On the scam trail

Published : Jul 19, 2017 12:30 IST

WHEN John Maynard Keynes, in the context of the crisis of the Great Depression of the 1930s, suggested that the government should actually pay people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up as a way of generating mass employment, it may have sounded perverse, but had a sound public-benefit logic that became influential in the evolution of capitalism and continued to have a ripple effect even in Marxist economic theory since then. Two centuries earlier, another Englishman, Dr Bernard Mandeville, created ripples of a different kind with his wacky and outlandish proposition that public good is, in fact, served and promoted by private vice. Rapaciousness, greed and corrupt acquisitiveness were no doubt vices, but they created prosperity and hence benefited the public.

As James A. Preu recounts in the December 1963 issue of The English Journal , Mandeville set his weird idea out in satirical doggerel with the puckishly ponderous title, “The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices Public Benefits, Containing Several Discourses, to demonstrate, That Human Frailties, during the degeneracy of Mankind, may be turn’d to the Advantage of the Civil Society, and made to supply the Place of Moral Virtues”.

It compares England to a busy beehive:

Vast Numbers throng’d the fruitful Hive;

Yet those vast Numbers made ‘em thrive;

Millions endeavouring to supply

Each other’s Lust and Vanity.

There are bees from different economic strata, engaged in different jobs and livelihoods, but their common trait is that they are all crooked:

All Trades and Places Knew some Cheat,

No Calling was without Deceit.

It is this trait that makes them prosperous:

Thus Vice nurs’d Ingenuity,

Which join’d with Time and Industry,

Had carried Life’s Conveniences,

Its real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease,

To such a Height, the very Poor

Liv’d better than the Rich before.

Corruption, then, is the means to social mobility, the way to advance in life and acquire a status of comfort and luxury.

But, as it turns out, the beneficiaries of this vice-driven good life themselves bemoan the corruption rampant in their midst, and Jupiter, fed up with this whining, in one stroke makes them all honest, deprives them of the drive to be corrupt, and thereby dooms them to poverty. The moral is that an uncorrupt order is likely to be a poor order. Mandeville’s take that

The worst of all the Multitude

Did something for the Common Good

is like a comic inversion of the Hobbesian view of the innate selfishness of man.

His satire seems as much of our times as his. Even as we tacitly bear or abet, or actively engage in, petty or higher forms of corruption ourselves, we are galled by its acuteness and pervasiveness and expect political parties to wage a war against it. The political parties, in turn, seem to have no problem, while themselves being corrupt, in making it their rallying cry to garner votes. Our threshold of tolerance for corruption is so lax that often we see it not so much as an illegal imposition or an extortion but as a convenience or fast-tracking fee. It is easier and simpler to be persuaded by it than resist it. The bigger players who take to corruption do so to wrest an unfair competitive edge for themselves in what is supposed to be a level playing field. It is almost as if this is part of the ruthless game, the rough and tumble, of business competition. There seems, then, a practical reconciliation to and coexistence with bribery and corruption while being in moral denial of them. The rent-seekers, the crony capitalists, the commission agents, the middle men, the influence peddlers earn our obloquy even as we acknowledge their role in keeping the wheels of the system turning. We can at once be scandalised on a daily basis by the stories of big-ticket corruption and ourselves be retail bribe givers (and takers) in our own little contexts. We ride corruption to hunt down corruption. We cannot dismount, nor will we give up the hunt. The paradox escapes us because that is the way things have been for decades and that is the way it will continue.

There is nothing of this fatalistic ennui in N. Ram’s approach to the subject in his just published work Why Scams are Here to Stay: Understanding Political Corruption in India (Aleph). It is a handy-sized book of about 50,000 words and less than 200 pages which covers a lot of ground on the types of corruption we come across, its conceptual and functional dimensions, the lacunae in the laws and the shortcomings in implementing them. Among the myths it explodes is that of a peculiarly “Asiatic corruption” touted by the British colonialists, and that of a dirigiste economy being fertile ground for corruption and of a neoliberal market economy being hostile to it. Ram avoids both the perception trap which makes for a woolly-headed appraisal of this malaise and the useless moral squeamishness with which the subject is often dealt. He points to the “supply side” of corruption being largely ignored, and that in and emanating from the corporate private sector (as against political, governmental and public-sector corruption) not being factored in the estimates on corruption or in analyses, research and political discourse on the subject, and suggests that it will no longer do to see corruption in its old abuse-of-public-office-for-private-gain definition. His overarching caveat is that corruption is inextricably linked to capitalism and that only a systemic change and structural transformation can rid us of it.

