The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A secret is defined in Oxford as something one can share with one person at a time. In Indian public life, a secret is something that everyone knows but cannot prove. The secret becomes news when proof is forthcoming. Corruption in the higher echelons of Indian bureaucracy is something that is well known and talked about everywhere from tea stalls to dinner parties. Yet the arrest of Mr R. Perumalswamy, the personal assistant of Mr Gingee Ramachandran, the minister of state for finance, is a major piece of news. This is because Mr Perumalswamy was caught with his hands in the till when accepting a bribe of Rs 4 lakh to get Mr Anurag Vardhan, an Indian Revenue Service officer, a favourable transfer. For most knowledgeable people, the arrest has not come as a shock but as relief. The relief grows from the expectation that more corrupt persons in the administration will be caught and exposed. This expectation belies the old question about who guards the guards. It cannot be assumed that the various law-enforcing agencies are free from the cancer of corruption. The face of the law that is commonly known to most Indians does not engender that confidence. Quite the opposite.

The giving and taking of bribes is a common practice at all levels of public life in India. Bribes are taken by bureaucrats and officials as a show of the petty power they enjoy; otherwise ordinary honest citizens offer bribes to avoid unnecessary harassment and to expedite matters. This does not exonerate the bribe-giver, but it does offer a glimpse into the way Indian officialdom functions and the way in which power is deployed and used. The case of Mr Vardhan is, however, different. The bribe that Mr Vardhan paid was, from his point of view, a kind of investment since, in return, he expected a lucrative posting where he would be able to make more money through illegal means. The initial bribe was only the first link in a chain of corruption. Corruption has become a major sociological phenomenon in Indian public life. It cannot be understood unless it is seen as part of a wider network. This network consists of a nexus between politicians and officials. It is not uncommon to find corrupt bureaucrats enjoying the patronage and protection of powerful politicians. Politicians too make money with the help of the position and the power they hold.

Even this network has a wider context. In India since independence, the state has been given too much power, the power to decide on things that could have been left to the operation of civil society and market forces. The classic example of this was, of course the licence-permit raj that held sway before the era of liberalization. The prevalence of this regime and the powers that politicians and bureaucrats enjoyed in it made businessmen and corporate houses seek unusual and often illegal means to get on with their business. A nexus of illegality thus developed. This regime is in the process of being dismantled but there are enough vestiges of it to permit corruption to thrive. A rollback of the state may not uproot corruption but will create the necessary condition for its removal.

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