[This is a considerably expanded version of an article that was published in Himal May 2011. It is being re-published, elaborated and updated, in the context of the farcical draft of the Lokpal Bill roduced by parliament and the threatened round 2 of the movement. – AN]
Corruption – a Systemic Affair?
Let me start with an ’emperor’s new clothes’ kind of question: What is a systemic understanding of ‘corruption’? What is a political understanding about corruption as opposed to say, a touchy-feely ‘moral’ problem? Yes, some of these phrases are straight from Arundhati Roy’s ‘When Corruption is Viewed Fuzzily’, published in the Indian Express on 30 April. But my question is not directed only at her. She represents – at least on this issue – a much wider consensus among sections of the radical intelligentsia.
Roy herself has left nothing to the imagination as to what she means:
“Among the millions of understandably furious people who thronged to Jantar Mantar to support Anna Hazare and his team, corruption was presented as a moral issue, not a political one, or a systemic one — not as a symptom of the disease but the disease itself. There were no calls to change or dismantle a system that was causing the corruption. Perhaps this was not surprising because many of those middle-class people who flocked to Jantar Mantar and much of the corporate-sponsored media who broadcast the gathering, calling it a “revolution” — India’s Tahrir Square — had benefited greatly from the economic reforms that have led to corruption on this scale.”
To her, the system that lies at the root of corruption is embodied in the ‘economic reforms’, which have led to corruption on this scale. I have no way of measuring the scale – though I might be inclined to agree with her that in my living memory, I have not seen so much compressed into such little time-space – from CWG to l’affaire Niira Radia to Adarsh Housing scam and the Bellary brothers – not to speak of the daily corruption in land acquisitions that dot the landscape of the country. Nonetheless, I do remember that something like the Bofors scandal or the ‘irresistible rise’ of Dhirubhai Ambani – all predate the ‘economic reforms’. And of course, I will not even try to mention the innumerable cases of corruption from Nagarwala onwards – including political corruption that led to big mass movements in Gujarat and Bihar in the 1970s. Those were the days when Mrs G proclaimed that ‘corruption is a global phenomenon’. To me saying corruption is systemic and must be analyzed ‘politically’ (whatever that means), sounds pretty much the same. So, if neo-liberalism is responsible for corruption, how do we explain the instances mentioned above? How do we understand the great socialist states which secreted corruption from every pore? What does a ‘systemic analysis’ of corruption really tell us?
However, Arundhati Roy was making this point, it seems to me, not in order to analyze the phenomenon of corruption but to comment on the Anna Hazare movement and its ‘character’:
“When corruption is viewed fuzzily, as just a touchy-feely “moral” problem then everybody can happily rally to the cause — fascists, democrats, anarchists, god-squadders, day-trippers, the right, the left and even the deeply corrupt, who are usually the most enthusiastic demonstrators.”
Continue reading Democracy, Populism and the ‘Middle Class’: The Return of ‘Anna Hazare’