Two days ago, lakhs of urban middle class Indians have come onto the streets in a show of support for Anna Hazare’s victory against Government of India when the latter conceded Anna’s demand to form a committee with some civilians in it. While this outpouring from these yuppie Indians looks good on TV and internet campaigns, I ask myself some basic questions. Are we really on our way to root out corruption with this show of support and introduction of Lokpal Bill? Are we about to change the system? Unfortunately, the answer I get from myself is a big No.
To give a perspective, imagine a rally or a fast taken up by a Gandhian to stem out casteism from our lives. We may see a similar response from many Indians who are ‘fed up’ with casteism in this country. We may naively believe that such rallies and fasts may be the first step towards extirpating casteism from our society. But the reality is that casteism is so deeply entrenched into our system that a mere fast or rally will not make a dent in its solid structure. At the most, such rallies and fasts combating such deep-rooted problems will have a symbolic value. I don’t underestimate such symbols. I believe they are quite important. But it would be unrealistic to believe that a single legislation or law will somehow curb casteism from this country. The same holds true for corruption.
To all those yuppie Indians who actually believe that this event from Anna Hazare is going to actually bring any change, here is the bad news – nothing is going to change. I write this not out of cynicism but with a sense of realism to exhort the anti-corruption activists to do much more than what they are currently doing if they are really serious about the cause.
Corruption in this country is here to stay. It is not going to go away. If ever, there is a strong likelihood that it is going to become a permanent and defining feature, an essential ingredient of what it means to be an Indian. Like those few things that define Indians by becoming their identity, like their preference for curries, obsession with cricket and madness for melodramatic movies, corruption is now an identity of Indians. The way you cannot take Indianness out of an Indian, you cannot take corruption out of an Indian. Corruption is his birthright and the Indian will fight tooth-and-nail to hold onto it. He will not let go of his right to give bribe and take bribe.
Most Indians who are now celebrating Anna Hazare’s fast are being ingenuously optimistic about the change this fast would bring to this country. They do not understand how and why we Indians are corrupt. And therefore, their efforts to eradicate it by participating in relay hunger strikes, rallies, or campaigns on the internet, are all bound to produce no tangible results, other than give some gratification to the participants that they made an attempt, though abortive, in correcting the ills of this country.
Without understanding this disease or malaise called corruption and why Indians practice it, we will not be able to make even the first attempt towards tackling it. To combat a problem, the first step is recognizing that it is indeed a problem. Most ordinary Indians other than the yuppie Indians who supported Anna Hazare in his campaign do not believe that corruption is a problem. They may say so, to you, when you ask them, but when it comes to real issues of living in India, most of them gleefully take bribes or give bribes. The way they may say that they are against casteism but practice it on a daily basis.
Most people in India actually like this arrangement of giving and taking bribes. Contrary to what some yuppie Indians who had jaunts in the West believe, the majority in India find it convenient that bribes can be given and taken on a regular basis.
Instead of standing in a long line, a bribe-giver feels he is the ‘privileged class’ when he gets to avoid the cumbersome exercise. In that moment, he is the MLA and the MP combined. While obtaining a driver’s license, a briber-giver can skip the grueling and painful process with payment of a paltry sum; instantaneously, an ordinary Indian feels like a Rajah, moves up the hierarchy to become upper caste skipping eons of penance, and at least for once, controls his destiny. It gives instant gratification and a sense achievement like no other. Either it is the transfer of wife’s job or obtaining a contract, an Indian looks for that government official who takes the bribe. The minute he finds an officer who takes the bribe, he thanks all the gods in heavens for answering his prayers.
A bribe-taker is an essential god in our pantheon of three million gods. In fact, he is more supreme than the creator, the destroyer and the preserver. Millions of people throng to sacred places like Tirupathi to bribe their god in heavens requesting him to grant a bribe-taker here on the earth. God answers their prayers by providing a bribe-taking-officer, bribe-taking-bureaucrat or a bribe-taking-politician closest to you.
Indians compete with each other not in terms of what they know, or what they can do, but in terms of who they know and how much they can give. An Indian who loses out to another bribe-giver does not feel bad that the other person subverted the system, but feels bad that he could not match the bribe-giver’s amount in bribes. Instead of combating the system he takes a vow to earn more (if needed, by taking bribes from others) so that he can surpass the others in bribe-giving the next time around.
There was a time when the position of a Vice Chancellor in the universities of India was a respectable one, filled by eminent professors and academicians. Now it is sold to the guy who can pay 1 Crore. Even if you are on the top of list of suitable candidates with great accomplishments you still need to cough up this money to secure the position. If you are one of those guys who haven’t made this kind of money, ‘no problem’, the bureaucrat will tell you, ‘there are many undeserving lecturers and professors out there who will invest in you right now, so that they are assured of their jobs when you become the vice-chancellor’.
