A well-travelled Chinaman who had lived through the 1970s and 80s in India will observe wryly when he goes back home that in this country people talk as much about corruption as the English (at least used to talk -) about their weather and the French about their livers. And, in general, they mean as little, and care as little, about changing things for the better. When I was younger, I felt righteously indignant about much iniquity and sham around me – in part as a gut reaction, for I had become aware how more than one ancestor in my family had burnt his fingers badly trying to fight the hydra-headed monster – and read a lot of fat books, done a lot of soul-searching and talked myself hoarse under the impression that I was contributing my mite to the crusade. I have learnt much more since then, and grown quieter; I haven’t, I trust, become cynical, nor do I think that those ancestors whom I once thought to have been noble were actually misguided or silly, but these days I am neither so ready to condemn everything that is popularly dubbed ‘corruption’ nor so eager to believe that if only we were all nicer and willing to say ‘boo’ to the dragon once all together, corruption would directly and forever vanish from the earth. I have learnt that things are not so simple as all that.
For one thing, people are not agreed on what constitutes corruption. For another, much corruption is unconsciously indulged in. Nor is there much social consensus about how much corruption may be tolerated (for the sake of preventing greater evils) and when it is to be punished, and how severely.
Corruption is certainly not a ‘modern’ problem; some of its forms are age old (just read our epics) – perhaps they are only more noticed and talked about today, but our innate love of colourful fiction, scandal and gossip, now institutionalized, organized and disseminated on a vast scale by the mass media, coupled with booming populations and mass audiences, may have been responsible for creating the impression that the world is rapidly filling up with bad people, rather than any truth in that idea itself. The very fact that certain kinds of corruption have proved to be so durable raises certain important questions. Perhaps the critics refuse to appreciate and accept certain unalterable features of human nature? – but more of this later. It is also interesting to note that whereas certain indicators of corruption have remained constant over time (at least for several hundred years), certain other yardsticks have been given up more or less completely. As in Kautilya’s time or Elizabeth I’s, we still say that a man who steals from the public purse is corrupt, but vivisection is no longer so regarded, and sporting unusual clothes, if sometimes frowned upon, no longer calls for being burnt as a witch in most places. Last but not the least, instinctive hypocrisy – itself one of the most durable and reprehensible forms of corruption – leads us to condemn our fellow humans for doing things that we ourselves surreptitiously do (or would love to do, if we were not afraid): and so the great religious masters were right when they taught ‘judge not, so thou may’st not be judged’. They knew what sort of creatures they were talking to. That is one piece of advice that stern clerics and Mrs. Grundys do not like to be reminded of.
Well then, shorn of verbiage and cant, what does corruption mean? The word has etymological associations with putrefaction and decay; it referred once upon a time to clogged sewers, disgusting sores and suppurating wounds – people still say of foul play that ‘it stinks’. In medieval times, those who ‘sold their souls to the devil’ and practised necromancy and witchcraft were said to be involved in corruption. It usually pays to hark back to the roots when you are grappling with a protean idea. These days it refers to activities which lack broad moral legitimacy: it is interesting to note that any accusation of corruption presupposes some degree of common consent regarding where the limits of legitimacy lie. In my time, in this country (and more or less in all reasonably ‘open’ societies, including western Europe and North America) the most common accusations of corruption are levelled against acts of defrauding the public, especially through abuse of political power for private economic gain (business is generally quite as culpable, but not as frequently and strenuously condemned), and against acts – or thoughts, through literature and the visual media – of sexual deviance. Let us examine their forms, causes and possible remedies in turn.
First, about corruption in politics. Historically in India and elsewhere, men in power have always thought it perfectly alright to use the privileges of office to feather their own nests – Charles II’s courtiers, except when they were extraordinarily naïve or pretentious, would not have been surprised or shocked by the goings-on in the contemporary courts of the Mughal badshahs or their provincial subedars and nawabs. Their only restraints were the need to keep in the sovereign’s good books (which was generally quite easily achieved by ensuring that the king himself had enough money, palaces, horses, wine and women to live in the grand style) and to see that the common masses were not goaded beyond endurance by extortion and rapine into a general uprising. It was only when powerful interest groups began to multiply beyond the traditional triad of church-barony-and king, first by the rise of the mercantile- and industrial bourgeoisie and later by the trickling down of affluence and education and the spread of democratic and all sorts of socialistic ideas in increasingly urban environments, until they could no longer be fully co-opted by the old elite but had to be granted codified rights to exist, flourish and wield power on their own, that new moral norms about the public responsibilities of public men began to be laid down in ‘society’s’ interest. And simultaneously, as the mass media proliferated and judiciaries became more independent, more and more people started playing watchdog in the public interest to ensure that corruption, if not actually reduced, was held in tolerable check.
In the liberal democracies of the west, the movement went on gathering momentum throughout the 19th century (it is surprising to note how recent a development this is, considering that men have been living under organized large-scale government for thousands of years) until it reached a sort of watershed in the 1970s – there is some reason to suppose that in the last forty odd years it has distinctly slowed down, if not begun to be rolled back (we hear of living in an era of ‘post-truth’ and SPIN doctors, and there are murmurs about being ruled by ‘deep states’, and, long after Watergate, Donald Trump has managed to become President of the United States) – and, to the extent that the same sociopolitical environment was replicated in other parts of the world, including India, the same movement took root and began to spread.
There are at least four different contexts in which men (and women too, of course) may be accused of corruption. One, when public standards of probity have been clearly established, and some men are observed or suspected to be betraying the standards which they have been entrusted and empowered to uphold. Two, when standards are in flux, and the standards of one large social group clash with those of others, which the former are not willing to respect or even tolerate. Three, there is the case where we might say, in a manner of speaking, that ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’, that is, people find their instincts rebelling against politically correct behavioral norms which they can neither internalize nor defy openly – these are the people who most easily become moral vigilantes and indulge in witchhunts, ferreting out deviants and hounding them, deriving from persecution something akin to the pleasure that they can no longer get from ‘incorrect’ behaviour on their own part. Finally, there are situations where all the above types may overlap, and these are particularly nasty.
[I began this essay around the year 2000, I think, and stopped after the previous sentence – except for the line I have just introduced about post-truth and so forth. I recently decided to revive it, and carry on from there. So there is likely to be a sequel: I take care not to make my posts too long]