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Since 1st March, 1999
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- Venality is not just a question of moral fibre

It is commonplace these days to contrast the venality of the current crop of politicians with the uprightness of those in the early years of Independence. Corruption among those occupying high political offices was almost unheard of those days; and if there was even a whiff of scandal attached to anyone, leave aside corruption, then that person resigned office forthwith (the case of T.T. Krishnamachari being an obvious example). The contrast with the present cannot be starker, when cabinet ministers accused of corruption are not even investigated, unless the pressure becomes extreme. And even if, perchance, some corrupt politicians are forced to quit office, they continue to lead active political lives, wielding power from behind the scenes. Not surprisingly, the tribe of politicians today scarcely commands much respect from the public at large, unlike those in the early years after Independence.

This contrast between then and now is usually explained in terms of a difference in moral and ethical standards. The crop of political leaders the country had at Independence had made great sacrifices in the cause of the country’s freedom; they had been motivated by high ideals, suffered incarceration and police brutality, and had been close to the people. Today’s leaders treat politics as a business, are lured to act in particular ways by wealthy businessmen, and have little contact with ordinary people; and their moral and ethical standards are hardly above those of an average self-seeking, money-grabbing bourgeois. Their venality and corruption, therefore, are not surprising.

But this explanation can hardly suffice. Moral and ethical standards are the product of the times. The standards prevalent when the country was fighting for freedom can hardly prevail when capitalism, with its emphasis on each maximizing his or her own interest (a trait supposed to characterize “rational” individuals), is developing at breakneck speed. It is not a matter, therefore, of being intrinsically superior or inferior in moral terms; it is a question of the milieu in which we live and today’s milieu is one where a person’s worth is judged by how much wealth he has. The young Karl Marx had written in a letter to his father: “The more you have, the less you are.” That, alas, is not the maxim today.

But even this is too general an explanation. After all, in established bourgeois societies, “corruption” in the strict legal sense is by no means so pervasive. True, many practices they have, such as, for instance, the practice of political offices within American political parties going to persons who can mobilize maximum funds for the party, would be considered cases of “corruption” by most people; but these practices are not illegal. Indeed while capitalism involves a whole range of practices that allow the use of money power to ensure that the interests of the corporations prevail over those of the people, “corruption” in the sense of violation of the prevailing legal code attracts strict and swift punitive action. (The recent case of Rajat Gupta, accused of “insider trading”, is an obvious example.) So the blame for the fact that in contemporary India violations of legality for personal gain have become apparently widespread cannot be laid at the door of capitalism per se.

Certain periods in the history of capitalism, however, are more conducive to pervasive corruption than others, and these are periods when sudden significant transfers in property ownership are effected under the aegis of the State. (These periods are typically also characterized by a change in the nature of the State). But transfers from concentrated property ownership to dispersed ownership, an example of which is land reforms, or from concentrated private ownership to State ownership, such as, for instance, bank nationalization in India, are not particularly conducive to corruption. It is the opposite kinds of transfers that conduce to corruption, where the shift is from State ownership or petty ownership to concentrated private ownership.

Corruption in the latter case arises in two possible ways: one, where the identities of the beneficiaries of such transfers remain fuzzy, and some persons appropriate the benefits ostensibly meant for these fuzzy target beneficiaries. The large-scale corruption engaged in by the officials of the East India Company after the conquest of Bengal is a case in point. Robert Clive, a major beneficiary of such corruption, when accused later of defrauding the East India Company of resources meant for the latter, had defended himself famously before the British parliament with the words: “Consider the situation in which the victory of Plassey had placed me. A great Prince was dependent upon my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy; its richest bankers bid against each other for my smiles; I walked through vaults that were thrown open to me alone, piled on either hand with gold and jewels! By God, Mr.Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation.” Obviously neither Mir Jafar nor the bankers distinguished between the East India Company and Clive: the former was too fuzzy and distant an entity. Likewise, when State property was sought to be privatized after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the target beneficiaries being ill-defined in the beginning, all sorts of individuals and party functionaries became millionaires overnight by filching State property.

The second way in which corruption arises at the time of such changes is when the identity of the beneficiaries, or the terms of transfer, or the smoothness of the process of transfer, are dependent upon the decisions of certain State functionaries. There is nothing chaotic or fuzzy about the change, but the State functionaries demand for themselves a slice of the property that is being transferred, which constitutes an act of corruption. What we find in India today falls within this second category, of which the 2G spectrum sale is a prime example. Here there is no doubt about the identity of the beneficiary once the decision is taken, but a condition for the identified beneficiary to obtain his or her property is to hand over a slice of it to the State functionary. For this to be feasible at all, the transfer of the property in question must occur at a price that is substantially lower than the prevailing market price, or what some “insiders” know the market price will be in the near future.

Such transfers of property from petty producers or the State to a few private owners at prices below the current market prices or likely prices in the near future fall under the rubric of what Marx had called “primitive accumulation of capital”. Corruption of the second variety, which is common in contemporary India, is nothing else but a levy imposed by certain State functionaries upon the beneficiaries of primitive accumulation of capital.

The reason why corruption is rampant in contemporary India is because the country at present is witnessing a process of primitive accumulation of capital with a vengeance. It is not that the politician of the Nehruvian period was necessarily of a higher moral fibre than a contemporary politician, but the milieu then was not one of rampant primitive accumulation of capital. On the contrary, the freedom struggle had promised land reforms and the building of an egalitarian society, for which measures of precisely the opposite kind, namely, the takeover of large property and its distribution among many or its appropriation by the State at prices that were, if possible, below market prices, were required. The State sometimes enacted such measures; and it was criticized for dereliction of duty when it did not. The scope for corruption hardly existed in such a milieu.

A democracy in which political leaders lose their moral legitimacy in the eyes of the public becomes fragile. The position that should constitutionally belong to the people’s representatives who are all necessarily political leaders is then sought to be usurped by others, ranging from “messiahs” to “experts”. Such usurpation, which appears, at first sight, to be a change for the better, becomes in effect a means of attenuating the people’s right to choose their political representatives for governing on their behalf. It also undermines the basic egalitarian premise of democracy enshrined in “one person one vote”.

The constriction of egalitarianism has a dialectics of its own. Primitive accumulation undermines the egalitarian premise of democracy, and, by discrediting democratically-elected political leaders through the corruption it breeds, it also restricts the democratic process itself, creating opportunities for select groups to usurp popular sovereignty. An economic strategy that promotes primitive accumulation is fundamentally antithetical to democracy.