A fundamental question needs an honest answer beyond political partisanship: For a country that was led to freed om by a man of the unimpeachable rectitude of Mahatma Gandhi, why are our citizens ranked among the most corrupt in the world today?
Is there something in our psyche that predisposes us to condone corruption?
Do we accept as normal the gulf between precept and practice? Is there a certain moral ambivalence in our notions of right and wrong?
Or, is the high level of corruption in our society primarily due to the discretionary power of officials, weak institutional accountability , opaque and deliberately convoluted laws, predatory sarkari inspectors, a dilatory judiciary , and, above all, the nexus between politics and black money?
I raise this issue because at a recent dinner there was this gentleman who was waxing eloquent about rampant corruption in high places, but later casually mentioned to me that he had that very day paid a couple of hundred rupees to a policeman to avoid a traffic challan. Is our outrage against corruption then something like litmus paper, changing with the colour of personal requirements? Is it bad when you have to bribe when you don’t want to, and good when it gets you what you want?
There are always honourable exceptions, but it does seem that for many Indians ethics is largely related to utility . For many who preach about the importance of ethics, the premium in real life is on ends not means, on pragmatism and worldly success not morality . What matters is not any fixity of principle but clarity of purpose.
Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth is widely revered, but all invocations to her emphasise the felicity she brings, not the means by which this felicity should be acquired. The aarti to her makes this explicitly clear: Jis ghar mein tum rahti, tahen sab sadguna aata, khan-paan ka vaibhav, sab tumse aata (In the home you inhabit virtues come automatically; all grandeur and luxuries come from you).
The fault is not that of Lakshmi. In fact she may well be unhappy that while a great many of her devotees criticise corruption in the public realm, they secretly admire the dividends it yields.The power and pelf it brings to an individual often benefit members of his extended kin and community , who are not too finicky about whether the largesse is tainted or not.
At the same time, the display of lavish lifestyles and money power attracts more envy than opprobrium.In such a milieu, corruption is often equated with a morally neutral entrepreneurship. Those who take bribes, and those who give it, are both `entrepreneurs’ bound by the same amoral conviction that money is more important for the ends it achieves and not the means by which it is obtained.
In this sense the issue of corruption is unfortunately entirely removed from the moral domain; it becomes simply a matter of costs, investments, return, tactics and profit. Those who do not understand this are looked upon as impractical deviants, suffering in their world of irrelevant utopianism.
It is interesting too that in everyday life the traditional Hindu worldview accepts exemptions to morally correct behaviour. A man can do no wrong if he acts to protect his svadharma, conduct that is right for his jati or station. He cannot be held accountable for actions that are part of his ashramadharam, or stage in life.
He cannot be penalised for transgressions made in the name of kuladharma, conduct that is right for one’s family .And finally , almost anything he does is justified in a situation of distress or emergency , appadharma. In the Mahabharata Yudhishtara, the epitome of rectitude, himself says that dharma is elusive, too subtle to be etched in stone.
Keeping these factors in mind, moral exhortation against corruption is unlikely to work in India. What will act as a deterrent are better laws that guarantee exemplary convictions for deviant behaviour. In addition, we need the neutral intervention of technology in as many areas as possible, especially where the common man has to interact with government.
For instance, if you can buy a train ticket or pay your house tax and income ticket or pay your house tax and income tax online, this largely eliminates the role of the human intermediary . In Madhya Pradesh and Bihar the Right to Public Services Act, that enables citizens to receive a service from government in a time bound and transparent manner, with penalties for delay imposed on the pre-identified officer rendering that service, have greatly reduced the scope of corruption.
Technology can also help to digitally track all financial transactions, including for benami properties and money illegally stashed abroad.Independent regulators and a model legal framework ensuring transparency in the disposal of national resources and government procurement processes are necessary too.