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Corruption, the New Caste: Thomas Crowley

June 12, 2011

Guest post by THOMAS CROWLEY

In the mainstream coverage of the Ramdev hullabaloo, there has been, unsurprisingly, little substantive discussion about corruption itself: its fundamental causes; its widespread effects; the viability of different plans to combat it. Who would want a dry, intellectual discussion of the root causes of corruption when we can stare uneasily at pictures of Baba Ramdev holding a sword and wait with bated breath for his holy army to congregate?

But let’s – for the moment – take seriously Ramdev’s proposal that the death sentence be meted out to India’s corrupt. If the press is to be believed – especially the foreign press – this may just mean killing every Indian. For, implicit in many media reports is the assertion that corruption is part of the Indian psyche, an essential component of what it means to be Indian. In this sense, corruption serves the same conceptual role as caste: it essentializes an ever-changing historical phenomenon, freezing it in time and obscuring its economic and political roots. Much as the British taught Indians and foreigners alike to understand India predominantly in terms of caste, modern commentators are encouraging both desis and firangis to conceptualize India as the land of unending corruption. (Of course corruption has not replaced caste as a mode of understanding India; the fascination with caste still runs deep.)

In his brilliant, influential book Castes of Mind, Nicholas Dirks digs into the colonial archives and reveals how thoroughly the British have shaped contemporary understandings of caste. As the Raj became more entwined in India, its dominant mode of understanding its empire switched from history to anthropology. India, in the eyes of the British, no longer had a rich, varied history full of economic and social change. Rather, the subcontinent became locked in tradition, a fixed culture without a history, open to anthropological study because it never changed. And, according to the British, the key component of this timeless culture was caste. Certainly, the British did not invent caste ex nihilo, but they gave it a centrality, a fixity and a comprehensiveness that it never previously had. Caste, now an the essential part of Indian-ness, was also a justification of empire. Caught up in the socio-religious web of caste, Indians had never properly developed politics and had therefore (said the British) been rule by despots. The British would bring enlightened rule, even while Indians remained mired in caste.

And now, in contemporary news and analysis, India is often still viewed through an anthropological lens. From this perspective, corruption is not the result of specific historical, political and economic factors: the bloated, underpaid bureaucracy that is largely a legacy of the British, for instance, or the neo-liberal policies championed by Indian industrialists and the rising middle classes, which enable crony capitalism and put great value on the pursuit of money. These historical factors are suppressed, and instead, the image of the inherently corrupt Indian is invoked.

In a recent article in the American magazine Foreign Policy, Anuj Chopra describes corruption in India as “a deeply engrained cultural neurosis that exists on every level of society.” Chopra describes various measures to fight corruption, but adds that they can’t succeed unless “Indians challenge their attitude to private corruption.” Thus the onus is put on the average neurotic Indian to reform individually, rather than to challenge the larger political and economic systems that lead to corruption, both within India and globally. Articles like Chopra’s carry an undertone of paternalism, a bemused pity for those poor chaps who can’t get over their corrupt nature.

To the British, caste served to separate the Western “us” (civilized, egalitarian) from the Indian “them” (barbaric, hierarchical). Much present-day discourse similarly separates the corrupt-by-nature Indians from the efficient, transparent Westerners. By making corruption into a cultural trait, it can be conveniently pushed onto the other. The West is not corrupt. The United States – home of Halliburton, Blackwater (now inconspicuously renamed Xe), Goldman Sachs, and Enron – is a paragon of transparency. (Similarly, Americans could revel in “Slumdog Millionaire” while ignoring the poverty in their own backyard – a phenomenon explored in the conclusion of a 2009 Slate magazine article.)

Just as the British idea of caste was used to exclude Indians from modernity and political self-determination, now corruption is excluding India from the world of neo-liberal development and globalization. In an extensive article in the New York Times, Jim Yardley reports on the qualified success of Gurgaon, which would be the perfect neo-liberal city if only the corrupt government could get its act together. As Yardley states, “In Gurgaon, economic growth is often the product of a private sector improvising to overcome the inadequacies of the government .” No, the problem is not the land-grabbing by developers like DLF or the open-armed embrace of multinational corporations who clearly have no interest in promoting Indian infrastructure or development. The problem, rather, is that the government hasn’t served the corporate interests obsequiously enough. Of course!

Surely India has a problem with corruption. (As does the United States. And France.) But is the answer really individual soul-searching, supplemented by more FDI? Surely not. Instead of invoking the stereotype of the corrupt India, the media – mainstream and otherwise – could have a mature discussion about the complex causes of corruption and the need for widespread structural change.

Or it could publish more pictures of Ramdev in ladies’ clothes.

(Thomas Crowley is a writer and researcher based in Delhi.)


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Yojimbo permalink
    June 12, 2011 9:03 AM

    There has been very little discussion on what exactly constitutes corruption. This is indeed true and something that has been avoided. I am sure that if confronted, then all these modern corruption-crusaders will each give a different version of the meaning of corruption.
    In fact, I would like to expand this mis-conception to the whole world. Upon checking the Oxford dictionary, I found that corruption is – ‘willing to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain’. Does every corporation or businessman not act dishonestly by increasing the value of a product, in return for a profit ? Does it not also by underpaying its employees, to generate a profit, be corrupt ?
    The venerable companies mentioned here did nothing wrong by trying to be corrupt but it was their illegality that caused the problem !!

  2. June 12, 2011 10:25 PM

    Agreed. the baba has encouraged little debate on the roots of corruption, which as Yojimbo points out is the willingness to be dishonest. Even in his interviews, he very simplistically attributes everything to corruption (in Aaj Ki adalat, he holds Sachin Tendulkar guilty for corrupting the youth by promoting Pepsi)….Why just ramdev, the national discussion on the matter has treated corruption as a given. Neither the government nor the opposition have stimulated active debates on the very feasibility of such a goal.

    However. To to expect this is unreal. The agenda of anti-corruption is farther away from actually arresting corruption but more of a method to engage in the grammar of Indian politics, with its unstated codes of conduct. To garner national attention necessitates picking a nation issue. politicians before and after will continued to do so. In fact, ramdev’s entire strategy, of starting of as a yoga guru (establishing credibility and legitimacy as well as acquiring a mass base) is directed towards a clear end of engaging in politics.

    Finally. The comparison between caste and corruption as blinkers which frame perspectives on India is unconvincing. ……….. ‘And now, in contemporary news and analysis, India is often still viewed through an anthropological lens.’ Isnt every state?…person? category? what is the alternative?

  3. June 14, 2011 2:04 AM

    Aakar Patel has an interesting take on why corruption is part of India culture:
    http://www.livemint.com/articles/2011/04/28195842/Our-goldplated-culture-of-cor.html

  4. chanamakya permalink
    June 14, 2011 4:20 PM

    @ Taneja: Ignorant, yes; interesting, most certainly not! In his binary blinkered view we didn’t fight wars, we bribed our way through them–if only?! And I’m not even sure if this is bad! Perhaps we never fought for our independence either?

    And as for our exporting temples; to compare a handful of exports to the proselytizing missions of Christendom from the middle ages is not only absurd, but highlights his (and your) vintage colonial hangover–exactly the kind of righteous “paternalism” that Crowley correctly highlights in his post.

    • June 15, 2011 3:37 AM

      Man, its his point of view, Aakar usually makes lots of generalizations, kind of like drawing room chatter. I get it, but to discard his thesis as ignorant and flowing from colonial hangover is going a bit overboard. His view on our culture having a transactional nature with God is quite valid, also his point of us having morally ambivalent position on corruption, or even what we define as corruption.
      I am all for analyzing social problems with whatever school of thought one ascribes to, but lets be open to hearing what other might have to say.
      And lastly, as you mentioned me having a colonial hangover, I’d just say that its a internet message board thing, obviously you would not say this to anyone in person after hearing her or him say that she or he found a particular article ‘interesting’. Peace out.

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