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Why is India corrupt?

No one questions the prevalence of corruption in India. The politicians of the two principal parties may blame each other but the fact of corruption is inescapable

Written by Meghnad Desai |
July 15, 2012 12:47:02 am

No one questions the prevalence of corruption in India. The politicians of the two principal parties may blame each other but the fact of corruption is inescapable. What is more,corruption in India is not news. It has been around since the early years of Independence. Nehru was appalled to notice the behaviour of Congress legislators in UP as early as 1946. He thought they had violated all the provisions of the Indian Penal Code in one way or another!

India also has a lot of laws to fight corruption. There have been inquiries and commissions on corruption going back more than fifty years. There have been several attempts over the last forty years to pass the Lokpal legislation and the latest one is still pending. The Anna Hazare movement has waxed and waned. Across India,be it mining scams in Karnataka,housing scams in Maharashtra,2G,Taj Corridor,Bihar fodder scandal etc; there are corruption scandals,some pending,some abandoned,some yet to come up for prosecution everywhere you look.

It cannot be that India needs another law to fight corruption. India has from the colonial days a tough legislative structure on proper behaviour in the public services very much on the old British model. B K Nehru in his memoirs relates how as a young ICS officer,he was chewed out by his superiors for accepting a free cinema pass from some cinema owner. He was told he was not to accept even unsolicited gifts,let alone ask for under-the-table cash. Gulzarilal Nanda,twice interim prime minister,retired to his two-room flat in Ahmedabad and lived in modest circumstances till he died. Over twenty plus years in office,including ministries which have subsequently become ATM ministries,he retired without taking a penny illegally. What has changed?

It cannot be the laws but behaviour which is the key to the tolerance of corruption. India’s system of governance has been inherited from Western sources; it is based on what one might call after the great sociologist Max Weber,Weberian rationality. People within a hierarchical structure behave according to certain rules and norms. The superiors respect their inferiors and the latter reciprocate. Their transactions are defined by impersonal rules. If they at all associate with each other outside work,it would be by chance or old connections. One would not seek personal relationship with one’s superiors. I recall when in my first job in Berkeley,California,my boss hosted his daughter’s wedding,he did not invite any of his colleagues. I realised that that was the norm. His daughter’s wedding was not related to his work. It is not that corruption is not found in Western societies but it always comes as a shock because it does not meet with social approval.

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In Indian culture,interpersonal relations at work are modelled on family and kin relations. You pay respect to your superiors,seek their blessings,propitiate them with gifts and humble yourself before them. The superiors regularly treat their inferiors as they would young adults within their joint family and would think nothing of asking them to carry out tasks outside their professional remit.

Giving a gift to your superior for Diwali,or on their birthday or their daughter’s wedding is not only not frowned upon,it is approved of. Indeed your fellow workers competing with you for promotion would be busy outdoing you in size of their gifts. The Party leader would expect the local agents to spread out the red carpet and look after his least important needs.

In short,in India there is no separation between formal rules of behaviour at work and family or kin relation behaviour. As soon as you can,you make your superior your ‘uncle’,his wife becomes your mausi. You are expected to invest resources in maintaining your status in your workplace. All this requires money over and above your legal pay and perks. It also counts as corruption on strict formal Weberian rules. And yet the sort of behaviour is not only approved but applauded.

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Corruption may be as Indian as daal chawal. We are like that only.

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First published on: 15-07-2012 at 12:47:02 am
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