In a previous post, I looked at a history and mechanism of “successful” hunger strikes. Looking at this piece it occurs to me that the emotional component of Anna Hazare’s movement makes a lot of people attach extremely unreasonable expectation to a movement whose impact has not reached beyond well-fed left-lib clan and a very well-to-do technology-savvy urban sub-group of Indian middle class. Human brain is very able at finding patterns hence it is not unreasonable that people will jump to compare any event with the events of the past. But this “movement” is very very far from what JP Narayan managed to create. So why did this a-scam-a-day government run by a morally weak leadership allowed itself to bow it’s head to Anna’s movement (or blackmail as some opined)?

It is probably because at some point, in this movement, a number of left-liberals whose influence in Delhi’s babudom-English-media-academia-power-manipulator clique is very high joined Anna’s movement. Their influence is quiet disproportionate of the ground support they can command therefore they needed a popular honest face on top of a rotten body. One may not appreciate the way these left-liberals try to take government control in their hands (NAC being a primary instrument of this effort but certainly that is not the only one) but their eye for any political movement pregnant with extra-ordinary possibilities is something that would command respect. I am sure that Jayprakash Narayan, the arch socialist would have loved our left-liberals but none among his chief lieutenants was anybody who had anything to do with the government they were agitating against. That alone tells us why Anna can not do what JP managed to do with Indira. The “supposedly” submissive government, the activist-government co-operation and media-generated euphoria are designed as safety-valves which would ensure that any other strong leader can not taking advantage of swelling public anger and fan it to the boiling point they way JPN did.

The left-lib worthies in their profound wisdom drafted a Jan Lokpal bill which, if enacted, would radically re-define the meaning of democracy and divisions of power. Assigning absolute power to an unelected committee is not very different from the ideals of the infamous Leninist “dictatorship of the proletariat” or the absolute divinity of the royal power or the vanity of benevolent dictatorship. In the immortal words of Dr. Milton Friedman:

”Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

The very reason democracy is often preferred mode of governance in large parts of the world is that it offers an affordable path to achieve the marriage between power and accountability of the powerful. It seeks to prescribe that power must be divided among multiple branches of the government and nation would be able to progress only on their co-operation and discussion. What happens if a conduit of absolute power gets created and the conduit itself becomes corrupt? As commentators like Kanchan Gupta and Nitin Pai noted, in a corrupt hierarchial society such as ours, any institution created as a hasty response to corruption will be corrupted itself. So if the current lokpal gets corrupt what happens after that? Should we drive for Lokpal 2.0? Then Lokpal 3.0? And then repeat the process ad infinitum? As this blogger proposes here, creating newer and newer lokpal would make corruption expensive and thus corruption will be discouraged. The only fault in the argument is that if corruption becomes expensive because more people needed to be bribed, the corrupt will shoot for bigger loot. Jan Lokpal bill is, in HL Menken’s words, “neat, plausible and wrong”.

Among those who are supporting the bill, there is a sizable minority who believe that every opponent of this bill is either corrupt or batting for corruption. The laughable assertion, however, raises a moral question that can not be avoided. If we are opposing the proposed solution to corruption, then we must have a view of solution to this epidemic of Indian corruption. Unfortunately, those who are opposing this bill are not trying to offer an alternative. It can be agreed that there is no easy solution to such a big problem and as a society we are deeply corrupt. But that is no justification of not doing a thing about corruption. Accepting this question, in following paragraphs, I tried to detail how we should approach the problem. Apparently, nobody has all the answers and suggestions are only bound by the parameters of current scope of the problem.

Corruption, to put it mildly, is our national guilt pleasure. In our hierarchical society, while the elite class indulges in corruption, the middle class is the victim. The middle class, however, has it’s own little corruption to indulge in and this becomes apparent when you walk into government office and try to get something done by a low level clerk. The victim is hapless poor who depend on government service. But then poor indulges in corruption himself/herself when it cheats the government out of legitimate money when it travels in the train without ticket or steals electricity forcing the legitimate consumers into darkness. Thus the cycle of corruption continues and it gets integrated in our daily lives. Corruption is probably impossible to eliminate fully. Approximately around 2500 years back, Kautilya Vishnugupta noted in his famous Arthasastra that they way fish drinks water, administrators take bribe. Yet it can be argued that A Raja and Suresh Kalmadis were a pretty recent phenomenon; we never had such large scale looters before.

Having understood a fair estimate of the problem, let us take a look at what the proposed solution can be. We have a democracy populated by imperfect mortals whose sense of integrity and honesty is rather flexible. It is quiet possible that we may get impatient by looking at better governed western democracies expect some kind of magic formula that would lift us into a more honest relatively corruption free nation tomorrow morning. But this is not to be. Western nations, in their beginning years, were also neck-deep in nepotism and corruption. What followed is a set of courageous leaders/intellectuals/philosophers who experimented and formed a set of processes/systems that is geared towards addressing the formidable challenge of corruption. These systems were farther fine-tuned and the system that we see in West today is largely an outcome of the anti-corruption infrastructure created by blood and sweat of dedicated men over multiple centuries. Our dedicated left-libs who are so hell-bent on using frameworks derived from western systems to understand Indian reality frequently miss this lessons of western struggle. We can not take a short-cut of this long cultural journey of the west and evolve into a relatively corrupt free regime in a year or decade.