Corruption has skyrocketed in the past twenty years soaring higher and faster than our Sensex. 2G scam, CWG scam, Adarsh scam, and so many others got unearthed only because they were too big that we could not ignore them. They amount to hundreds of thousands of crores. But then there are millions of less-than-1000-crores scams which are still hidden from public view. There is a joke which says that CBI does not take up the case unless the scam involves more than 1000 Crores. In the last ten years, mining companies have looted India of wealth that may be ten times more than what British took in their two hundred colonial rule. We are competing with each other on how much we can loot from this country, and the very same people are hailed as leaders and heroes. Bigger the looter, bigger the hero! And it is the people of India who elect them.
Most people in India conveniently lay the problem with politicians or bureaucrats. They think that there is a set of people who can be labeled ‘corrupt’, who conveniently are not their family or their friends, and definitely not themselves, but who can be identified and targeted, and found culpable. They think that they need to make these ‘corrupt’ people accountable under the laws of the land, punish them if necessary with the strongest of the punishments so as to set example, and thereby eradicate this scourge once and for all.
I find such understanding deeply flawed. According to me, the problem of corruption in India is not in legislation or with politicians. The problem is not legal or in penal code. The problem, according to me, is in Indian Parenting, the way we raise our kids, the way we imbibe values into them on a daily basis.
We somehow have an ambivalent opinion on how parenting shapes up our culture. While we believe that it is ONLY because of Indian parenting that we have the ‘greatest culture’ on the planet with ‘greatest moral and family values’, we completely absolve ourselves of parental duties when it comes to shaping the ‘universal’ values, on corruption, on politics, on democracy, on ethics, on responsibility, on duties, and on integrity.
Because we are not imbibing these universal values into our kids, we are becoming more corrupt each passing day. Most Indian families have made corruption a part and parcel of Indian identity. Indians confuse their habits with their values. They put stress on food habits, like not eating meat, or not drinking alcohol, imbibing the kids with prejudices instead of creating responsible citizens. They express their bias against other kinds of people, of other caste, of other religion, belittling women, and weak people. And never ever do they discuss the negatives of corruption, strength of democracy, or need for inclusive growth and equal opportunity. And the worst part is that they indulge in giving and taking bribes and later justify it as the only way to get ahead in this fiercely competitive world.
Indian families do not feel bad when they pay bribe. In fact they feel very proud that they could manage a bribe while others could not. Fathers feel proud when they go against all odds to secure admission to their son, by providing a very large sum as ‘donation’ to the college. Husbands feel proud when they secure a job for their wife, by providing a very large sum to the government officer. When we give bribe and achieve what others could not, we feel proud of our capability. Without bribe-takers we would have been denied this sense of pride and achievement. We would not be able to celebrate our Indianness and wallow in its warm glow that rejuvenates us on a daily basis.
Corruption is endemic to Indians, the way casteism is endemic to this subcontinent irrespective of which religion you are born into. It is not an evil. It is a way of life. It is not a sin. It is a necessity. It is not a crime. It is the only way out.
Few years ago India was reeling under one of the stock market scams. There was an opinion poll amongst the youth. More than 80% said that they would also resort to such ‘smart’ tactics to achieve quick ‘success’. Recently I was talking to young sons of an entrepreneur who has made it big through sheer hard work and perseverance. These young sons do not have qualms about the state of corruption in India. They believe that one should do whatever it takes to succeed. They believe that giving bribes and taking bribes is a part of our life and society, and to stay ahead in the game one has to learn the necessary ‘survival skills’. They talk about ‘survival of the fittest’ as if they have a doctorate in biology. To these kids and many others in India, Ramalinga Raju is still a hero. They argue that people put him behind bars because of pure envy. Most godmen in India are corrupt and yet they have huge fan following. Almost every hero in India is eventually found to be corrupt either financially or ethically.
Even the IT companies in India who believe they have nothing to do with government and hence portray the image of being clean resort to different kinds of deceit and cheating. They cheat US companies with fake resumes where a one-year experienced guy is positioned as six-years experienced thereby depriving the job to an American in America. Some of the HR managers in these companies resort to taking money to give you jobs. Almost all of them keep the government officials ‘happy’ so that they do not bother them.
