I don’t know how many remember the story of Syed Modi, who was murdered in 1988. He was a star badminton player who had fallen in love and married Amita (Ameeta?) Kulkarni, also a badminton player. He was shot dead in Lucknow while returning from practice.
Suspicion fell on his widow and on Dr Sanjay Singh, then sports minister of UP. The allegation was that they were having an affair. The case ended up with the CBI.
As it happens Sanjay Singh is a relative of the late VP Singh, who, at that time, was leading the fight against the Rajiv Gandhi government over corruption and misgovernance. Sanjay Singh is also the “Raja” of Amethi. It was the height of the Bofors scandal – a few newspapers, notably N Ram’s Hindu and Arun Shourie’s Indian Express were courageously exposing the bribery. I had just started reading newspapers, was following the various scandals with avid interest and virtually hero-worshipping Shourie.
Arun Shourie decided that the CBI investigation into the murder was intended to persecute Sanjay Singh, and mounted a full-scale defence of Amita Modi and Singh. Looking back, it is incredible how much of it I swallowed. I don’t remember the specifics, but a few things stand out. The CBI had found Amita Modi’s diary, where she had written about the conflict she felt in choosing between “S1” and “S2”. It should have been obvious even to a stupid 14 year old what S1 and S2 were, but I bought the Indian Express version where it quoted Rani Jethmalani (Ram Jethmalani and his daughter were fighting on behalf of the defence) to say that the diary just reflected Amita’s disturbed mind and nothing else. The Indian Express also went to Amethi where they interviewed the people there. They were quoted as saying that while it was imaginable that their Raja would do a bit of womanizing, they couldn’t believe that he’d committed the murder. Garima Singh, the then wife of Sanjay, stood behind her husband.
Eventually, the case came to trial in 1990, by which time VP Singh was the prime minister. The CBI had weakened the case sufficiently that Amit and Sanjay were acquitted.
I forgot all about the case till I read a small news item tucked away somewhere, to the effect that Sanjay had married Amita. By then, VP Singh had gone from being the darling of the middle-class, the crusader against corruption, to its most hated symbol, with his Mandal agenda. Arun Shourie had gone from campaigning vehemently for VP Singh to fighting him. I don’t think he has ever mentioned the Syed Modi murder ever since VP Singh became Prime Minister. But the news of the wedding made me feel profoundly stupid. It’s difficult to believe now, but at that time, I had honestly thought that even their supposed affair was a story concocted by the CBI as part of its witch-hunt. (That is how the mind rationalizes. I suppose I could have believed that they did have an affair, but did not commit the murder. But then, how could it be a with-hunt to investigate the suspicion?)
So, quite clearly, Shourie had been perfectly willing to lead his newspaper on a campaign to subvert justice even as it was fighting the government on corruption. I am sure he did it with the highest of motives – I think he thought that getting the Rajiv Gandhi government out was then the highest national interest. But something didn’t seem right.
Of course, Sanjay Singh then had a fairly typical political career for a UP politician. He switched parties a few times. He was with the BJP for a few years before finally landing up with the Congress. Now, he and his wife are the feudatories of the current royal family.
The story faded to a dim memory for me, but I suppose the lesson has always stayed with me. It accounts for my cynicism over the Lok Pal and the concept of “Persons of unimpeachable integrity”. It accounts for my scepticism over the idea that the dynasty represents everything that is wrong with the country, or that if only the country rediscovered its Hindu soul, we would be great. It accounts for my discomfort with idolizing or demonizing (Narendra) Modi. In general, I am sceptical of any solution that relies on people’s character rather than structures and incentives.
Gaurav argues that the only discernible moral from my tale of corruption is that Indians are corrupt. Well, that is a good enough summary, but I need to fill out an entire blog post, so here I spell out the lessons I drew from that incident.
The most striking aspect of the tale, to me, was this: B, who was undoubtedly a well-meaning man, saw nothing wrong in misusing the CBI to achieve what he considered were morally justifiable ends. But if misusing public resources to achieve private aims is what is considered corruption, how were B’s actions any less corrupt than A’s?
There is a tendency in India to think of incorruptibility as a personal quality roughly equivalent to “lack of avarice”. We believe that corruption is caused by a hankering after material wealth, and consequently, the tendency is to hold the saintly man, preferably with no family to lead him astray, as the model from which good governance will flow. Sometime back, I read a story on how Nitish Kumar was transforming Bihar. I do not remember the source now, nor the exact words, but there was a line on how honest a man Nitish was. Apparently, industrialists who went to him with bags of money (presumably as donations to the party fund) found that Nitish did not even look at or touch the money when they tried to hand it over, but asked them to keep it in one corner. Now, without detracting from Nitish’s achievement in making Bihar governable, which is indeed a considerable one, Nitish’s own personal “cleanness” makes no difference to the fact that the wads of notes that industrialists contribute to his party funds distort policy-making, just as B’s own personal honesty made no difference to the fact that his actions ensured that a person who ought to be arrested and in jail was out of it because it served the cause of a private dispute.
