May 25, 2020
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Blind Men Of Hindostan

Do we, the Indian middle class, see the corruption within us?

Blind Men Of Hindostan
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
Blind Men Of Hindostan

I was too busy being corrupt to join Anna Hazare’s camp last week. For four days, I heard nothing but stories of our Tahrir Square-like revolution against the corrupt unfurling right under our noses in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. But it was school admission time and I had some serious palm-greasing, document-fudging, string-pulling, weight-throwing and tout-chasing to do. I had to get my maid’s seven-year-old boy into a public school under the special EWS (economically weaker section) quota for the disadvantaged. He didn’t get in—there were a couple of hundred other candidates (none of them more genuine than my boy, let me add) who had got there before us, all of them armed with documents procured at a price, and with recommendation letters from either a minister or an archbishop, or maybe both. It made me angry—the corruption, of course; but also because others were better at it than me.

Nehru would insist on investigating ministers charged with graft. The rot set in when Indira came to power. It wasn’t greed, but political insecurity.

Which was why it wasn’t hard to figure out where this collective rage against the corrupt was coming from—the filmstars who waved flags with an enthusiasm oblivious to how many times they have dodged taxes or paid off authorities from customs clerks to firemen and cops; the holy men who shouted themselves hoarse about the nation being looted before retiring to their multi-crore ashrams; the salaried ranting against politicians, forgetting their own fudged travel bills and house rent receipts; the doctors who have forgotten how many unnecessary tests they make their patients undergo; the lawyers, equally amnesiac about charging Rs 1 lakh for an appearance and Rs 10 lakh for a non-appearance; housewives, so morally indignant now but who don’t blink an eyelid before paying off a telephone linesman or a cop at a traffic light; even the auto-driver, who doesn’t choose to remember now how many times he has refused to go by the meter. And the students—were they too young to remember how their dads and uncles stacked up the envelopes of cash at the beginning of every month—the haftas for petty clerks of each of the score of government departments that could put a spanner in running a factory or business? Do they want to look closely at how dad can afford to send them to business school abroad before shooting their mouths off?

Anna For All Participants in the Jan Lokpal Bill march in Delhi. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

Are we just a bunch of hypocrites then, “fit only for candle-light vigils, apt to melt away if the police gets rough,” as one disdainful NGO leader, Parashuram Rai, put it? Rai is one of those political scientists who sweeps the floor of his home-run office—Centre for Environment and Food Security—and wonders if his khichdi is burning while he attends calls from ministers anxious to repress his findings on the huge scams in the government’s anti-poverty funds. To Rai, this “dance party crowd” of protesters seemed bizarre—“the beneficiaries of corruption raising slogans against corruption.”

“Focusing on politicians’ scams is a convenient way not to look at ourselves,” says Shyam Benegal. “Actors were playing to the gallery.”

“Of course we are hypocrites,” agrees leading sociologist Ashis Nandy, confessing that he used to buy cinema tickets from touts. “I didn’t want to waste two-and-a-half hours commuting and standing in line, and didn’t mind paying Rs 50 extra. The touts were nice people and buying tickets in black was in the nature of life.” He got his railway tickets from touts too. “I had to travel at short notice and how else do I handle it?” These, according to him, are the little corruptions forced upon us by a system not of our making, by no means depriving us of the right to moralise about it. “Why do we need morals to say something is immoral?”

Others are less tolerant of the little “short-cuts” we have grown accustomed to taking. For Magsaysay award-winning activist from Lucknow, Sandeep Pandey, there’s no big or small in corruption—“each feeds into a bigger corruption, a rung in the ladder”. If you are educated, he says, you are responsible for all corruption around you. And in Pandey’s book, even the “honest” citizen is complicit if he doesn’t raise his voice against it. “It’s not enough to resolve never to give or take a bribe; you have to object if others are doing it,” he says.

