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CARRYING THE ALBATROSS
- Why honest people contribute to a constituency for corruption

Some time before the Manmohan Singh regime imploded in the mass of corruption scandals that are currently regaling television audiences, Manish Tiwari, the Congress member of parliament and spokesperson, was participating in a televised programme on political parties and their attitudes to corruption. Someone asked why the Congress had given a parliamentary ticket to Mohammed Azharuddin, the former Indian cricket captain found guilty of match-fixing and banned for life from the game by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. “We have only given him a ticket,” said Tiwari with a smirk, turning to the audience, “but you have elected him.” Indeed, this has been the general refrain of political parties caught with their hands in the honey pot — “The electorate has mandated this.” And so it has.

Azharuddin’s case is typical. He was the party nominee for Moradabad, a constituency with a very heavy Muslim presence: though a complete outsider, he was offered as a possible Muslim icon — and indeed the electorate identified with him as such and easily elected him in a state where the Congress had a very limited base. Just as illustrative are the cases of the Yadav twins, Lalu and Mulayam, and their prolonged honeymoon with the other backward classes electorate and of Mayavati, and her status as a symbol of the political ascent of the scheduled castes, all despite their unsavoury reputations. In Tamil Nadu, individuals are even prepared to immolate themselves for the electoral success of those two champions of political integrity, M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa. Indeed, criminals as a class are perhaps better represented in our legislatures than any other profession. In the 2004 general elections, the first in which candidates were required to disclose their criminal histories, almost a quarter of the elected MPs had criminal records. What is more, a criminal was three times as likely to win as a candidate without such glamorous qualifications. Certain parties distinguished themselves in the race to elect criminals: the 16 Bahujan Samaj Party MPs had 66 criminal charges pending against them.

Why does the Indian electorate persistently reward crime? Why do we elect and repeatedly re-elect to seats of power those whose rightful place is in prison cells meditating on their sins in mournful solitude? Are we a basically corrupt and criminalized society which regards honesty as folly and idolizes thieves, cheats and murderers? Curiously, the one empirical test of this proposition suggests otherwise. Some years ago, Reader’s Digest organized an experiment in which wallets stuffed with money (the local equivalent of $50) and identification were left on the streets of cities the world over. Amazingly, 65 per cent of these wallets were returned intact in India. Cities like Mumbai, home of the Slumdog Millionaire and the commercial capital of this impoverished and inequitable country, ranked among the top five world-wide in honesty.

Why is a society of predominantly honest people so profoundly pervaded by dishonesty? Why do we, regardless of our personal ethics, tolerate, and indeed reward and lionize, corruption and crime among our representatives? Obviously, the problem lies not in our genes, but in the systems we have produced and nurtured, systems that create what the economist calls ‘moral hazard’, rules that generate incentives for cheating and corruption. The main feature of these rules is the discretionary power they vest in particular individuals to control the economic destinies of others. Discretion implies an irreplaceable element of personal judgment which others can question only within very narrow limits. If bureaucrats or politicians are empowered to use their judgment in punishing or rewarding people, in awarding or denying them contracts, in licensing them for, or barring them from, specific activities, the temptation to use this authority for personal enrichment becomes intense. If even a handful of those tempted succumb and offer favourable decisions in return for bribes, the beneficiaries of such decisions acquire a competitive edge over honest rivals. The latter must then emulate the former or be driven out of the market which then becomes the exclusive domain of the dishonest. Either way, the proportion of bribe offers to decisions increases. And though one may not agree with Henry Ford that “every man has his price”, many of them undoubtedly do, so that more and more decisionmakers are lured away from the straight and narrow path. Venality becomes all-pervading.

Yet discretion is not something that can ever be eliminated. Reality changes rapidly in unexpected and unpredictable ways: the external and internal environment, technology, market conditions, non-economic variables that affect economic decisions are in a constant flux to which one’s responses must be calibrated. To formulate in advance a set of mechanically implementable rules covering all possible contingencies calls for superhuman foresight Indeed, since most key decisions have consequences extending into the distant future, they — and the rules governing them — must be based not only on present circumstances (which at least we can observe) but on guesses about what may happen in the years to come. Personal judgment is an inescapable part of decisionmaking. If it were not, we could have left economic administration to computers and dispensed with the bureaucracy, with corporate management and — yes — with politicians as well. Perhaps, that is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but unfortunately impossible without divine intervention.

This of course is not a specifically Indian problem. Neither is corruption. What accounts for the sheer size and pervasiveness of our problem is the complexity of our regulatory frameworks and the proliferation of regulatory authorities. In part, this is a reflection of the infinite diversity of sectional interests, of castes, creeds, sects, languages, clans, tribes, extended families, income classes, occupational categories that our pluralistic society accommodates — each with its own particularistic agenda. Each interest group organizes and bargains with the State for benefits for its members, generally, if not always, at the expense of others. The injured groups then launch their counter-claims. Subsidies for one group lead to subsidies for another, quotas for one caste or sect spawn quotas for another. Indian democracy is sustained by compromise and concession in an equilibrium determined by the relative bargaining power of different organized interests. Identity politics is an essential part of this process, with politicians donning the mantle of champions of specific organized groups in the hope that this may catapult them into the roles of king-makers (or perhaps even kings). This has two consequences.

First, along with the supposed role of government in creating infrastructure, its role as a benefactor of, and mediator between, an infinite variety of organized interests implies vast decision-making powers. The State (or rather the bureaucrats and politicians who act in its name) allocates scarce resources (spectrum, mining rights, land, roads, air and railway routes, electricity, water), it awards contracts and licences and manipulates the terms and procedure for applying for these, it offers employment, it taxes and subsidizes specific groups and certifies whether any individual belongs to these target groups or not. The babu bestrides the economy like a colossus. And astride the babu is his political master. Vast opportunities for extortion and bribery thus open up — and are inevitably exploited.

Second, elections become primarily an exercise in the assertion of group identities. Where everyone steals, why shouldn’t I prefer my favourite thief to yours? Indeed, a separate morality evolves in which group loyalties and kinship ties trump all else. A story, possibly apocryphal, is current in Haryana folklore. When the late-lamented patriarch, Devi Lal — the former deputy prime minister and intense rival of Bansi Lal — was asked about his many official actions favouring his son, he reportedly erupted with paternal indignation: “Whose son should I have favoured? Bansi Lal’s?”

Large-scale corruption is the price we pay for democracy in a deeply divided society. Until we develop a sense of nationhood that transcends our many and diverse loyalties, we cannot hope to rid ourselves of this albatross — quite regardless of the lok pal bill.

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