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Corruption, and our political culture

NARENDAR PANI | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on November 07, 2012

Targeting a few politicians cannot achieve much in a battle against corruption. — V.V. Krishnan

The way forward would be to push politics back to a system where the party, rather than families, control political funds.

It is too early to predict the course of the investigation into Robert Vadra’s deals with DLF. It is quite possible that there is nothing illegal in the entire set of transactions. But even if no law has been broken, it does reflect a tendency for business houses to make deals with members of political families.

And once we accept the idea that there can be lucrative economic connections between political families and business families, we come to the question of where do we draw the line. At what point do such business deals become corruption?

Corruption and illegality

The current preoccupations of the anti-corruption movement suggest that this line is to be drawn entirely in terms of what is legal. In this perspective, corruption has been reduced to illegality. As long as what is done is within the confines of the law there can be nothing wrong with it.

This complete identification of corruption with illegality would work as long as there is no room for discretion in public policy. The role of the government would then be to do no more than mechanically implement whatever norms are laid down. Any deviance from this norm would be illegal and hence a case of corruption.

Such a legalistic approach does not, however, remove all scope for corruption. It is quite possible to define and interpret the rules in such a way that it benefits a particular business house.

Indeed, it could be argued that the major benefit that business houses seek is in defining the norms rather than in terms of breaking them. Such an uneven playing field would be quite unfair to other players. There is also no guarantee that policies that are laid down to suit a particular business house will be in the interests of the country.

The preoccupation with the illegal thus allows for the institutionalisation of unfair practices. Since both politics and business in India are dominated by families, it is not difficult for a business house to build goodwill and influence through family connections. Carefully worked out business deals with non-political members of political families can be a legal form of selling the discretionary power of politicians.

Extreme moral position

In theory, the simple solution to this problem is to ensure that no immediate member of a political family has any deals with any business house whatsoever.

This would rule out an entire field of economic activity for the non-political members of the political family. This could be treated as the sacrifice a political family has to make in its service of the people.

Such a morally strong, even extreme, position is, however, not quite practical, particularly in India. Among the few Indian politicians who tried to follow this norm was Mahatma Gandhi. He refused to use his influence to help his eldest son, Harilal, gain access to a foreign education. In the process he paid a huge price in terms of his relations with his first born.

It is possible to debate the ethical value of Gandhi’s decision to put his political morality ahead of his family, but for most present-day Indians this debate is a non-starter.

Anyone who has seen the audience reaction to plays on Gandhi’s relationship with Harilal would be clear that Indians today clearly believe Gandhi was wrong.

Once we accept the notion that the family comes first, the idea of preventing any connection between the non-political members of political families and business houses falls by the wayside. The political class would prefer to keep the actions of the non-political members of political families outside the public sphere.

Funds and family

Digvijay Singh, with his characteristic candour, found fault with the BJP for breaking the unwritten political code of not targeting the non-political members of their opponents’ families.

Digvijay Singh’s norm could be accepted if we were certain that the non-political members had no influence at all on the political actions of other members of the family. That level of probity would be difficult for the most honourable families to achieve at the best of times. And this has been made virtually impossible in India with the family effectively replacing the political party as the most effective unit of politics.

Funds controlled by the party treasurer have been replaced, with the possible exception of the Communist Parties, by funds controlled by the family. And the apparently non-political members of these families are often in the best position to manage these funds.

Breaking the unhealthy nexus between business houses and political families thus lies at the heart of the battle against corruption.

The trouble is that it is much more difficult to do than putting a few politicians, who are inept enough to get caught doing the illegal, into jail. But the way forward would be to try and push politics back to a system where the party controls political funds.

While individual corrupt politicians could still be influenced through their families, it would at least be possible for upright politicians to have access to political funds. Once that massive goal is achieved, it may well be a relatively less demanding task to introduce transparency in the way those funds are collected and used.

(The author is Professor, School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.)

Published on November 07, 2012
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