I know, the combination of the heading of this article and the picture above is rather jarring. In this short essay, I am going to connect the two. Let me begin with a few true stories.
Sometime in the late 1990s, a remote town in the USA: Two Indian students are booked for speeding. They quickly offer a bribe to the police officer. After a long hard look, the officer says, ‘During my twenty years in this job, I’ve been offered bribe thrice. On every occasion, it was an Indian.’
If there has been one Bengali political leader above controversy, it was late Benoy Krishna Chowdhury. A minister for about 20 years since the first Left Front government in 1977, he was the chief architect of the land reforms and Panchayet Raj of Bengal. Try as you might, you won’t find one news report that questions his integrity. While Chowdhury was alive, one day, a friend of mine was on a local train where three young men were chatting.
One of the boys said Benoy Chowdhury and he were from the same village and his family was close to the leader. Chowdhury used to visit their house often. When he became a minister, the boy’s father took him to the former and requested him to find a job for his son. The boy went on to add, with a sense of injury, ‘Would you believe it? He told us on our face he wouldn’t be able to help.’
Hearing this, the passengers who were following the story were upset. The general consensus was that the minister had done something morally wrong. My friend joined the conversation and asked, ‘Do you seriously believe it is a minister’s responsibility to find jobs for people known to him?’
Everyone around thought it was.
The third incident, circa 2006: My wife has applied for a passport. A police inspector is in our Kolkata residence for verification. We have furnished all the documents required as per rules, but the inspector isn’t satisfied. After asking several irrelevant questions, he insists that my wife produce proof that her late father indeed worked in the city mentioned in her school leaving certificate.
We protest, ‘Do you know any married woman who carries her late father’s employment records? Can you prove where your father worked?’
The inspector says nothing. He drinks tea and leaves.
For us, it would have been better to pay him the money he expected. Maybe, two hundred rupees would have sufficed. Because of our pig-headed response, we had to run around different government offices during the next two months. We paid over five times the amount on taxi fare alone.
Barring exceptions of people paying under the table to get illegal benefits, no one pays bribes unless forced to. Greasing the babus’ palms is almost mandatory in government offices like the public vehicles departments, property registries, commercial tax offices, offices that issue life support systems like SC/ST certificates, ration cards etc. The last story is about one such department. But the other two indicate the extent of corruption among the Indian middleclass in general.
A vast majority of our people is too poor and wretched to be corrupt. Things haven’t changed for them. In contrast, a market driven aspirational change defines our middleclass today. We have started believing “Greed is good!” Men haven’t become hedonistic in the literal sense that they are only after wine, women and song, but, they are certainly after wealth and more creature comforts. This “maximalist” lifestyle is surely a breeding ground of corruption. When everyone wants to be rich in a poor country, the competition is intense and value and ethics have to be thrown out of the window. Arvind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger brings this out in morbid details.
Commodification of education and healthcare has made things worse. People belonging to the erstwhile “noble” professions of teaching and medicine are the worst mercenaries of our time. Everything can be and has to be bought. Cutting corners has become a way of life. We pay illegal donations to get our children admitted to engineering / medical colleges and brag about it. We have no qualms about currying favour with the powerful people we know. We would rather pay the traffic policeman Rs.50 than pay a penalty of Rs.100.
Further, as there is no moral peg to hang our thoughts, we don’t even realise that we too are corrupt. The same people who do these and much worse things also support Anna Hazare and demand that an elaborate structure be set up to catch and punish the corrupt.
In India, there exists massive angst particularly after a series of mega scams of 2009-10 and a cavalier central government’s reluctant, half-hearted efforts to book the guilty. (Some state governments like Karnataka are equally bad.) The Anna team – the core team has only 22 members – deserves acclaim for giving a concrete shape to the anguish of millions. A young friend of mine, Anirban Dasgupta writes that the good thing about the Anna movement
"… has been that people in various places (yes, only urban though) have come out to speak about a system that ails our society. … we, the common people of India, have raised our voice and have lent strength to the movement. Had we remained indifferent (like we are to the fast of Irom Sharmila in Manipur), Anna would have gone nowhere.
"The very belief that yes we can change a system or force our parliament to adopt a law which gives more power to the common man can give a lot of confidence to the people."
Yes, it is certainly a triumph of democracy. All talks suggesting that parliamentarians can do as they please until the next election are pure hogwash. Also, if this movement led to a more efficient system to tackle corruption, it would be a big step forward. (In Karnataka, Mr Santosh Hegde has shown what a Lok Ayukta can do.)
But as many have pointed out, the Hazare group is strangely quiet on corporate corruption, the mother of all scams. Also, they are only against politicians and governments, without taking any ideological position on other serious issues. The massive erosion of values of our time doesn’t seem to be on their agenda. I do not know how the value deficiency in our society can be addressed, but I believe without that there is no emancipation. This is the crux of the matter. We have to change the way we think.
Let us recall that in 1974, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) began a movement against corruption and poor governance. It shook the country, led to the Emergency, and ultimately, the end of Congress rule at the Centre and in many Indian states.
Have things improved in the last 37 years? The economy has become bigger, we have many more billionaires today, and the middleclass is much better off. But the poor continue to live a life of misery. Instead of going down, graft has increased manifold. With every passing year, the quality of governance is becoming worse, despite some welcome changes like the Right to Information Act.
In many ways, the situation now is worse than in the time of the JP movement. No, I don’t say that limitations of the JP movement are responsible for the downward slide, although some of JP’s lieutenants have metamorphosed into big time thieves. The slide is mainly due to the model of “development” that our rulers have chosen. What I am trying to say is that changing laws wouldn't make a difference. We need to change our society as a political unit at a much deeper level, in a more fundamental way.
Like the JP movement, the Anna movement too ignores the bigger issue of value deficiency in the society. It too may lead to just a change of regime and no change in substance.
Kolkata, Friday, September 16, 2011