Robert Vadra, Salman Khurshid, Nitin Gadkari. Who's next? That's what politicians must be wondering and it's also what ordinary people are asking. The Anna Hazare movement having run out of steam, it appeared for a while that corruption had ceased to be an issue. But Arvind Kejriwal and company had other ideas and have brought corruption back on the agenda with a bang, no doubt in the hope of creating a niche for the political party they have launched.
Is this a new dawn? Is the country about to finally cleaned up? Are we on the brink of a new phase in the life of the polity? At the risk of sounding cynical, methinks not. Kejriwal's is not the first anti-corruption movement to be launched in the country. One can easily recollect two movements that had corruption as one of their main planks: the JP movement in 1975 and the V P Singh campaign against the Bofors deal in 1989. Both movements brought down governments but the impact on corruption in public life has been zilch.
True, Kejriwal has the benefit of 24-hour TV coverage- and the TV channels are all for fighting corruption because it gets them tonnes of eyeballs. Still, it's only a matter of time before the public tires of Kejriwal's hit-and-run tactics. Their defence that they do not have the investigation machinery to probe deeper will not wash; they have recourse to the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, and they are free to file charges before the relevant authorities. To say that the system has broken down and it's not easy approaching the relevant authorities cannot justify hurling charges against all and sundry. Then, we are reduced to mob justice, and people simply hurling allegations against each other. If you do not subscribe to the current process, you are free to contest collections and institute a new process.
There is a more fundamental problem with Kejriwal and Co are saying. They perpetuate a rather naive view of corruption, as one of taking bribes for favours, the sort of corruption one associates with traffic cops or income-tax officials. The more potent and intractable forms of corruption do not involve taking bribes. They are about deals done, very often within the framework of the law, but which involve abuse of power in one form or another. That is how big money is made. A cabinet minister's son getting contracts from large companies; a senior bureaucrat getting a lucrative independent directorship post-retirement; a regulator being hired as a consultant for a large sum after he relinquishes his post. In such cases, quid pro quo is almost impossible to establish because of the lag between a favour done and the return obtained for the same.
Then, there is corporate corruption, again not necessarily involving bribes all the time. Corruption rests on a nexus of relationships among the privileged in society. And the nexus, in turn, arises from a particular economic structure in which a privileged few corner the spoils at the expense of the vast majority. Thus, the serious corruption in society has to do with the economic structure in society and especially with the inequalities on which society rests. This form of corruption is almost next to impossible to tackle unlike petty corruption, which can be checked through simple means (such as online reservations for railway tickets).
Once this basic truth is grasped, it will also be apparent that crusades against corruption cannot achieve much. In the present situation, they have ended up paralysing the government and affecting growth, which can only hurt the under-privileged. In the long run, crusades against corruption have a way of throwing up dictatorships, which represent the worst form of corruption.
Is there no answer then? Well, the answers are the unglamorous ones: more transparency, e-governance, explicit rules for decisions. These won't make TV news and they taking time to happen but they are the ones that will produce results.
More in my ET column, Plain truths about graft.