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By giving corruption a caste gloss, Ashis Nandy does not make it redemptive or acceptable

Vivian Fernandes

Updated: January 30, 2013, 9:20 PM IST
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In 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers', a true account spun off as a novel, about life in Annawadi, a slum adjoining Mumbai airport, author Katherine Boo says that 'for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained'. She makes this observation about Asha, the wife of an alcoholic construction worker and the squeeze of a Shiv Sena corporator. Asha is a fixer, who has a knack for getting things done. As reward for nursing his constituency, the corporator gets her a temporary job as municipal kindergarten teacher, though she lacks qualifications. Corruption in Annawadi, Boo says, does not have the negative connotation that Indian elite and those in the West associate it with.

The corruption of those living a precarious existence is understandable. It is like Jean Valjean stealing bread in Victor Hugo's Le Miserables (currently playing as a musical in theatres) to feed his starving sisters and her children. Perhaps this is the kind of activity that sociologist Ashis Nandy alluded to, when at the Jaipur Literature Festival, he said, "I do wish there remains some degree of corruption in India because.. it humanises our society." (Singapore with its close to zero corruption, he adds, is not his idea of utopia, when it is the lack of political freedoms there that he should be disapproving. Wonder what he thinks of the Scandinavian countries that are as squeaky clean).

In Asha's case though, corruption did not 'thieve' her of a chance. It is likely that she stole the opportunity from someone better qualified. She can blame the state for not equipping her with livelihood skills despite spending seven years in school, or for not creating enough low-skill jobs without having to pull strings. But you cannot preach morality to the hungry.

Nandy then adds 'the most important part of the story'. He states that "most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now, increasingly Scheduled Tribes, and as long as this is the case, Indian republic will survive". A share in the spoils is one way of giving people a stake but is it the way to secure the foundations of our republic? In that debate, Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka sees corruption in India as 'a great class equalizer'. It is hard to understand how the grand embezzlement by one set of leaders whether in the allocation of coal mines in Jharkhand, the award of liquor contracts to cronies in Uttar Pradesh, the allocation of spectrum to chums, or the auction of school teacher posts in Haryana helps their historically-oppressed communities or can be winked at, just because of a long precedent set by leaders higher up in the social hierarchy. Leaders are not aggrandizing themselves to redistribute the loot. They are not missionaries of charity. Corruption is a zero-sum game, a few benefit at the expense of the vast majority. And this is true also of extortion of various degrees indulged in by the municipal clerk, the PWD engineer or the IAS officer. By giving it a backward or low caste gloss, corruption does not become redemptive.

Tejpal says 'people like that' (the maid, the driver and the cook) have to subvert the rules because they are created to benefit India's privileged people. This is spurious logic. If Indian red tape has class character, it is by default, not design. The bureaucracy is not discriminating in its exploitation; it is just that the privileged are better able to cope with it. No one, privileged or not, can straighten the rules by bending them. Greed is addictive. Corruption of a 'lubricating' kind does not remain so for long. It tends to become extortive.

Back in Annawadi, Asha wants to be the boss of her slum. She has no patience with guilt over corruption, which is an 'impediment to effective work in the city's back channels'. She considers it a luxury emotion. She is a cog in a scam involving one of the many anti-poverty schemes launched by the central government for the aam admi in the name of inclusive growth. Asha has befriended the bank manager of Dena Bank, through which the government channels subsidized loans for poor entrepreneurs to start job-generating businesses. But the companies are fictitious, and so are the jobs they create, duly certified by local officials. Everyone connives in this hoax. How can this corruption which denies the enterprising poor a stab at upward mobility be 'humanising'?

Katherine Boo puts is nicely. Corruption is a national game of make-believe where the less weak exploit the weak while 'aggressively addressing' the old problems of poverty, disease, illiteracy and child labour. It is a game of predation that makes no exceptions.
First Published: January 30, 2013, 9:20 PM IST

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