Monday, August 16, 2010

Corruption! What’s that?

Corruption! What’s that?
Saeed Naqvi

There is nothing more anti poetic than the image of Suresh Kalmadi and his alleged shananegans. Yet the mind, that strange instrument, moved mysteriously to Josh Malihabadi one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. The link, in my mind, was Josh’s poem on corruption.

The interesting point here is the year in which the poem was written: 1951. It is actually a satirical poem on Bribery which, in Josh’s framework, was at the bottom of that which is now a full blown Oak of contemporary corruption.

The scale of corruption in the first decade of Indian independence stunned Josh. The rot had set in so deep that the harshest administrative measures were deemed not to be effective:
“Mulk bhar ko qaid kar de
kiske bus ki baat hai!
Khair se sub hain: Koi
Do, char, dus ke baat hai?”
(Who can send an entire nation to our many jails?
Because that’s what is required when all else fails!)

Josh Malihabadi’s poem opens up a different vista. Surely corruption was not dormant underground, lying in wait for the British to leave on August 15, 1947 for it to so suddenly zoom on a scale described by Josh.

What the poet describes is something that had been simmering, gestating, growing for atleast a hundred years of British rule.

There were no newspapers, and certainly no 24  7 TV channels to expose bribery and nepotism. It were only subsequent scholars who, while going through land records, located the “patwari’s” boundless land fiddles (for example).

Since Hindus took to Western education while the Muslim elite held on tenaciously to their “language and culture” and largely spurned western education, the educated Hindus (and these were largely Brahmins with a sprinkling of Kayasthas and other “Savarnas” or upper castes), dominated the Civil Service at various levels.

This led to the consolidation of nearly unbreakable caste networks, the fountain source of nepotism. It were these vested interests who were rattled by contemporary electoral politics, generating egalitarianism which threatened to replace the traditional elites from their perch.

A case study of Guntur, in Andhra in the 18th century is most revealing. It is a remarkable work of scholarship Guntur by Robert Fryckenberg.

During Maratha expansion, Guntur came under the rule of the Marathas who brought with them their own pool of administrators.

After the British set up their headquarters at Fort St. George, Guntur came under the Madras Presidency.

The British ICS officer posted to Guntur as collector noticed ordinate delays and obstructions in implementation of decisions taken by the collectorate.

Inquires reached a dead end because the files, which would explain the delays, could not be located. It was all so co-operatively orchestrated that it was impossible to identify the culprit.

The exasperated officer approached Fort St. George for superior intervention. Here too, headway was not rapid. Infact it was tardy.

Matters reached the Privy Council in London. Only then was the Gordian knot unloosed.

The Privy Council found that most of the administrators the Marathas brought with them were Desastha Brahmins. When the Marathas made way for the British, the latter retained the middle and lower administrators (because they were brilliant) quite innocent of their caste and class affiliations. This network spread from Guntur to Fort St. George.

What I am arriving at is this: the antecedents of bribery and nepotism, which are at the heart of what goes under the blanket description of corruption, go back deep into the British period and possibly beyond.

During the colonial period the warts did not show. There probably was no great anxiety to bring wrong doing at a lower level into public glare because it would have required delving deep and would cause the British to spread themselves out too thin.

Post independence corruption requires extensive research but, a cursory look, yields some leads.

As I have said earlier, a consequence of electoral politics was egalitarianism. In a society stratified for centuries, this accorded power and proximity to wealth to a class which had never seen either. What followed was an unseemly grab for money.

It shows the earnestness with which the Founding Father launched the democratic project, that as early as 1957, the second general elections, influential Congress leaders threw everything into the contest, including a little bit of corruption. The only way to ensure success, particularly if you were an outsider and not from the constituency, was to ingratiate yourself with the local Congress workers and heads of gram sabhas.

One such, Feroz Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s husband, when fielded from Rae Bareli for the 1957 poll used his influence in New Delhi to bring in truck loads of PL 480 (USAID programme) butter cans and woolen shawls to be distributed among the influential folks in the constituency!

This was the thin end of the wedge. Elections began to demand ever increasing sums of money.

From earliest days of Indian Democracy, there were always a dozen or so members of Parliament beholden to major business houses. Today the number of such MPs has grown. There is poignant symbolism in the fact that Mahatma Gandhi’s stay at Sevagram was financed by Rahul Bajaj’s grand father and the great Mahatma died in Birla House!

But how does one explain Kalmadi, thoroughbred Brahmin, caught with his hand in the till?

Alberuni, who came to India in 1017, and studied every aspect f Indian life for thirteen years, talks of the land’s ethics:

“All things are one and, whether allowed or forbidden, equal.”

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