This tendency to think of corruption in terms of personal characteristics is a consequence of the saintly idiom in Indian politics. Gandhiji contributed significantly in establishing this, but he was by no means responsible for originating it. This mode of thinking has had many deleterious consequences on our polity. One of them, which has thankfully reduced in severity, is an Indian inability to distinguish between a dishonest man and a person who, having made his money honestly, enjoys the good things in life. This inability was fueled by, and in turn contributed to, the antipathy towards free-market policies. Whether it is liberalization that changed this attitude or generational change, this particular attitude’s trend is downwards. Other consequences, however, remain. We tend to search for the incorruptible person to run our systems, and our fantasies of a perfect society display a disturbing willingness to hand over dictatorial powers to such a person.
The second aspect of the story to note was the reaction of the association’s members. The membership was split in its support between A and B, but there was no dispute over facts. None of A’s supporters thought him to be an honest man. Indeed, it never occurred to them that there was anything wrong with looting from the public purse. What tipped the views of his supporters in A’s favour was the fact that A did a good job at the association – and yes, they knew that he took a cut there too.
For that matter, A’s opponents weren’t particularly concerned about the public money either. It was his avarice and his behaviour at the association that they were concerned with (Of course, as we have noted, B, the supposedly honest man, wasn’t that concerned about A’s corruption)
This is an important point, and unless we address it, we are not going to get rid of corruption. For us, the government’s money is “out there”, something external to us. It exists to be looted. The job of our representatives is not to be incorruptible and govern impartially. It is to be corrupt in our favour. We are strongly opposed to corruption when indulged in by our opponents, because they are denying our side the opportunity to do the same thing.
That brings me to the Jan Lok Pal idea, which is essentially a fantasy that we can get rid of corruption without addressing the systemic problems that cause it. I will write about it in a subsequent post.
(Update: Aadisht pointed out that I mixed up A and B in the last few paragraphs. Fixed that.)
This story played itself out back when I was a teenager. The two protagonists, let’s call them A and B, were locked in a dispute. The dispute was about how the affairs of a particular association ought to be run. Now, it is somewhat important to mention that the association in question was a caste-based association, and the specific caste in question is Brahminism. However, I feel some regret having to mention this, because this fact will prejudice the minds of many of my readers. I, therefore, ask them to try and ignore the caste-based nature of the association and treat it like any other voluntary association of citizens. The import of the story and the morals to draw from it will not change significantly.
With this caveat in order, let us return to the story of A and B. Now, as it happened, both A and B were government employees. A was known to be extremely corrupt. Not a file passed through his desk without a bribe having to be paid to him. His extra-income showed up, not in his lifestyle, but in the assets that he was known to possess. He had no flashy taste in clothes and he had no unbrahminical “bad habits”. His wife, a genuinely good woman, wore much less jewellery than the ordinary middle-class woman at weddings. However, it was well-known that he had accumulated a lot of money. He had used it to buy up houses and stock up enough in his benaami bank accounts to last his descendants seven generations.
B, on the other hand, was known to be an honest man. He had never taken a bribe in his life, and his family’s lifestyle reflected this as well. For long, they lived in the same Central Government Quarters that his employer provided, and while his family did eventually achieve its ambition of buying a modest house, at the time of the story, they had been unable to achieve it. B was widely reputed to be uninterested in wealth – and rumour has it that he was also uninterested in family life, believing himself to be cut out for higher pursuits, one of which was the association that is the subject of our story.
Let us now turn our attention to the subject of the dispute between the two men. We will not get too much into detail, but suffice it to say that the rights and wrongs of the dispute were exactly what one would expect from the character sketches of the two men we have drawn above. A had monopolized the affairs of the association, and it was widely thought that he took a cut from the association’s budget. To be fair to him, however, it was also widely thought that the association was in fact being run well, and its members regularly reelected him. B was proposing a change in the association’s by-laws that would bring in more transparency and bring in some degree of fresh blood in the association’s managing committee.
The dispute between the two men got personal, as these things frequently do. Apparently A struck the first blow – the details of which I do not remember. In response, B retaliated by calling in his contacts – he had many – and getting the CBI to open an investigation of A’s affairs. (“CBI” was the term used in the conversations I listened in on. It might have been some other investigative wing.) The CBI carried out a series of raids on A’s property.
The response to the raids among the association’s members – and here I think it is relevant to point out that almost all of them were middle-class, educated Brahmins – was mixed. Some thought that A had got his comeuppance. Many others felt that B had gone too far in involving the police in an internal dispute.
In any case, these raids shook up A and made him ready to open talks with B for a possible compromise. After extensive discussions, a “compromise” was reached, which can better be described as a surrender. A agreed to the rule change that B wanted – and B used his contacts to call off the CBI raids and hush up the investigation.
I will end this story here. There are of course many lessons to draw from this, and if I start off on them, the size of this post will double, so I will leave those for a subsequent post. But I must mention that this story tells us almost everything we need to know about the Indian’s attitude towards corruption, and the Indian’s conception of honesty. Of course, we will get a Jan Lok Pal who will fix everything.
