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Hanging the Corrupt by the Lampost


On the 6th of March, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, hearing a fodder-scam related case, permitted itself a rather unusual but highly instructive majesterial “observation.”  Be it recalled that the fodder scam refers to alleged embezzlements from moneys allocated for the purchase of animal feed in Bihar during the chief ministership of Lalu Prasad Yadav—now a much, and deservedly, adulated minister for the Railways in the central Cabinet.

It may not be out of place to note also that as part of an overall fright at the increasing insistence of the intermediate castes for a space in the metropolitan sun, the fodder scam has during the last decade or so come to be constructed by elite opinion makers as  the  chief symbol of corruption in Indian political life.  There is a point in saying this because although other more impressive scams were to follow the fodder one—for example the scam related to petrol pump allotments during the Vajpayee regime—it has been the fodder scam and the representation of Lalu Yadav as an  unduly aspiring country bumpkin figure that have been driven relentlessly as the central emblems in a narrative  managed largely by fair-skinned proprietors of the upmarket English language media. And let not the “observation” here that probity and uprightness still tend to be associated  with English education and fair skin be taken amiss either. Among all partial truths, this truth has more validity than many.  Nor may our colonial history alone been blamed for these predilections:  the penchant for fair skin has always been with us since the Vedic times; all that the British did was to replace Sanskrit with English as an alternate hegemony.

But to return to the matter in hand.  Honourable Justices Sinha and Katju on the 6th day of March vented their anguish thus, in open court it is important to add:  “The only way to rid the country of corruption is to hang a few of you from the lampost”.

Predictably, this majesterial anguish has not failed to evoke a rather muted counter-anguish, to the effect that perhaps the “country” whose future is so much and so admirably close to the heart of the nations’ highest Judicial Bench may have expected the honourable Judges to mind their language somewhat.

Both orders of anguish, we think, invite a rather more considered attention.

II

That India is pretty shamefully high on the list of the world’s most corrupt nation-states is hardly disputable.  Taken together with several other indices that testify to a decline in systemic probities, the last two decades have generated among India’s upmarket middle classes a weary disenchantment with the very idea of politics.  That often democracy itself is identified as culprit is borne out by the high incidence of metropolitan refusal to cast a vote come hustings. 

It rarely happens, of course, that India’s “forward-looking” urbanites stop to consider their own subtle complicities with the corruptions they bemoan, since the level of “networking” arrangements at which they usually operate to generate “prosperity” is peddled by the institutions they symbiotically patronize and are patronized by as smart promise for a conquering future.  If anything, in recent years, this disenchantment of the new vanguard has off and on found reassuring resonance in pronouncements by the Judicial branch of the state. 

Thus, the “observation” made by Justices Sinha and Katju reflect in essence the dominant “vanguard” sentiment that, one, corruption is the number one national malady, and, two, that its sources are located exclusively in the party/political apparatus of Indian democracy.

Since it is not so easy to eject the notion of democracy per se,  the unstated assumption here is that an ideal democracy would be one that neatly bypasses or transcends the messy concrete of historical conditions.  Such a depoliticized ideal requires a two-party system which could function without any primary social/ideological antagonisms to augument the wealth and clout of the nation, leaving reliable elites incharge both of ownership and management regardless of which of the two parties form the government.  The point being that, as in America, whereas the two parties may designate themselves as discrete political formations/contestants,  they could be trusted always to share an identical theory of the state.

The chastisement administered by the honourable judges needs therefore to be understood in a wider social/ideological context.  It is instructive to recall that soon after Independence from colonial rule, it was Nehru who recommended the “hanging by the lamppost” remedy for corruption.  The difference however is that the object of his particular anguish at that point was the hoarder and the black-marketeer.  Now, at a time when the same in corporate avatar pretty much have the reins of state in their hands, it is the countrified political class that has come to replace the same as objects of contempt.  This in view of two momentous axes of social and political transformation that have been underway since the decade of the sixties (speaking here of only of the northern cowbelt states).  One, an increasingly bold, often cynical, assertion by new countrified leaderships that time has come for them to partake of what the state has after all always offered the empowered, and, secondly, the attempts made by the Legislative and Executive branches, however coerced by mass upheavals, to put in place, reluctant inch by inch, an agenda of change that purports to make India’s development and growth an inclusive one.

And there is the rub.  Such attempts at equity have repeatedly drawn the ire of India’s entrenched elites, and now and again of the courts.  Investments and affirmative measures taken to benefit, however pitifully, those that have hitherto been left out, (dalits, intermediate castes, minorities, tribals especially) are not only characterized as “appeasement” politics calculated to establish “vote-banks” but regarded somehow as a  deviation from the narrative of nationalist “progress”.  Put another way, when a government directs the state towards enhancing the interests of some eighty percent of the population, the exertion is seen as a “reactionary” withdrawal from the march to glory which, like it or not, remains identical with the interests of the twenty percent. Following from this construct, public moneys which remain unprivatised are seen as a repository of all real and potential corruption, the assumption being that every privatized corporate rupee, unlike the fodder money, goes to build the nation with unimpeachable selflessness and efficiency.  Some assumption you might say.

