Only the sense of a national mission can curb corruption
By Dr JK Bajaj
CORRUPTION is inherent to modern systems. The modern state claims absolute sovereignty over all aspects of public life and resources, including the land, the natural resources and the economic opportunities. This creates large monopolies with immense possibilities of rent seeking. It is perhaps symbolic that the first philosopher of modern science and the modern technological state associated with it, the celebrated scientist-statesman of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century England, Lord Francis Bacon, was convicted of corruption as the Lord Chancellor. A position that made him the presiding officer of the House of Lords and head of the judiciary of England and Wales.
From this exalted position, he indulged in such large scale malfeasance that he was tried on 23 separate counts of corruption. He confessed to accepting illegal gratification in all these cases; the defence offered by his apologist is not that he was not corrupt, but that such corruption was the accepted custom of the time. Even in that nascent modern technological state, rent seeking on the monopolies that were being created had become a normal customary practice! The traditional state, the state in India in particular, was the very antithesis of the modern technological state that asserts sovereignty over all public resources and public activities. The ideal state in India was expected not to monopolise but to share and widely disperse the attributes of sovereignty. One of the main aspects of Ramarajya as described in the Ramayana is that when Sri Ram rules the rajakulas, the shares of sovereignty, multiply several times.
The state in India could not have exercised sovereign rights over the land. The land belonged to the tillers and their villages; the king could only claim a small part of the produce as his share; but like the king, there were several others, including temples, scholars, artisans, village account keepers, musicians and so on, who claimed a share in the produce. The absolute right that modern state, and particularly the Indian state, claims on the land today, the authority that the state has vested in itself to acquire any land anywhere within the territory of India and dispose it according to its will, is a rampant source of corruption in modern India. Vesting of such authority in the state would have been beyond the imagination or comprehension of the traditional Indian kings and their people.
Similarly, the state in India could not have ever arrogated to itself the right to control and allocate economic opportunities. The king and the state were constituted as protectors of varta, of economic activity in society, not as providers and controllers of such activity. The modern state on the other hand claims the authority to control, license and seek fees and rents for every kind of economic activity. One cannot even hawk petty goods on the street without paying fees and bribes to various officers of the state. And, the condition of the high entrepreneur is not very different from that of the hawker; he also has to buy and bribe his way through various agents of the state before setting up any enterprise, and has to keep buying and bribing in order to continue with it.
It is not only the modern state that is inherently corrupt; the organisations and entities that buy monopolies from the state get their own opportunities of predatory pricing and corruption. Such corruption has become so common that we do not even notice it.
A‘bread-pakora’ at the Rajasthan Tourism facility at Behrod on the Jaipur-Delhi highway costs Rs 21, which is three times the price at any comparable facility; and a bottle of water on the stalls is also priced at Rs.21. This is monopoly pricing with a vengeance under the protection of the state. But there are even more blatant examples of predatory practices by highly organised enterprises. The telecom operators are known to routinely add charges of various kinds, often for non-existing facilities that the user has not requested. When a user is able to contact the company, such charges are usually reversed. But, the bright young management graduates running these companies have calculated that out of 10 victims of such practices, 9 do not go through the bother of contacting the company, and simply pay up. Making such estimates and calculations of how to cheat the customer is considered not immoral but smart business management.
The corruption that begins with the modern state acquiring monopoly rights over public resources and public activities thus spreads throughout the system. The government, the private enterprise and even private individuals all become complicit and active participants in this corruption. And, it saps both the moral strength and economic energy of the society.
Saying that the corruption is inherent in the modern technological state systems does not of course mean that it cannot be modulated or kept under some level of control.
Such modulation and control, however, is possible only when the state and the society have a larger imperial or national purpose in front of them.
During the British times the colonial officers, up to the level of Governors-General and Viceroys, and the White entrepreneurs operating in India are known to have been highly corrupt. Many of them became owners of great estates in England through the ill-gotten monies acquired in India. But, it was the general consensus in England that this export of wealth from India by whatever means served the higher imperial purposes of that nation. Whenever the corruption of the British in India seemed to militate against the imperial purpose, the perpetrators were prosecuted and disgraced quite publicly in the mother country. Thus the corruption remained, but it could not transgress the imperial mission, and in fact became an instrument for furthering that mission.
