All of us know that corruption runs throughout the Indian government; from the very bottom to the very top. Need a water connection: pay up. Need a building permit: pay up. We now also know that corruption is no longer an individual matter — it’s not a clerk or an officer collecting bribes for himself, but an entire system that farms money across the spectrum and funnels it to the top. What’s the top? Presumably the politician in power at the current moment. When the occupant of the chair changes, the recipient of the suitcase also changes.
Since we can all agree that corruption is universal and it affects all of us, let’s just take it for granted that it’s a universally hated practice as well. The question is: what to do about it? I am going to answer that question through the apoha method: by negating all the ways in which one shouldn’t go about an anti-corruption campaign.
Exhibit A of what not to do: create a neoliberal anti-corruption cult.
We have to remember that both Modi and Kejriwal came to power on the back of anger against corruption in the UPA government and both of them had tremendous support from the middle classes for doing so. Do you remember the Infy honcho who joined AAP? And I can’t even count the Wharton graduates who have become bhakts.
The bhakt-aadmi loves technocratic solutions to corruption such as demonetization. It’s easy to understand and support and while demonetization causes some headaches to the middle class, at least they have bank accounts and credit cards. Demonetization — like electronic title deeds — and IT solutions in general feel natural to the urban middle class person. Demonetization is a solution coming from their mind space and the fact that it comes with the full might of state power only makes it more attractive.
When I look at social media and whatsapp groups, who do I find being ridiculed for being corrupt (and losing out after demonetization)? It’s Lalu, Mulayam and Mayawati, i.e., politicians representing the lower castes. Not a single BJP leader is being memed. Not even Congress leaders, despite the success of the India Against Corruption movement.
My take is that corruption is an easy way to resurrect the old merit versus reservation debate and to end even minimal forms of distributive justice. I can see the beginnings an argument: why should we offer anything to the lower castes — aren’t the corrupt enough already? It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that that demonetization harms the poor — hence, lower caste and minorities — more than the rich. No one seems to care that demonetization might wipe out the wealth of the underprivileged — remember, they don’t have bank accounts.
So even if it removes corruption, it will do so by making the poor poorer. It’s a classic neoliberal move: rig the rules in favour of those who have the right pedigree while claiming to benefit everyone.
Demonetization reminds me of Sanjay Gandhi’s antics during the emergency — the last time the trains ran on time and cops were honest. And the poor were forcibly sterilized. Or caned if they protested. Just like our man Anna Hazare caned violaters in the villages under his control. Of course, the real pioneer here is Singapore with its caning of all kinds of violators. And who doesn’t admire the lion city for its cleanliness and corruption free bureaucracy.
Purity and coercion have a long history in our country. I understand the draw — since I am prone to making such gestures myself. But do I want the pure style to become the national style? No, I don’t.