It is unrealistic to search for an enclave, a state where the malignancy of corruption has not reached. Corruption seems to be coming out of our ears. It is all pervasive and will remain so as long as the diagnostic punditry attending on it is shrouded in dishonesty.
Post-Soviet globalisation bred crony capitalism on an unspeakable scale, but Western conscience did grapple with it wherever it could. When Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, etc were supervising the monstrosities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, David Hare was able to draw full houses with his biting play, Stuff Happens, in which George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice and the gents mentioned above were squarely chastised for the Iraq war.
Remember the Dhabol power project initiated by Texas energy giant Enron? It was a unique moment in history. US ambassador to India Frank Wisner was on sixes and sevens because the central committee of the CPI(M) in its New Delhi session was divided over Jyoti Basu as Prime Minister. While the Communists dilly-dallied, Jaswant Singh, a friend of Mr Wisner’s, became finance minister in a BJP government that lasted only 16 days. But in this period it hurriedly signed the agreement with Enron for a $3 billion gas power plant in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra.
Governments at the Centre and in Maharashtra, big names in industry, all got embroiled in a project riven with scandals. In the 1990s, it was conceived as the poster project for economic liberalisation. But, alas, it collapsed, and with it the Enron empire with a debt of $38 billion. British playwright Lucy Pebbles wrote Enron, an outstanding play that opened at the Noel Coward theatre on the West End (later on Broadway too). “Capitalism exposed as con-trick and illusion”, was the way the Guardian described it.
The reason I have dwelt on the Enron story is this — the scandal was headquartered in Mumbai, which has a lively tradition for theatre, but while Pebbles’ script received rave reviews in London, New York and Dublin, there was no appetite for the play in the country actually affected by the scandal.
A quest for literary source on corruption led me to a satirical poem on “Bribery”, by Josh Malihabadi. It is quite remarkable that slush money appears to have been a way of life even in the 1950s, which is when the poem was composed:
Bhuk ke qanoon mein iman dari jurm hai/ Aur be imanyon pe sharmsari jurm hai/ Dakuon ke daur mein parhez gari jurm hai/ Jab hukumat kham ho to pukhta kari
jurm hai. (In the laws of hunger, incorruptibility is a crime./To be embarrassed by one’s own corruption is a crime./In the age of high way robbery, flinching from pilferage is a crime./When faltering towards corruption is the government’s style, citizens staying resolute is a crime.)
In his tongue-in-cheek style, he paints a nation of unredeemed corruption: Mulk bhar ko qaid kar de, kiske bus ki baat hai,/ Khair se sub hain, koi do, chaar, du ski baat hai? (Ending corruption would require the entire country in jail; it is not just a guilty few but a whole nation steeped in it.) In my experience, even newspaper proprietors were not averse to harbouring certain levels of corruption. As regional editor of a major chain in South India, I hired scores of stringers who were, at the proprietor’s insistence, paid a pittance.
“How will our district correspondent survive on those wages?” Pat came the reply: “The correspondent also carries our accreditation card. That will help him multiply his wages.” In other words, stringers were not discouraged from district-level blackmail to keep body and soul together. Of course, the scale of corruption became astronomical in the post-globalisation era.
The notional balance between Saraswati and Lakshmi was abandoned. Saraswati was locked up in the Siri Fort Auditorium; rampaging capitalism, money, money, money… became the order. Nirav Modi is the creature of this culture. Is there any hope of this state of affairs being halted, leave alone being reversed? Only when the more muscular in public life seriously take up the issue of electoral finance will the first encouraging signs appear on the horizon for lessening corruption.
In the absence of any such hint or suggestion, one must live in uncertainty. In the meantime, the Leviathan of corruption will, in the foreseeable future, gobble up whatever pockets of political decency have survived. It is unfashionable to applaud the Left for anything these days, but I commend to any fair-minded person the thought that he/she visit Tripura before some unforeseen avalanche buries the rare experiment underway in that northeastern state.
Before Partition, the ratio of tribal population vis a vis Bengalis was 70:30. After the creation of East Pakistan, Bengali migration inverted the ratio — Bengalis came on top, 70:30. A horrendous insurgency followed. It was doused by Marxist leaders like Dashrath Deb (tribal) and Nipen Chakravarty. The latter entered the chief minister’s bungalow with two pairs of dhoti, kurta, shaving kit and books; he left the house after 10 years with exactly the same baggage. Grocery for the CM’s household was purchased on a ration card.
Since banks are so much in focus, it is probably not an irrelevant detail that the chief minister of Tripura never had a bank account. His protégé, Manik Sarkar, has not complained about a non-cooperative Centre. He has instead picked up all the Central government’s schemes, called in the officials, party cadres, involved the three-tier panchayati raj system and transformed Tripura into the country’s best-run state with an unbelievable near-zero crime rate. Of course there is the expected cul de sac that a Marxist mindset runs into.
The absence of private industry and lack of enthusiastic support from New Delhi has created an acute problem of unemployed, yet educated youth. The Congress has vacated the Opposition space to the BJP which, not unlike the Congress, is playing the tribal versus Bengali card. Also, vast sums of money have been pumped into a campaign for which the results are expected on March 3.
What will the “vast sums” of money do at this late stage? I ask a CPI(M) worker. His reply is almost a paraphrase of Josh: Rishvaton ke lene wale/Rishvaten dete bhi hain. (Bribes have to be distributed, also, so that the flow continues.)...