By Sanjay Jha
2011 could well be the year of incandescent hysteria, with its own distinctive political personality in India One of the oldest puzzles of politics is who will regulate the regulators , said former economist John Kenneth Galbraith That is what the entire Jan Lokpal Bill hullabaloo is finally all about.
The paradox was palpable; as social activist and passionate crusader Anna Hazare launched his resolute campaign for a corruption free India , some of our leading corporate czars were gingerly descending from their sleek sedans to appear before the Public Accounts Committee to be questioned on the 2 G scam. It is altogether a different proposition though that what was purportedly meant to be an organized effort by civil society members to pressurize the government into immediate action on a mischievously delayed reform by successive political parties turned into a cavalier circus with an incongruous assortment of Bollywood celebrities and other wannabe Page 3 aspirants becoming its principal participants. There was no smell of jasmine in the air, only Armani. Worse, vitriolic fury was on high supply by dubious political prop-groups, and the shockingly condescending demeanor of the supposed guardians themselves, under the mistaken belief that Jantar Mantar was the next Tehrir Square. That only exacerbated matters. Truth be said, it was not a movement, it was just a moment. Hazare, a genuine advocate of good things, was overnight branded as the next Mahatma Gandhi, which I frankly thought was an extraordinarily garbled comparative assessment. But more on that optical deficiency on another sweltering afternoon.
I remember the ordinary mortals of Bihar lamenting their grievous misfortunes in the early 1980’s: “They are corrupt in Maharashtra and Gujarat also, but at least they do some work Here they do nothing” In a nutshell, political corruption and systemic bribery was seen as necessary evils of our social ecosystem. In IPO road-shows abroad, a constant query was on India’s fixed “ 10 percent” under-hand earnings not reflected in PE ratios. But now suddenly our otherwise dormant national sub-consciousness has transformed into inflammatory anger, and albeit it has boiled over into a bizarre plate, it was inevitable though.
There are two principal reasons behind the Jantar Mantar mélange ; one, flagrant inequalities even within the expanded definition of middle-class and secondly, the widespread perception that several listed billionaires and thousands of unlisted million jet-set have increased their net worth through rent-seeking and crony capitalism. The pent-up fury is understandable. Disturbingly, it is a world-wide phenomenon; a mere 6000 politicians, chief executives, and other bigwigs effectively run the world. Of the world’s 100 largest economic entities, 63 are corporations, not countries. The world’s wealthiest 10% possess 83% of global assets. Inequality has an adverse effect on political standards, hence, the dramatic upsurge in national protests across regions on issues that affect the common man.
Corruption is bad for growth, Mr Prime Minister. Worse one cannot imagine the incalculable damage that it brings by lowering efficiency, and worse, human morale. There is a humongous percolation effect, albeit the hapless scapegoat is finally the traffic constable who gets the nasty jibes for those fifty bucks he casually sneaks into his khaki trousers. That’s why poor countries remain poor. That’s why Indonesia is not Singapore despite such neighborhood proximity. And Argentina , once a prosperous cousin , became a basket-case while America blossomed into a global El Dorado . In short, Anna Hazare may be doing the UPA a big favor by forcing a landmark legislation that could like RTI transmogrify our opaque democratic institutions and rid them of their venal , nefarious ways.
While China has apparently lifted 500 million out of the poverty trap , we have 700 million still groveling in that quagmire. Besides providing a better business model, China’s FDI towers tall over India’s because of our red-tape and corrupt culture.
For a trillion dollar economy that has rumoredly USD 450 billion sitting in foreign bank accounts it means that our real national income has been scrupulously punctured. India’s underground economy exists in serene harmony with that of honest tax-payers because of shoddy governance and political patronage. Thus, unless we take strong steps at best India will experience a lower rate of kickbacks and bribe fee, but it will linger on still like a visceral incurable infection. Moreover, even if the Lokpall Bill is a crucial milestone, it is by itself just a deterrent, and does not ensure infallible execution.
The politician plunders his vast loot but is not necessarily a permanent resident of Parliament while the corporate is like a stationary bandit who accumulates untold treasures and grows into a Frankenstein with a sinister avaricious propensity under the subterfuge of being society’s wealth creator. The bureaucrat plays the role of the silent accessory , in full command of technical know-how of myriad laws , conveniently tweaked for tidy windfalls . That is the real stealth wealth story of our economy over several years. India’s exciting entrepreneurial energy gets sullied as it gets complex and big.
Corruption is not a one-off, informal commercial transaction in India , it has become ensconced like a formal SOP in our system . Everyone budgets for operational leakages. Enron created a special P&L category for “ education services” on power distribution for its aborted India operations Rebecca was not way off the mark! . Corruption proceeds are routinely sent upwards in the bureaucrat-politician pyramid. The rot runs deep, but the problem lies at the top. The commonly accepted justification for civil services corruption is that they are paid pittance compared to their private sector counterparts. In that case, the solution lies in reducing unproductive staff and tripling their salaries and benefits.
The hard reality is that those who earn less are the ones who have to pay bribes, it accentuates their prevailing miseries and creates outrage and humongous disenchantment . At Jantar Mantar and elsewhere what we are witnessing is the early symptoms of a collective social backlash, the Jan Lokpal Bill is simply the apposite platform for it. It reflects the desperation of a drowning man wanting to clutch at a straw.
India’s biggest threat is not Maoism as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh believes, it is corruption. And you do not need a magic wand to sort it out, just a determined intent. Integrity unfortunately has no vacations, it needs a constant supervisor. One of the reasons corruption became more widespread was because our social environment was disconcertingly tolerant of immoral conduct It was like “ defining deviancy downwards”. From time immemorial Indians have survived on synthetic optimism, now they want to precipitate a change. The social networking sites may have geek-types, but all are educated, have middle-class sensibilities, and a dream.
Thus, what India needs is a drastic, overnight metamorphosis, a robust foolproof plan that simultaneously implements unprecedented anti-corruption measures against all susceptible forces that compound it; politicians, bureaucrats, and the judiciary. It will willy-nilly force an RTI on the self-righteous private sector as well. A restless population treated with contemptuous indifference by the power administrators at different levels and duplicitous middlemen wants change, but with a shock and awe effect. Gradualism, won’t work. That really is the message emanating from Jantar Mantar.
Sanjay Jha , Executive Director, Dale Carnegie, co-founded http://www.HamaraCongres..com . The views expressed are his own