The past few weeks saw the fall of once-powerful political leaders owing to corruption. Former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was convicted and President Zuma of South Africa had to resign. Earlier, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe was forced to quit and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil was impeached for unethical practices. Closer home, kingmaker of yesteryears, the mercurial Lalu Prasad Yadav who could share a mantra or two for success even to Harvard graduates was convicted for siphoning off crores in the fodder scam. Madhu Koda, the erstwhile chief minister of Jharkhand, has been convicted for corruption and several powerful political leaders are facing prosecution on graft charges.
Political authority instills in the incumbents a misplaced sense of importance. The period during which a leader is mandated to wield the state’s authority is essentially an opportunity to use policy instruments for the larger welfare of society. But in the name of development and public cause, leaders misuse it to garner personal gains. The power of the state thus becomes an alibi to siphon off government funds or receive gratification for alillegalforce. From politics to education, graft is omnipresent. This would negatively influence our youth, which is more dangerous than its economic impact lowing someone else to plunder the natural resources.
What do ordinary law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes promptly and wish to live peacefully make out of this muddle? Is the pandemic of corruption here to stay? That India, which awoke to freedom, consequent to a truth-seeking non-violent movement inspired and guided by the greatest apostle of truth should mutate into a fertile delta of rampant corruption is an irony of history. (Of course we have South Africa as a close competitor!) It is evidently a malignant manifestation of greed, arrogance, insecurity, hollow belief in the ability to get away and abysmal lack of political morality.
The Prevention of Corruption Act hinges on the definition of corruption as illegal gratification accepted by a public servant in excess of his or her legitimate remuneration. Though the definition is sufficiently resilient, the practitioners of corruption are far more ingenious. Allotting land or selling public sector undertakings or issuing mining licenses or changing the duty structure might follow the prescribed procedures meticulously, but the policy decisions themselves could have built-in tunnels of illegal gratification. In such a policy ecosystem, frauds are bound to flourish. In any act of corruption there is a giver and a taker. The giving society fails to recognise that corruption undermines democracy and development. Those who participate in corruption either as giver or taker do not realise that corruption erodes the credibility of governments.
While the preventive and punitive machinery to curb corruption have had some effect in the case of erring officials, it cannot be claimed that they have any deterrent value. In fact, the scale, scope and spread of corruption have only grown and are still growing. High-profile corruption elicits perverse social perceptions and psychological conclusions which are even more dangerous than its economic and social distortions.
The convicted leaders are the very same people on whom we had once invested a halo of power. We had seen them being saluted by decorated uniformed officers, holding key meetings seated under the state emblem that proclaims ‘Satyameva Jayate’ and shaking hands with world leaders. Now when such heroes are being taken to jails, people come to the inevitable inference that all the glitz of state power and its manifestations are nothing more than hollow rituals. The lethal generalisation that ‘everyone does it’ then begins to work on impressionable minds. What this does to our youth is hardly gauged. This culture of corruption is widespread: from capitation fee for admissions to inflated expenditure in government. Such facets of social life persuade the youth towards ‘justified’ corrupt ways of life. Where are the forces of prevention? Where are the countervailing moral factors to redeem a society from getting steeped in darkness? Corruption becomes the biggest corrupting influence, poisoning not only the present but the future as well.
Some writers have tried to blame neo-liberal policies and privatisation for this malady. It is true that privatisation and liberalisation make new investor- friendly policies and the environment offers newer opportunities for illegal gratification. However, to conclude that corruption is an outcome of liberal economic policies is factually incorrect, for the canker of corruption makes no distinction between capitalist societies or state-controlled societies. In fact, in liberal societies with more accountability, transparency, greater access to information and freedom of the media, public alacrity is quite high and that often serves as a bulwark. With strong curbs on the media, centralised and state-controlled economies are more prone to corruption.
Neither the erstwhile Soviet Union nor modern China has been a haven of political probity. The panorama of once powerful leaders languishing in jails for corruption makes ordinary acts of corruption look like child’s play. The only sensible response available for a citizen is to cultivate, practice and propagate zero tolerance to corruption. In truly democratic societies with high moral benchmarks, even the slightest suspicion, let alone conviction, spells the end of public life.
In our system, after undergoing a jail term for corruption, they jubilantly return to limelight. In a society where even conviction and imprisonment doesn’t deter a leader from resurfacing and reclaiming the mantle, the ‘humble public worker’ cannot have any legitimate claim to political morality or integrity. Such a society not only buries truth but shamelessly allows corruption to be a corrupting force
Former Chief Secretary to Government of Kerala and former Vice-Chancellor of Malayalam University
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