It will be seen that this ideological topsy-turvydom had informed the bulk of England’s post-1832 history.  The bourgeois-industrial classes who had brought England out of the stranglehold of the feudal landed gentry might have been expected to carry forward the slogans of freedom and equality beyond their own enclave, but of course that was not what they had meant at all.  So that not for nothing have historians—English ones at that, lest it be thought that good old Marx is meant here—noted that British “Liberalism” was, at bottom, a  deeply conservative phenomenon.  Through every sleight-of- hand, and failing that throught the exertions of what Carlyle was to call the “drill sergeant”, the bourgeois industrial class was to ensure that the fruits of historical change spilt as little beyond its own boundaries as possible without furthering an actual revolution.  And there was no dearth of high sounding moral icons wedded to the interests of this class that periodically never failed to bemoan the sleaze and corruption that accompanied even the most minimalist attempts at “reform” (which then meant the opposite of what it has come to mean after the “Washington Consensus of 1990; not the disappearance of the state but its active exertion on behalf of equity—1).  All this en passant, since the issues here must require considerable detailing.

The point, however, is to ask the question whether in India today, as in many other places, “corruption” is merely a moral and sui generic phenomenon.  Throughout the history of communities it has been the case that a refusal by the empowered to examine social problems without a willingness to admit complex concatenations has yielded  veritable catastrophes of simple-mindedness. (What better illustration on a wider canvas than the career of the Bush presidency in America.)

Recall that in Maoist times in China the Red Guard phase was meant precisely to decimate corruption more or less by the “lampost” means articulated by honourable justices Sinha and Katju.  Yet, alas, today China we are told is as  high as number three on the list of corrupt nations.  Indeed, were the “lampost” route the most effective anodyne to corruption, the dictatorial  regimes that used to proliferate Latin America or South East Asia, or the monarchical ones that still rule the roost in much of the Middle East should have been the world’s most pristine and pure.  Not so.

In the meanwhile, there is a real enough danger that accompanies the anguished pronouncement of the two honourable Judges, namely the power of example.  Recall that only some months ago in an Indian city a whole congregation of deeply anguished women took upon themselves the task of chastising a ruffian who had for years caused no end of misery to the women of the town.  Possessed by a sense of righteousness, they surrounded the fellow bang in the court premises and beat him to pulp and to death.  To this day a deabate carries on whether the said women deserve punishment or reward.  These righteous conflicts have of course been much the subject matter of a whole stream of popular cinema since the late eighties wherein organs of the state having been found to be all corrupt, the noble protagonist takes it upon himself, occasionally herself, to avenge iniquity and corruption.  Nor must it be forgotten that several children in recent years have lost their lives while emulating the extraordinary heroisms of a Superman, or Spiderman, or Shaktiman on behalf of the victims of corrupt and unjust authority.  Given the great and, no doubt, justified regard in which the people of India hold the Supreme Court, it is not inconceivable that the “lampost” observation may well double as inspiration to victims of corruption.  And if and when that happens, not many would remember that honourable Justices Sinha and Katju had also said as part of the same “lampost” observation that “the law does not permit us to do so.”  Precisely from the  standpoint that the existential burden of the Judicial system after all is to guard over and enforce the rule of law, without which democracy is inconceivable, the “lampost” sentiment must be regarded as considerably out of sync with that burden. 

We were all taught at school the lesson that “Rome was not built in a day.”  It took centuries indeed.  It seems we need to acknowledge and lump the reality that, ancient as we well might be, we are no more than a six-decade long nation-state.  We need to accept that in a country as diverse in social, cultural, ethnic, linguistic (to name but a few counters only) expression, practice and history, as riven and unequal in material endowment and aspiration, as wedded to “pre-modernist” modes and predilections, as unequally affected and challenged by Capitalist “modernism”, the project of “purity” cannot be an easy one.  Nor does it help to make high-sounding denigrations of what political realities obtain for the moment.  In a continental country in which nations, classes, castes and their political expressions collide with a mindlessly homogenizing Capitalism, any ruling elite that wishes “progress” to be continued to be made must needs be both highly absorptive and imaginative.  There seems little scope for pique or educated anger to succeed as state policy.

It will be recalled that a recent eminent chief justice of the Supreme Court of India (alongwith others) has publicly conceded that atleast some twenty percent of the judiciary (presumably the lower echelons)  are corrupt.  It is a thought that perhaps the most telling thing for the honourable Supreme Court to do might be to clear those Augean stables.  Indeed what better example could it set for the political class, the Legislature and the Executive.

1. see my “Back to a Better Version of Reform,” zmag.org/weluser.htm

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