As the current event of Anna Hazare’s fast and people’s celebration is unfolding on the national arena, I would like to point out to some news items from the last two days. One talks about freebies being doled out to voters in Tamil Nadu. In my region, when a politician comes to the common man asking for his vote, the common man asks him how much he is willing to pay. When the politician offers him 3000 rupees, the common man asks, ‘what saar! The other party is giving me 4000 rupees. Give me 5000 rupees’. The politician who wants to buy his vote pays him 5000 rupees. Everyone is happy now. The politician goes home thinking he bought one more vote. The common man celebrates this unique moment - this is the only time when the bribe-giver has become bribe-taker, when the slave has become the master. He wouldn’t miss it for the world. You cannot ask him to forgo this extraordinary moment and opportunity. The competition in some states is so fierce, that the entire population has to be given bribes to vote- TVs, ceiling fans, homes, free loans, and what not, come to the doorstep. The common man enjoys these moments and doesn’t care about ethics, morals or issues of integrity that yuppie Indians who are protesting now are trying to promote.
Another news items talks about 10 or odd students who ‘rigged’ the results to become the toppers in the state of Karnataka. When I was growing up, we got to know that few students’ parents ‘bought’ the entrance question paper to help their kids get admission into a professional college. These kids over a period of time disclosed quite proudly that indeed they got the necessary help from their rich parents. Most other students felt helpless and hoped that their parents were also rich enough to buy them the question paper.
It is the common man of India, not the politician or the bureaucrat, who indulges in such deceit and corruption to get his way ahead of others. Politician is just a manifestation of what is common to every Indian. Like man Like State, said Socrates. The politician or a bureaucrat is just a pimp. There is a supply and there is demand. He just happens to be the conduit. To believe that a politician is the root cause for this problem shows our naiveté.
Many Indians counter my criticism of Indians. They ask, ‘aren’t Americans corrupt? Look at the recent Wall Street debacle of 2008? What does that show?’ True, many societies and countries have corrupt people, like in India. But no other culture or civilization has successfully codified this evil into a value the way Indians have done it. In India, many people swear by ‘survival of the fittest’ argument to justify ‘getting ahead’ which includes ‘giving bribes’ where necessary. I think no other culture in the world believes in this misinterpreted Darwinian notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ more than Indians. Indians use this argument in many instances, and most young people believe that it is a grand principle on which the nature works. They use this when arguing against reservations-for-lower-castes to perpetuate the hegemony of upper castes, or when arguing against separate state for Telangana to perpetuate the domination of the privileged and majority of Andhras. Out of this notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ comes a concept called ‘meritocracy’- another misunderstood term amongst a gamut of misunderstood terms. Indians love to swear by ‘merit’. And in this world and age, merit also includes the amount of money your father can bribe, or the right kind of contacts that you have. So, the way a son would proudly show off his Ferrari that his father bought, he would also show off the B.Tech admission that his father bought for him. An entrepreneur would proudly tell people that he knows this minister and that is considered a qualification. Even investors are impressed by the fact that this entrepreneur has a secret doorway to a minister and his valuation goes up, and investors love to fund him. A father buying a B.Tech admission or an entrepreneur having an access to the top minister is now called ‘merit’.
Indians are quite capable of embracing an evil to display it as a proud achievement of our culture. Seeds of casteism are found everywhere on the planet. In the course of human history through monarchies and feudalism, some form of ‘casteism’ prevailed in most countries. But no other country takes the credit for codifying it, legitimizing it, institutionalizing it, making it part of religion, making it a part of the culture and making it a part of identity, the way Indians have done it. In the same way, I don’t know of a nation that has made corruption a virtue based on ‘survival of the fittest’ arguments, the way Indians have done it.
To fight that kind of a system which is ingrained into our DNA, we can’t just take up rallies, fasts or internet campaigns, and hope that we got some quick-fix solutions. No quick revolution will change our culture. We need to do something very different, very drastic, and unfortunately that means we have to change the way we live our lives.
Since I complain and criticize so much, people ask, so what is the remedy? What should one do? So, what should these yuppie Indians do, if I believe their rallies and internet campaigns are considered insincere and lazy attempts?
Indians can work on this in two ways, one that concerns the near term, and the other which concerns the long term. The near term corrections involve people’s participation, especially of those who are concerned with cleansing the system, in the administration, policy making and politics of India. You have to correct the system by being a part of it. This ombudsman they are seeking assumes power without taking up the responsibility of getting the mandate from the common man. They are taking the shortcut bypassing political route and administrative route. Unless a certain minimum number of new breed of Indians who believe in ethical practices enter the Indian administration, there can never be a change. No amount of legislation will help unless people who want the change are part of the administration. Those who are really concerned but do not wish to enter politics can fund and create legal outfits to fight the cases in courts, spread awareness through TV ads and campaigns, and catch the young students and convert them through programs and shows.
On the long term, Indians need to start working on their parenting, instilling the right values into their kids, not just the habits of not eating meat or not drinking alcohol- and then hope they bear fruits twenty years from now.
Till then, I don’t see a great hope when it comes to fighting corruption in this country. And I believe that Anna Hazare is bound to lose the war, though he may win this battle.