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Corruption and Profiteering

There was a time when profit was a dirty word in India. That was wrong. Enterprise is driven by profit, and vast areas of national activity and development are inherently a function of enterprise. The Brahminical orientation, which looked with contempt on all businesses, commercial activity and productive labour - a perspective that was almost completely internalised by the Indian bureaucracy and political leadership under the 'socialist' regimes of the past - did incalculable harm to India, slowing down its growth and condemning millions to poverty and underdevelopment for more than four and a half decades.

Since then, however, we have veered to the opposite extreme, and profit has come to justify everything, including outright fraud, corruption and criminality. Just as we practiced an utterly false socialism, we have now committed ourselves to a substantially false capitalism and liberalism. The most significant beneficiaries of the new 'licentious raj', as in the old 'licence raj', are political and bureaucratic middle men, commission agents and money changers who manipulate the system to skim the cream off the top of every deal, building personal fortunes of thousands of crores in tenures that last no more than a few years.

That is the reason why Parliament has been reduced to a forum for debates on one scandal after another, with little time left over for discussion of policy, and why political parties are utterly devoid of any credible design for India's future beyond platitudes about globalisation, rapid growth and India's presumed future as a great power.

Commission agents and money changers have penetrated every aspect of the nation's functioning, including, crucially, national security. Purchases of equipment for the defence, paramilitary and police forces are now in the domain of these money changers, whose utterly unscrupulous pursuit of profit endangers not only the lives of India's fighting men, but the security and integrity of the nation itself. As has repeatedly been the case through history, India is plundered through these opportunistic instrumentalities, whose avarice and abuse expose the nation to grave risk.

It is, however, not sufficient to rail against corruption. If the malaise is to be addressed, the degree to which it has become integrally linked, indeed, completely enmeshed, with the acquisition and retention of power within the Indian system must be understood fully. That is why, despite the fitful and half-hearted action that is sometimes taken against the occasional high-profile offender who is unfortunate or foolish enough to get caught, a culture of impunity generally prevails.

Political parties are quick to 'forgive' and rehabilitate those who are known to control the purse-strings of large and ill-gotten fortunes, and little stigma attaches to the subjects of scandal once the media spotlight has shifted. In any event, with little to choose between various political formations in the country on this count, corruption has tended to become electorally irrelevant. And within a democratic system, if an issue cannot lead to the loss of power, it will generally tend not to be addressed.

While a great deal of noise is, no doubt, still made on a regular basis on the issue of corruption both in Parliament and in the general political discourse, there is a relatively cosy arrangement between all parties that political posturing will not ordinarily be carried beyond a point where real harm could be done to the leaderships that fuel or tolerate such corruption.

If corruption was a moral issue alone, its consequences would not be so grave; but it undermines the very foundations of the tasks of nation building. This is even more the case within the context of the fragile and highly competitive economies of the globalised world order, where corruption allows profits to flow towards relatively inefficient modes of production and operation, protecting weak systems and undermining long-term capacities for survival and growth.

Corruption also combines with short-term profiteering to divert investment flows away from the development of necessary institutional strengths, and into an economy of increasing dependency that militates directly against the long-term prospects of the system. And if we go beyond mere economics to comprehend the socio-political complex that is generated by corruption, we find the privileging of those who can pay, and an imposition of multiple costs and greater deprivation on the poor, who cannot.

This filters down the chain of administration to the lowest levels, victimising the powerless and, in the process, delegitimising the state, undermining administrative institutions and lawful governance, and fuelling a limitless hatred against the agencies of government and against those who have secured a measure of prosperity in the country. This, precisely, is what feeds the multiple insurgencies across the country, further undermining the capacities of the state to deliver the minimal security and services that a population has reason to expect from its elected administration.

It is relevant, within this context, to underline the fact that these many insurgencies do not, on this argument, represent any measure of hope or relief to the people. Indeed, these movements of political violence have been uniformly transformed into organised operations of widespread extortion that not only directly impose unaffordable costs on the poor in both cash and kind, but intentionally obstruct development in wide areas in order to augment and exploit the resentment and anger of the people against the state's failures to meet their expectations. The 'revolutionary' parties in India are part of this organised thuggery, and the Naxalites are little more than a bunch of extortionists running a setup that is even more inefficient than the Indian bureaucracy - which is saying a lot.

All our institutions, today, have turned into oligopolistic cabals, run by the same mindset. This culture cannot leave the corporate ethos unaffected, and our industries, our newspapers and media houses, our centres of production, are equally tainted by a collapse of norms and scruples. Large sections of the police, customs, direct and indirect tax, and enforcement agencies of the state have become mirror images of criminal enterprises. And ruling all this is the political class which has no historical memory, no vision of the future, and no shame. Unless we shed this mentality and get rid of the enveloping culture of extortion and loot, we cannot take the task of nation building forward.

(Published in The Pioneer, August 19, 2006)





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