In summary, here are my views on anti-corruption. In a different post, I am willing to elaborate on these points. Any suggestion is welcome. Here we go:

(1) The Vigilance: Since the media has proven to be incapable of focusing on government corruption, a separate construct must rise to feel the gap. Such a construct must start at the block/district level and end at the parliamentary level and there should be as many as possible, regardless of any political affiliation. They should have access to the judiciary and it is also necessary that the points they raise must be handled by a judiciary whose response must be constrained by a finite time.

(2) Rollback government tentacles: This is a vast topic and merits a separate post. Our big government is the legacy of our socialist past. When every business is removed from the environment, the only business that remains is the government. This, also means that all the money gets concentrated in the hands of the government. Then the race to be elected to the government becomes same as large scale treasure-hunt where no expense is too big and no stone is too small to turn. It is also true that such a big government discourages any kind of competition and the few big business it manages to promote becomes the oligarchs. Russian oligarchs are a great example. Dr. Friedman noted with respect to Nehruvian administration:

I believe that much of Nehru’s socialistic talk is simply that, just talk. Nehru has been trying to undermine the Socialist Party by this means and apparently the Congress Party’s adoption of a socialistic idea for industry (Ed. Note, viz., Avadi Resolution) has been successful in this respect. One gets the impression, depending on whom one talks with, either that the Government runs business, or that two or three large businesses run the government. All that appears publicly indicates that the first is true, but a case can also be made for the latter interpretation. 

and then

Favor and harassment are counterparts in the Indian economic scheme. There is no significant impairment of the willingness of Indian capitalists to invest in their industries, except in the specific industries where nationalization has been announced, but they are not always willing to invest and take the risks inherent in the free enterprise system. They want the Government to support their investment and when it refuses they back out and cry “Socialism”.

The greatest success the socialist crowd manages to pull of is to plant an aura of legitimacy on every government effort while private efforts were simply branded as “undesirable”. Therefore, nationalized banks are “better run”, private banks are “corrupt”. Government institutions may bleed money but they provide “services to the people” while industry leaders are “only interested to make money”. Government may provide freebies “to help the poor” but every corporate welfare scheme has a “motive”. Unless we roll back the government tentacles and encourage small business in a big way, large money will always change hands at government and people will do anything to get their hand on it.

(3) The competition: Successful market economies do not protect businesses, they protect competition. Without the measures required to protect competition, any market system turns into a big game of cronyism. More the competition, more the choices. More the competitors, less interested industrialists will be to focus on government manipulation than keeping their business interest safe from the competition.

(4) Judicial reform: The only way an out-of-bound bureaucracy can be contained is an efficient judicial system. We do not need new laws anymore, we need mechanism to implement it. Nothing will work if judicial system refuses to recognize that “your honor” used to refer to Buckingham palace once but now-a-days refer to the public outside the court building.

(5) The monstrous babu-politican-media-academia nexus: This is the ultimate monster that feeds the corruption and give nepotism an ideological shelter. Just look at how many top bureaucrats and politicians families intermarry between themselves. Some of the top bureaucrats are old class-mates and friends of top politicians, media men and highly recognized names in the media. It is a very sensitive giant that howls every single time you merely mention it. The moment one comes close to scratching it, it is capable of bringing down full might of state power on him/her. It is simply impossible to defeat this monster by using state power. To defeat it, we have to starve it which brings the next point.

(6) The structure of patronization: The giant composed of elite babu-neta-media-academia are fed by it. Starting from various layers of Indian Honor System to the nomination of Rajya Sabha, it is a long and solid structure of patronization. It is time to ask the government and the semi-literate men who run it how much do they know about art so that they can offer something like “Gyanpith” to the artist? What is the need? Why is it that my tax money would be wasted in giving tax break to an already hit masala film that I already subsidized as a consumer?

(7) Private-public partnership: Much lip-service has been paid to this area yet nothing substantial policy have been formed. Not even a road-map document. This alone merits a separate post but but this is probably the most important mechanism to rollback big government.

(8) Stock market and tax system reform: Both systems are full with archaic and random rules/restrictions that needs to be simplified. Behind each archaic rules (along with long list of peculiar exceptions to these rules) there stands one or more than one vested interest that would not like the boat to be rocked. Yet, at least a simple and functioning tax system is essential to set the balance sheet of the government right.

(9) Regulation and oversight: A very tricky topic. But every good government needs multiple regulatory agencies and we need strong disclousre rules to ensure that they are functioning normally.

(10) Reforming the constitution: Yes, get the “socialism” tag out of constitution.

The fight against corruption must be long, hard and unglamorous. Yet, any real change will be incremental, root canal treatments can only be applied to teeth, not to the heart.

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Siddhartha Chatterjee

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