Hands in the Till
Posted on 1-June-2009
For the past several weeks the media in the United Kingdom, along with others in their tow, have regaled their audiences with stories about how--and how imaginatively!--one honourable member of the mother of parliaments after another has profited by liberally interpreting the rules about helping them--with taxpayers' money-- maintain second homes. Very few were stricken with pangs of conscience or with remorse at the first revelation about what they had done. The first reaction of most of them was to say they had broken no rules. But whether with the rise of public anger at the skullduggery of their representatives or because of the fear of such anger leaders of political parties started loudly condemning their followers. This show of outrage by leaders of political parties--and show it obviously was, as the system allowing reimbursement of expenses on second homes as well as the many deeds committed out of what had become habit having been in place for many years could hardly have been completely unknown to the leaders -- has led to so far one dozen members of the House of Commons declaring they would not stand at the next general election. The outrage at what the honorable Members of Parliament had been doing even tipped the Speaker of the House of Commons over his perch.
Yet, despite all, it is difficult not to feel sorry for the members of the British House of Commons. The scale of their transgressions after all was minuscule compared to the scale of corruption among senior government figures that from time to time comes to light even in the affluent West. The British who have retained some of their Victorian prudishness when it comes to corruption in public life tend to hush up stories about their politicians on the take even as they take great pleasure in bringing down those of their politicians who are caught indulging in sexual peccadilloes of one kind or another. The French and the Italians delight in lacerating the corrupt politicians who are caught. The Americans behave paradoxically. While on the one hand they have through registered and unregistered lobbyists almost institutionalised corruption among politicians, they go on the other hand into periodic paroxysms of anger against corruption in public life.
I have been reflecting on my own reactions now or at other times to stories about corruption--financial corruption and not corruption in the moral sense used by Acton in his famous and oft-quoted mot-- among politicians in the liberal democracies of the West. Almost instinctively, on learning of cases of corruption in the West, I ,as an Indian, used to critical, often condescending, stories in the Western news media about corruption in public life in India or elsewhere in the Third World am overtaken by schadenfreude. My second reaction is to repeat what Indira Gandhi, under pressure from diverse anti-corruption movements in the mid-1970's in India had said: corruption is a world-wide phenomenon. Indira Gandhi's statement could not be faulted on empirical grounds. But as an answer to allegations of corruption about people in her entourage her statement was wholly indefensible. My third reaction is to wonder about corruption in "democracies".
Dictators are by definition not answerable for their deeds to the people they rule. Dictators of all kinds surround themselves with people who enrich themselves at the expense of the public: Reza Pahlavi of Iran, Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines or senior apparatchiks of the communist parties in the Soviet Union, the socialist republics of Eastern Europe or in the People's Republic of China and elsewhere. Why hardly any liberal democracy where the rulers are answerable to the people to whom they must go back for periodic renewals of their mandate should not be immune from financial corruption has been an unsolved puzzle for me. The most plausible explanation I can think of is that "democratic" institutions--elections, multiple political parties, parliaments, free press, independent judiciary--do not obliterate one of the most basic and oldest divisions in human societies: that between the rulers and the ruled. This division has survived all the advances in political theory. The rulers in modern societies, "democratic" or otherwise, are: those who wield political power, those who control business, industry and the financial system and those who control news media and other means of opinion control. In a cohesive political structure the three groups tend to function in unison. There are in real life hardly any rulers in the mould of Plato's Guardians; most would abuse power if they could and many do even when they are elected in free and fair elections. What keeps them in check is the fear of popular rebellion which can take any of many forms: overburdening of the blogosphere, large demonstrations and marches on the streets of London, barricading the streets of Paris or the burning of trains, buses and other public property in India. A species more enlightened than homo sapiens of the 21st century would have invented a better way of ensuring that the rulers did not cheat the public financially and morally.
My fourth reaction when I read of corruption in a liberal democracy of the West is one of wistfulness. Often when a case of political corruption breaks into the open in a Western democracy or in Japan or, more recently, in the Republic of Korea, the politician in question quits or is made to quit. Sometimes he goes to jail and nearly always his political career comes to an end. At least ignominy, if not also a jail sentence awaits the head of a business enterprise-no matter how big or important-- if he is found to have broken the law. None of these misfortunes awaits politicians, senior members of the permanent civil service or even the captains of business and industry in India caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Two former prime ministers of India were quite plausibly implicated in cases of serious corruption. The thought of voluntarily resigning probably never crossed their minds, nor was there any visible pressure on them from the "establishment" to leave--on, the contrary there were enough members of the "establishment" to argue for their continuance in office in the interest of stability. Technicalities of an enquiry committee or of the law were taken advantage of to exonerate them. That they never succeeded in washing off the stains on their reputation was of no consequence. Many other politicians of the second rank investigated, accused and, in some cases indicted too, for corruption continue to strut the stage, their political importance or illegal wealth undiminished.
When I compare the near immunity of the rulers of India to what is happening to members the British House Commons who, by Indian standards have been guilty of no more than minor misdemeanours, I wonder over the difference and can think of only one explanation. The relative tolerance of misdeeds by their politicians among the masses of the United Kingdom is much lower than among the masses of India. It may be that the poor Indian masses, their spirits broken by the "fatalism" of the doctrines of karma and rebirth or by centuries of dehumanising poverty, accept more injustice and bad government than people elsewhere. If this be so, I wonder when and in what manner the passivity of the masses will change.