It is as if the heartbeat of the book quickens when it enters the chapter on the Bofors case, “independent India’s defining grand corruption scandal” which played a decisive role in Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat in the general elections of November 1989. “I came upon grand corruption in the flesh” is how Ram opens his account of the landmark journalistic probe he led and relentlessly pursued against great odds “during The Hindu ’s protracted investigation of the Bofors howitzer deal scandal in the late 1980s”. Ram and his team cut through the “broad denials by the Indian government and the studied denials, which on scrutiny turned out to be non-denials, put out by Bofors AB” to meticulously arrive at decisive leads on bribery and the identities of the middle men and agents who facilitated the channelling and safe parking of kickbacks in disguised bank accounts abroad, which, if pursued with political will (of the kind shown by Prime Minister V.P. Singh) and professional integrity by the investigative agencies, would have clinched the case and exposed the tainted beneficiaries. But the state deployed the resources at its command and its power and influence to systematically procrastinate, obfuscate, mislead and stonewall the media probe so that no clear closure was possible, although the questions continue to remain. “What prevailed at the bar of public opinion and politics failed and eventually collapsed at the bar of public prosecution” is Ram’s epitaph on the case.

Investigative journalism A valuable takeaway for journalists and students of journalism is Ram’s reflection on investigative journalism based on his first-hand experience of working on l’affaire Bofors. It is, he says, “not just about technique, documentation and data analysis, although these are essential requirements for a complex investigation. They must be consciously understood to be a means to an end, a coherent, nuanced, compelling story that would make sense to an informed public, raise awareness of the main issues, perhaps serve as a catalyst for progressive change or reform, and fully justify the time, efforts and resources invested in the investigation.” That the meticulously researched, verified and drafted series of stories on Bofors in The Hindu certainly did, even if the logical outcome was denied to the journalists who built the case and the public at large by those who prosecuted it with wilful or slovenly tardiness.

The book also looks at the more recent Vyapam scam in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Madhya Pradesh, which Ram describes as “ingeniously devised criminal services provided on a rate-card basis, by the racketeers to students and jobseekers to cheat their way into state-run medical colleges and government jobs”. He pertinently asks how such a humungous scam could have gone unnoticed or unchallenged for so long and blames the news media, particularly the regional Hindi press, for not having blown the whistle on this earlier. The Vyapam modus operandi suggests to Ram the need for research on “region-specific systems of political corruption that have been developed over time by national as well as regional parties… so that a composite picture of the unevenness and diversity as well as the maturation of corruption arrangements across politically federal India can be built up, with implication for how to combat them”.

A chapter on the “scientific corruption” in Tamil Nadu, covering the two terms in office of Jayalalithaa, in 2001-06 and 2011-16, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) rule of 2006-11 offers insights into how the two Dravidian parties alternating in power in the State have perfected the art of graft, buy votes with cash and goodies during elections, use or actively abet mafia-like muscle power for land-grabbing, devastative sand-mining from river beds and illegal granite quarrying, and exploit the state monopoly on the liquor trade to line the pockets of politicians and for party funds. Ram says this inveterate corruption is “akin to an autonomous sub-formation within a social formation”. Simultaneously, the governments headed by these parties also launch a number of populist welfare schemes which not only capture the imagination of the people but also benefit them and perhaps exert an extenuating or a balming influence on the in-your-face corruption that proceeds apace.

Ram concludes his scrutiny of and reflection on political corruption in India by reminding us that the problem is “intractable” in the prevailing political economy, but by also offering a series of counter and remedial measures which could make a big difference to the scale of this menace and the imperviousness with which it afflicts our lives. The perception-centric approach to gauging the forms and extent of corruption across the world by measures such as the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of Transparency International has led to broad-brush stereotyping which, besides not helping mend the situation, needs to be interrogated. There is a need to understand the culture of corruption in its given sociopolitical context without, at the same time, making allowance for any cultural relativism in tackling it. This small book takes a big step in that direction.

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