July 28, 2021
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'People Are Corrupt'

Should we believe our politicians when they say this? Or are they simply creating an untraceable anonymity and offering obfuscation for an answer?

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'People Are Corrupt'

There is a very new trend of blaming 'the people' for the greed that we witness and the corruption that surrounds us. Earlier, the blame was usually laid on groups of people, professionals or individuals like politicians, bureaucrats, corporates, judges, police or the media, but now that is being supplanted by a greater common noun -- the people. It is a clear subversion of all the popular narratives of corruption we knew till now. By pointing fingers at people in general, we are simply creating an untraceable anonymity and offering obfuscation for an answer. I wish to smell a conspiracy here. 

I was meeting a senior Congress leader for lunch a few days ago and he lectured me for a good hour about how ordinary people had become very corrupt and expected money to vote. All our ills have compounded only as a result of this grassroots depravity, he claimed, and confessed that his fellow legislators in the Congress were having nightmares about Yeddyurappa's (read BJP's) ability to 'throw' money if there were to be a midterm poll in the state. He also added that he had turned very cynical about our democratic arrangement because people, who were seen as the last resort by any political leader and who were the final arbiters of power, had sullied their hands. They had surrendered their moral authority. Worse, this turpitude was not just a rural phenomenon but had spread to the urban areas as well. He said the Bangalore corporation elections last year was a case in point.

As if to prove this sanctimonious theorisation correct, the first tranche of Wikileaks India cables were put out the next day of our meeting and Cable 206688, sent on 13 May 2009, spoke about how political parties in Tamilnadu had developed innovative means to distribute money during elections. It emphasised how the Thirumangalam Assembly bypoll in December 2008 had become a game-changer where the 'per voter rate' had gone up from a few hundreds in the previous elections to an astronomical figure of Rs. 5000.

Can all people be corrupt? Can politicians pay money to every voter in a constituency? Even a simple arithmetic of the size of the electorate and the per vote rate produces such a humungous figure that it is literally impossible to generate such liquidity during elections. It is also difficult to move around the largess so freely, however weak you may think our institutional mechanisms are. Then comes the question of a foolproof distribution network. You can be assured that it has never been mastered. Member of Parliament, Mani Shanker Aiyar, had an interesting explanation when a self-righteous audience threw a related question at him recently. He said there are always agents who collect the goodies and cash from a politician to distribute them in various pockets of a constituency. They are the ones who come up with a demand and supply analysis and it is they who inject insecurity by planting the idea of a politician of a rival group outbidding the voter. In effect, what Aiyar was trying to say was that it is the agent who smears his taint of corruption on an entire pocket of people he claims to represent. For the agent, elections are a business proposition and hence they try to professionalise the politician in this route. If the politician is surrounded by the wrong set of managers to reach out to a larger audience, then he is bound to see his election bill increase by leaps and bounds every five years.

Another politician gave an obnoxious twist to this issue while discussing the 2G scam in Chennai. He told me that Raja's corruption would only gladden the voters because it would guarantee them a greater return for their vote. In other words, what he meant was that Raja and thus the DMK had amassed a lot of money by selling spectrum licenses and they wouldn't be averse to sharing a good portion of it during the April elections. Meaning, the 2G scam had not shamed the DMK, but had only created hope amongst its electorate. This was another of those myths where you propagate that the loot would be diligently redistributed among the poor. 

There is an inverted argument too that one hears in the marketplace about " peoples' corruption". This takes a sympathetic view of them, but still damns them no less. It goes something like this: People demand and accept money during elections because they are largely left unattended and impoverished by their leaders. If there is proper development, if their basic needs are met and if there is a sincere effort to mitigate poverty, why would people seek alms during elections? They would keep their dignity intact and be like that always. The moral erosion that we see at the grassroots level is engineered by the politician to make his life easy. In the same line as this formulation, there is also praise for the cunning of the people for taking money from not just one contestant, but many in the fray, and at the end sticking to their own choice. Mind you, in this narrative, it is not that they stick to their conscience, but to their choice and that too by cunning. 

In all these assessments of their behaviour, people are projected, sadly, to be without a conscience, wisdom or dignity. This provokes us to ask whom do they mean when these people refer to 'people'? Naturally, they mean the famished souls. How much ever we may argue about our economic power and GDP growth, the irony about India is that when we say 'people' we mean and unmistakingly imagine the poor. The rest are know by other phrases -- the middle class, the consuming class, the ruling classes etc. These distorted views about 'people' abound because the politician no longer seems to be in touch with his constituents. The practice of politics has undergone a sea change in the last couple of decades wherein the structures of business management are being superimposed. The business is run through either a coterie, clique, relatives or, as Aiyar said, 'agents'. Anyway, the structural change in our policy making has also left no avenue for the local need and desire to dominate. Governance is getting increasingly centralised and organisations at the grassroots, like panchayats, are being reduced to mere implementing agencies of central and state schemes. The need does not arise from the bottom but is imposed from above. So, in some sense, development is on an auto pilot and the politician has no real local role.

Let me end with my little submission on why the politician blames the ' people' and calls them corrupt. In essence, he does so because when you call people corrupt, you garner greater legitimacy to remain corrupt. It gives you a license to do what you are doing so well -- making money. The argument would go: when the basic block of our democracy is corrupt how could you possibly single me out, the politician, for all the disenchantment and degradation? It is like some newspapers saying that the readers want titillation on frontpages and that's the reason why we dumb down. All this could only be a clever bid for an exoneration and general amnesty. A bid to bypass the moral posts that exist. People can never so easily be quantified.

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