“Corruption is in our blood. It comes from our sense of insecurity. We want to please those in power not just for favours but to feel safe.” Khushwant Singh, Writer “Its power can’t be overemphasised; when the middle class sleeps, society suffers.” Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Writer, academic

“Greed is the creed of India. Nobody is above cutting corners. There is a rate for
everything: from womb to tomb.” Inder Malhotra, Political author
“Anil Ambani’s corruption is less visible than a politician’s due to the media’s cultivated silence.” Yogendra Yadav, Political analyst

“Why can’t the corrupt lead an anti-corrupt brigade? You don’t need morals to say that something is immoral.” Ashis Nandy, Sociologist “We target politicians not because we are morally superior to them but because
politicians are in charge of the system.” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Centre for Policy Research

“People in deep despair first invent their demons, A. Raja or Kalmadi. Then they create their god, Anna Hazare.” Yogendra Yadav, Political analyst “Demonstrations should be used only for solving social problems. The removing of
corruption needs change of heart.” Dr Aroon Tikekar, President, Asiatic Society

“Kiran Bedi, Swami Agnivesh, Baba Ramdev are all part of the corrupt society unless they work out an alternative spiritual structure.” Kancha Ilaiah Activist, Writer "Yes, the middle class has to pay bribes, resents it has to do so but feels helpless.” Cho Ramaswamy, Editor, Thuglak

Rai agrees, pointing out that some 8,000-10,000 of the country’s poorest die every day because of corruption, and we are all complicit in it: politicians, bureaucrats, gram panchayats, of course, but also miners, real estate barons, bureaucrats, policemen, teachers, doctors, intellectuals, even activists and media—if not by direct loot, then by our silent support of it. “It’s a chain reaction,” he explains.

But for Nandy, there’s no irony in a corrupt middle class protesting against the corrupt. “What the middle class does not like is blatant corruption—to take or give the ‘grand bribes’. It’s humiliating, and this is their cry of frustration against it. In their own unthinking way, they are articulating a major problem facing the country.”

The Lokpal Bill first came up for discussion in 1968. But it was soon dubbed Old Pals’ Bill. Who’d pass a bill to shoot them in their own foot?

Others too find no contradiction between personal compromises and public good. “We expect good things to be done by good people,” says political analyst Yogendra Yadav, “but those who fought for the abolition of slavery in America had a slave at home.” Agrees Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research: “It’s a collective desire to be part of a system where I don’t have to give or take a bribe.”

“People in deep despair first invent their demons—Suresh Kalmadi and A. Raja. Then they invent their god, Anna Hazare, and it no longer matters that you are a clerk who takes bribes, or an auto-driver who overcharges. You are just following Anna’s lead,” adds Yadav. It’s a cleansing, a vent for years of pent-up resentment.

But why this sudden despair? Corruption, after all, has been a way of life since ancient Hindu times, gradually evolving from the gifts offered to those in power in return, hopefully, for favours, to this passive-aggressive beast, which demands without actually asking. A complex network of give-and-take that requires experts to negotiate its labyrinths. Why then this sense of outrage, as if we are all no longer the old chalta-hai Indians but a nation of NRIs?

Part of it, as Nandy points out, is the sense of humiliation involved. We are richer, with a new sense of entitlement. No longer willing to bend, we refuse to acknowledge the bribe-taker’s power over us. He doesn’t scare us anymore, he enrages us. And when you consider that the middle class has grown by five times and the facilities haven’t kept up with the growth, it’s natural that we explode.

Making A Statement But what about the riders? (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

As a society, according to Nandy, Indians have always had a high tolerance for corruption. “But now it has crossed all thresholds of tolerance.” It’s not just a difference in scale, as some would argue—ballooning up from, say, a Rs 10,000 scam in 1948 to Rs 1,76,000 crore now. “It’s how corruption has hollowed out the system. We used to have partialities and nepotism even in my childhood, but now we have rate cards, even for national honours,” he says.

“Corruption isn’t limited to politicians,” says Mushirul Hasan. “Where does the righteousness of lawyers and doctors stem from?”

Besides, as Yadav points out, corruption has always been an issue. V.P. Singh rode to power on the issue. And even Jayaprakash Narain’s—movement, despite it turning into an anti-authoritarian protest, had its beginnings in small protests against corruption. The only difference is that earlier, people believed that changing the government was the solution. “But by now, people have realised that all governments are the same,” says Yadav. “They are disillusioned with all politicians; they want to get rid of them and take charge.”

