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Ajit Balakrishnan: Decoding India's corruption wars

As democracy deepens, dramatic power shifts will continue to happen in Indian society

Ajit Balakrishnan 

Nowadays, I find my mind turning often to memories of a granduncle. He was over six feet tall, had a booming voice and by the time I was 10 was already in his seventies and retired from the British Raj government as a head constable of police. Of an evening he would turn into our gate, seat himself on our verandah, take a sip of tea, lean back on his chair and declare, “This country is so corrupt! It is going to the dogs!” This was usually followed by a passionate recounting of the latest misdemeanour in the municipal corporation of Cannanore, that little town in where I grew up. My mother, who no doubt had heard this diatribe before, would continue knitting, scarcely offering a comment.

You can see why my mind, nowadays, wanders to thoughts of my early childhood and of my retired granduncle. Judges, ministers, members of parliament, civil servants, businessmen, NGOs, investigative agencies, sports bodies, media personalities, all hurl accusations of corruption at each other. Everyone seems to be saying what my granduncle used to tell us 50 years ago: “This country is so corrupt; it is going to the dogs!”

Maybe it is time we turn to Mark Granovetter, the Stanford University sociologist, who in his book, The Social Construction of Corruption, points out that cries of corruption often hide power struggles and that groups with conflicting interests will present standards that label their own behaviour as appropriate and label behaviour that benefits competing groups as illegitimate or ‘corrupt’.

One such social group that is in the thick of today’s and labelling exercises is one that of the University of Minnesota calls the ‘New Middle Class’. This group, she says, in her book, India’s New Middle Class: in an Era of Economic Reform, is not merely defined by income or occupation or even caste. It descends from the groups in India that embraced English-language education and found employment in the colonial state in the modern professions such as medicine, law, the military and the civil service and has dominated Indian public life because of the cultural capital it possesses.

This cultural capital is then maintained by their privileged access to the few good quality English medium schools that exist in India today, and as a consequence, to those few high quality higher education institutions that act as gatekeepers to jobs in the higher civil service, in public and private sector management, and professional jobs in the media, financial services, law, medicine and teaching.

This cosy arrangement is being threatened, starting from the mid-1960s, as democracy in India deepens. Subaltern groups have increasingly taken charge of political parties and now demand a share of the national pie. The New Middle Class has retaliated by waging a subtle war to label elected representatives and politicians as corrupt. The battle ground for this war is the English-language print and TV media which reach a miniscule 25 million people in India, while the vast Indian language print media with 170 million readers and Indian language television with 300 million viewers remain largely unconcerned.

NGOs, the praetorian guard of the New Middle Class, are at the forefront of such labelling exercises. The current NGO demand for a Lok Pal uses the corruption platform, but its real goal is to give the New Middle Class leverage over elected representatives of the people. In an earlier move, pressured the Election Commission to require candidates for electoral office to file affidavits listing ‘criminal charges’ against them. Most ‘charges’ are for things like ‘unlawful assembly’ but this move has not only created an incentive in the rough and tumble Indian electoral scene for political rivals to trump up ‘charges’ against each other but also label politicians as criminal and corrupt. This is unfair, because a person is innocent unless proven guilty. Affidavits ought to be necessary only if charges against a candidate have been proven in court.

The is frequently drawn into these battles but Indian anti-corruption laws have so many imperfections (defining too many offences as hard-to-prove criminal ones as opposed to civil, is one such example) that the finds it difficult to convict even 10 per cent of the people they bring charges against. The tries to compensate for this by staging photo-ops that show them escorting away prominent personalities, misleading the public and labelling the people being led away as already guilty of corruption, whereas what the CBI is doing is only seeking information about a possible crime. The CBI and the media must be mandated to refer to all such people not as ‘accused’ but merely as ‘persons of interest’, as they increasingly do in the United States.

The judiciary is invoked from time to time by all combatants to referee their disputes, but as Madhav Godbole, a former home secretary, points out in his recent book, The Judiciary and Governance in India, there are 16 million criminal cases pending in court and proposals for speeding things up — such as increasing the number of working days in high courts from the present 210 per year to 260 — are opposed by Bar Associations.

As democracy deepens, dramatic power shifts will continue to happen in Indian society and the Middle Class needs to accept that all such power shifts may not be in their favour. The Indian Middle Class sowed the wind of democracy and is now reaping its whirlwind.

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First Published: Sun, April 17 2011. 00:48 IST