Similarly, much corruption prevails in the American state and corporate systems today. It is known that a hammer purchased for the army can cost more than ten times its price in the market. One of the Indian defence ministers became perhaps an unknowing victim of this systemic corruption prevailing in America, when he ended up buying snow-shoes and sundry materials for the army and caskets for the Kargil martyrs at unbelievably high prices. The kind of unbelievable prices that some of the foreign suppliers charged for the materials supplied for the Commonwealth Games is another example of this systemic corruption. However, America and the nations of Western Europe, while allowing the corruption inherent in the system enough space, do not generally allow it to undermine their national and imperial purposes. Corruption keeps having a free play at appropriately high state and corporate levels, yet it is not allowed to encroach upon ordinary public life, nor is it allowed to impact upon the efficiency of the state or the corporate sector to maintain their ascendancy and hegemony over the world. Such controls of course do not always work, and sometimes the corruption at the core does erupt through, as in the case of the Enron, or more substantially in the collapse of the American financial systems that were being operated for so long more or less as Ponzi schemes.
However, the sense of national purpose and national pride that the Americans and the western nations have generally help them ride over such crisis situations. And, the corruption of their systems instead of eating into the vitals of their nations becomes another weapon in their armoury to drain the wealth of other nations to serve their national and imperial purposes.
Even non-western nations that have a strong sense of national purpose and mission are able to implement the modern state systems while keeping their ordinary public life relatively clean and turning the corruption of the system outwards. Japan did it; it adopted the western systems in the latter half of the twentieth century. But in the process of adopting, the Japanese elite also went through an intense debate on how to protect the Japanese society from the corrupting and disruptive forces that are inherent to the modern western system. And, they evolved a peculiar mix of western institutions operating in a traditional Japanese moral and social environment.
The Chinese seem to be going through that process now. China is adopting western state and technological systems at a fast pace. Yet, the Chinese state seems to be continuously worrying about the corruption and social disruption that such systems bring in their wake. A high level Chinese team visiting India recently mentioned that there are three problems that the Chinese society faces today and about which the Chinese state is most concerned. The three problems that he mentioned were:
Corruption, inefficiency and laziness.
It is not that the Chinese shall be entirely able to overcome these three problems.
These have been part of the Chinese society since its early interaction with the western systems. But what is important is that the Chinese state worries about these, and identifies these as the most serious problems to be addressed. Such worries follow from a deep sense of a civilisational mission that the current generations of China have the opportunity to accomplish.
The problem with India is that we as a nation do not seem to have a national, civilisational or imperial mission. We do not seem to have a national purpose that is shared between the ordinary people and the elite of India. Therefore, having adopted the modern western systems we are unable to control or modulate the corrupting and disruptive forces that are inherent in these systems.
The state and corporate entities of the world exploit the corruption of the modern systems to bring the wealth of other nations to their shores to serve their purposes. The state and corporate entities of India exploit the corruption of the modern systems for the enrichment of individuals, who then send their ill-gotten wealth abroad to serve the purposes of other nations. Since we are not fired with a larger ambition and passion for the nation, we do not seem to know how to tame the corruption of modern systems, how to turn it outwards, while keeping our own society reasonably clean and harmonious.
We seem to lack a national will, a national purpose and a sense of national pride. Therefore, while most other nations of the world today seem to be exploiting the modern systems for nation-building, the elite of India seem to be engaged in building themselves or at best in building up a small English speaking consumer class. The problem transcends political and ideological divides within India. None of the political parties seem to be in a mood to nurture the deep sense of nationalism that is essential for a nation to survive and flourish in the modern world. The task before us is to evoke among our elite and our people, an abiding passion for the Indian nation and Indian civilisation. When such passion takes over a people, they transcend their greed and laziness, and get ready to put in the work of ten years in one year for the sake of the next thousand years of their cherished nation and civilisation.
The evoking of such ambition and passion in India is perhaps going to take time. Meanwhile, we can try to establish a certain sense of public morality and responsibility so that the corruption of the modern systems does not result in further draining of the wealth of India and emasculation of the Indian people. In that perspective, the current intense focus on curbing the menace of corruption and black money is greatly welcome. Pursued with sincerity, vigour and intensity, and with a sense of humility about the scope and possibilities of the exercise, this campaign may lead to some cleaning up of the system, which is essential for opening up of any new directions. Gods willing, it may even help in giving a nationalist orientation to the Indian polity.