Demonising the politician has been a middle-class habit for decades now. As Nandy says: “Thrown out of politics, marginalised, the urban middle class can participate in politics only as spectators. And as spectators, they want the villains to die.”

The image of the politician as villain number one is partly the media’s creation, according to Yadav. “Every evil in the country is laid at the politician’s door.” He recounts the test he gives all his students each year: make a list of 10 people you know in each of these categories: doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, teachers and political workers. Then tick the ones you think are honest. Inevitably, Yadav says, the political workers win. “Politicians aren’t more corrupt than the rest of us, but because of the routes we have crafted, only the corrupt can rise to power.”

It’s the system, and the problem with our systems, Yadav points out, is that they were all “imported institutions”. While they worked in the countries of their origin, they turned out quite differently when planted on Indian soil. Especially, says Yadav, the institutions that required autonomy. While Nehru was alive, it didn’t matter because he insisted on investigating ministers charged with graft, even if it was as little as Rs 10,000, and sacked if found guilty.

But the rot set in when Indira Gandhi came to power, according to veteran political journalist Inder Malhotra. The problem was not greed, but political insecurity: the Congress was in the throes of a power struggle and everyone needed to make more money to shore up their position. It was then that the Lokpal Bill first came up for discussion. It was soon dubbed Old Pals’ Bill, because no one seriously wanted to pass a bill that would shoot them in their own foot.

But corrupt governments in the past appear like mere babes in the wood compared to what we see around us in the present. Malhotra, who likes to hoard such facts in his filing cabinet, gives me a quick break-up: In the 1980s, we had eight scams. By the 1990s, it went up by more than three times: 26. And in the last three years, it has shot up to 150. Enough to make even the most corrupt of us morally indignant.

Malhotra recounts a CII meeting addressed by the international head of Fiat motor cars. That well-travelled gent confessed to an assembly of India’s high and mighty how unique he found Indian corruption—it wasn’t like the corruption in Italy or the US or even China. There it was a single-window corruption; you pay and get your work done. Whereas in India, “it’s...”, he groped for the right word, “unique.”

So can we do it—clean up our unique rot? Some of us are uncomfortable at this death-to-the-corrupt fanaticism among the neophyte crusaders. For Nandy, this kind of aspiration for a zero-corruption society appears almost like a vision from hell. “A zero-corruption society needs a different kind of surveillance and policing,” he says, “do we want that? I personally like human ventures to be slightly imperfect, in order to be humane.”

We may wish death to the politician. But truth is, even if he’s not the only one to blame, he does have the power to make a difference.

But it has to begin with our politicians: even if they are not the only ones to blame, they do have the power to make a difference. Rai gives an example of what political will can accomplish. In Orissa, where there is widespread pilferage of central funds meant for the poor, like the NREGA, the scheme of selling rice at Rs 2 a kg runs flawlessly. That’s only because chief minister Naveen Patnaik has sent word down the line that there will be no pilferage from his trademark scheme.

There are ways to bend the politicians to the people’s will, as Anna’s extraordinary movement showed. What made it work, according to activists, is that for the first time, the middle class had been roped in to fight a battle which had so far been only that of the poor. As Pandey explains, “The poor have been fighting against corruption for many years now. But it’s been a silent struggle, invisible in the media.”

Then the middle class stepped in. Not even the activists leading the campaign believed such a response was possible. People who had never attended a public rally in their lives were turning up in thousands in cities and towns across the country. Facebook, Twitter, 24/7 TV coverage, front-page headlines, film-stars, godmen, teachers, students, crowds: it was the stuff of activists’ dreams and politicians’ nightmares.

But can Anna keep the spark alive? Now that the party is over, can its spirit stay alive for the slow, long process of cleaning up our system? Most activists are sceptical, knowing how fickle and unreliable this constituency can be. But the fight will go on anyway, Pandey says, with or without the middle class. “The poor have no other option: it’s either fight or die.”

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