camera caught portraits of the RSS's Guru Golwalkar in the backdrop the shots were truly dramatic. This is not Aniruddha's first sting and the experience shows. But our parliament has such high standards of probity that even a relatively small transgression would seem to besmirch its purity and so they have been expelled. The MPs of course have not heard of the biblical exhortation "let him among you who has not sinned cast the first stone." Even a Saudi kangaroo court would have done a better job.

Sometimes, just because something is routine does not make it excusable. Those of us in Delhi who built houses or made alterations without the sanction of the authorities paid for the deviations knowing it was contrary to the law. But it was standard and that seemed to make it okay. Now that the high court has ordered them demolished we are outraged. What if the same high court ordered that MPs making false statements about their place of residence must quit? Would we be outraged? We may be happy but not outraged. This is clearly a subject that requires far greater deliberation and discussion and there is much parliament can do by way of introspection. There are many who are quite an expert on the subject. Chandan Mitra of the BJP, whose concern for probity is well known, has even written a book on the subject of corruption.

Opinion polls show that there are some professions that are believed to be entirely corrupted. Politicians and policemen top this list. Much of the corruption we witness in everyday life is a result of their unnecessary exertions. In the past few months, I have had the opportunity every morning to contemplate a vacant plot of land in the neighbourhood I live in. Roads bound the plot on all four sides and naturally people walking take a short cut across it. Some soul with a penchant for orderliness has taken upon him to put an end to this practice. First a sign came up demanding that people not do the most rational thing, which is taking a short cut. The sign was ignored and my dog Charlie has been using the signpost to leave his signature. Then a small length of barbed wire pegged between two poles appeared astride the path at both ends. The people who use the path still find it convenient to go around the poles and take the not so short shortcut. Good old Charlie just slips under the wire and seems quite happy that he has two more poles to leave his daily markers on.

The nature of most of our lawmaking is just like this. They are irrational and people will respond rationally to them, by circumventing them if not ignoring them. Just as Dr Manmohan Singh has done to the requirement that MPs to the upper house be ordinarily resident in the state. Now the only way that plot can be prevented from being used as a short cut is to either build on it. If the empty plot is just walled up, the walls will encourage another use, which will be odious to boot. Laws that conflict with common sense just do not work. Which brings me to another aspect. We have laws that prohibit urinating in public and on walls, private and public. Urinating is meant to be a private business. But where are people to urinate when you just don't have enough urinals? So a law against urinating in public makes sense only when you have enough public urinals.

Thoughtless laws corrode a state thoroughly. This is why states built around tight regulation and appeals to a higher human ideal fail. The crime wave that engulfed the former USSR was really due to the old nomenklatura doing the only thing they were adept at. It is not that other social and political systems do not germinate corruption. Corruption is all pervasive and a world-wide phenomenon. It comes built in with nature. Animals steal food from each other just as humans extort from others. But human beings live in organised societies and societies are nothing but systems based on laws. For laws to work it must be clear that if caught, trial will be swift and if found guilty retribution will be commensurate.

That's where we have serious problems. Who makes the law? Politicians. Who enforces the laws? The police. Both are believed to be overwhelmingly corrupt. And can we expect anything better from the courts? And how do people generally become judges? Let us take the example of Shamit Mukherjee of the Delhi high court who was caught in the act of arranging for a convenient place for justice to end. We must thank Arun Jaitely for him. There are so many like him who adorn our courts. Are not judges who take free membership of prestigious private clubs guilty of moral transgression? And let's not forget about the chief justice of the supreme court who hastily passed favourable orders in the Jain Shudh Vanaspati matter.

A just and relatively honest society requires a system that inflicts swift and commensurate retribution on transgressors. It is apparent that we quite clearly do not have that and will not have in the foreseeable future. The only way we can get that for ourselves is a vigilant media that relentlessly probes, investigates and exposes. The Aniruddha Bahals unfortunately are a small minority still. The fellows who still call the shots in our media business are the ones who have turned a calling into a business, like the fellows who got themselves farmhouses in Mehrauli. Or the ones who were found to be on Mulayam Singh Yadav's payroll in Lucknow. That then leaves the people to fend for themselves. Which is what they are doing in many parts of the country that are gripped by insurgencies.

The author is chairman, Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi