Against Corruption = Against Politics: Partha Chatterjee
Guest post by PARTHA CHATTERJEE
Shuddhabrata Sengupta has done a great service by opening up the question of corruption which lies at the heart of the Anna Hazare movement but which has been, surprisingly, accepted quite uncritically as a universally known and universally condemned evil. It is actually quite puzzling how this effect has been achieved. It is a question which, I think, touches the core of the populist mobilization brought about by the Anna Hazare movement.
Think of it. Who are the beneficiaries of corruption? The entire middle class in India (lower, upper, aspirant lower to upper, whatever category one wants to use) seems to think that it is the victim of corruption. “It touches the lives of everybody”, as Nivedita Menon said in her recent piece in Kafila. But then who are the engineers, the accountants, the babus in the offices, the touts who surround the courts and the hospitals and the railway ticket counters? Aren’t they our uncles and nephews and sisters-in-law? The corrupt people of India are blood relations of those who are flocking Ramlila Maidan. But, needless to say, no one you meet there will accept that.
If one did an investigation into how the parents of the idealist software engineer or business accountant financed his/her education, it would very likely turn out to be a story of what is called corruption. There can be absolutely no doubt that the middle class, from top to bottom, is the biggest beneficiary of corruption in government because it is the middle class which populates the government, inhabits it, runs it on a daily basis.
And yet, ask anyone and see if that incontrovertible fact is corroborated by middle-class public opinion. No. Corruption is always what someone else does. I think what needs to be thought very seriously is the conflation of corruption (in its currently popular sense) with politics. That, I think, is at the heart of all the Anna madness (or the madness with Anna). If you asked anyone in Ramlila Maidan to explain the phenomenon of corruption, I am sure they would have spoken either of politicians who have made fortunes (always, it seems, stashed away in secret vaults in Switzerland) by misusing their power or of petty government functionaries who refuse to carry out their assigned duties unless they are paid a bribe. That is a convenient way of condemning what is undoubtedly a rotten practice without acknowledging any proximity to it. If pressed, someone might say that he/she had been forced to pay, or even receive, a bribe because that was how the system worked.
I have myself had the experience of speaking to an IIM graduate who admitted to negotiating a kickback deal with a minister on behalf of a major corporate house saying “that’s the only way one can do business in India”. I have also spoken to petty officials who have said that if they did not ask for the conventional bribe, their colleagues in the office would make life hell for them.
It is also important to note that before the 1990s, the middle class would have owned up to their identification with the government machinery. (Is that why there was no anti-corruption movement among the middle class, even though there were many more Gandhians around?) The most sought after jobs were in government or the public sector. After 1991, that sentiment has radically changed. Now no self-respecting young person from the middle classes wants a job in government. The private sector, they believe, rewards merit and performance. Government is the place of political patronage and corruption. In fact, government now is the same as the domain of politics, and politics breeds and protects corruption.
The present “Anna” moment is an exact populist moment (in Ernesto Laclau’s sense in On Populist Reason) where “the people” have identified an “enemy of the people” in the entire political class, including the government bureaucracy. Of course, this is an utterly abstract notion of the corrupt. I am sure that nobody seriously believes that Manmohan Singh or Kapil Sibal or Salman Khurshid is personally corrupt. If one was asked to concretize, one would very likely say that the DMK ministers or Lalu Yadav or Mayavati or Amar Singh was corrupt. Nor would anyone accept that the corrupt railway clerk or food department babu is one’s aunt or nephew. In fact, one would be particularly incensed by the peon or chaprasi who might refuse to hand out a form or move a file from one table to another without a ten-rupee note for chai-pani. Such government employees had been appointed, one would say, not because of their educational qualifications or technical skills but – what else? – their political connections.
The categorization of corruption as something that belongs to the domain of “the political” (in the popular sense, i.e., ministers, MPs, MLAs, bureaucrats) ensures that corruption can never touch “the people”. It is something that only characterizes the enemy.
The heart of the current anti-corruption movement, its principal moral and emotional force, is that it is anti-political. Politics here, needless to say, only means parliament, ministers, government offices, etc. Anna Hazare, Prashant Bhushan, Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi are not political. Hence they are pure, with the people. (Note that when allegations were made about RSS links and Hindutva symbols, they were carefully removed from sight.) Manmohan Singh etc (irrespective of whether they are personally corrupt or not) are corrupt because they are political and hence are compelled, for political reasons, to protect the corrupt.
Shuddhabrata’s thoughtful observations point to the overlap between the anti-corruption sentiment and the anti-political imperative. That is also what is dangerous in the current movement. I do think that Shuddhabrata is right in being suspicious of it. Whether the Left should have its own take on the corruption question is, of course, another matter. I think it should. But that is a different topic for discussion that Shuddhabrata has also initiated. Yes, the owner of the Mehrauli farmhouse who flaunts his ability to get around municipal laws and the squatter on a garbage dump alongside a railway track are not both guilty of “corruption”. The word creates an illusion – a fundamentally false image – of equivalence between two very different practices. But it is this illusion of equivalence that has been achieved, for the moment at least, by the rhetorical and performative adroitness of the Anna campaign and the spectacular bungling of the Congress leadership.
The Independent Left, of course, is on the sidelines, watching. It had its populist moment sometime ago – over Nandigram – but like all populist moments, that moment has passed.