I don’t believe I have mentioned this article I wrote just before the elections. Bear in mind that it was written with a foreign audience in mind, so I may have oversimplified. Also, I have lost trace of how exactly I calculated the numbers in the first paragraph. So any corrections welcome.
On our side of the border, we have Kupamanduka who claims that the Pakistanis’ religiosity gives them strength that Hindus lack. Ergo, we Hindus should unite, so that our country achieves the heights that Pakistan has achieved.
On the other side of the border, we have Ejaz Haider who claims that we Indians have developed a sense of nationalism that binds our various institutions, civil and military, and that this has helped us pursue a tough policy, in contrast to the softer Pakistan.
RE: Your performance during the Kandahar Episode
Do you have anything better than this Kanchan Gupta article to explain your performance? If not, then here are some questions that arise from that article:
- The article blames the media for creating the impression that the entire country wanted the terrorists to be released. The question is, were you elected to office based on SMS polls organized by the media? Don’t you have BJP workers all over the country? Did you really have no way to be in touch with those who elected you?
- If you cannot fight your country’s media and some 200 families within the country, how do you expect Indians to have the confidence that you will fight India’s enemies? If you cannot take tough decisions and communicate them during a minor crisis like this, what would you have done if you had faced the situation that Britain faced during World War II when the Germans were bombing them?
- The article is pretty critical of the behaviour of the officials at the Raja Sansi airport. Apparently, they failed to obey a direct order from a Central Minister at the time of crisis. What did you do to end the careers of such incompetent officials? Or do your powers of harrassment and vindictiveness extend only to those who expose wrongdoing in your government?
- In December 1999, NSG commandoes could not fly from Delhi to Amritsar because they did not have a plane. In November 2008, NSG commandoes could not fly from Delhi to Mumbai because they still did not have a plane. What did you do between 1999 and 2004 to get the NSG commandoes a plane?
- Finally, if, when faced with the problems, constraints and incentives that the Indian National Congress did, you are going to do the same things that the Indian National Congress did, why should anyone who is exasperated with the performance of the Indian National Congress vote for you?
Karan Thapar discusses former Chief Election Commisioner Lyngdoh’s solution to the problem of “hate speech”. Lyngdoh believes that hate speech is a consequence of the first past the post system which will often lead to candidates getting elected even with 20-30% of the vote. So, all a candidate has to do is to appeal to a hardline base, which often means that he can profitably utilize hate speech towards that end. The solution, according to Lyngdoh, is in two parts. The first part is to utilize run-off voting where the top two candidates slug it out for a second round. The second part is to use proportional voting to fill part of the legislature.
I have discussed this when I reviewed Arun Shourie’s book for Pragati, but both these solutions will worsen the problem. In the FPTP system, you have to win the first time. Yes, you can win with 20-30% of the vote, but only if no one else gets more. What is stopping you from appealing to a broader section of the population right now? In a run-off voting system, you have an incentive to run a two-stage election strategy. In the first stage, your campaign is extremist, focusing on your base. In the second stage, you move to the centre to take advantage of the median voter – something that happens with American Presidential elections. In the FPTP system, you have little incentive to shoot for the second or third place. But in a run-off system, you have an incentive to try to secure 10-15% of the vote, so that you “transfer” it in the second round in return for favours.
Proportional voting has similar problems. In the FPTP system, there is little incentive to appeal to a religion, caste or section that is only 5% strong, but distributed across multiple constitencies. In a proportional system, a party that is focused on just that 5% will still get 5% of the seats.
To be honest, I actually like the proportional system. If you combine it with a directly elected President (making parliamentary majorities irrelevant) the system has some advantages – for one thing, it will provide better representation to the middle class that is now spread across multiple constituencies. But let’s not look at it to solve problems it won’t solve.
Yesterday I caught an interesting ad for the Lok Satta Party on some Telugu channel. It depicts a family obviously in poverty. Their hands are in cuffs. Two extended hands appear, one of them offering rice and the other offering some other food which I did not catch. The family shakes their heads, refusing. Then Jayaprakash Narayan, head of the party shows up, and he too extends his hand, only it is revealed that he has keys in his hands. Nice, crisp and effective message.
Lok Satta has been running quite a serious campaign here in Hyderabad. Any idea where they are getting funding from? Perhaps their web site answers the question, but a quick glance reveals this, which does not tell me much about the composition of their sources.
Rishi wants to know how I can claim that the Presidential System underdelivers change, and Ritwik angrily objects to my claim that in the Parliamentary System, the Prime Minister can handpick legislators. Both of them have missed an important qualifier: popular.
Change is rare in any mature democracy. This is as it should be. Obviously, I prefer change in the direction of less government and limited powers and others may prefer otherwise, but whatever the direction of your preferred change, I think that we should be wary of a system where a Chief Executive can, on the basis of just one election, bring about fundamental and drastic change in the structure of the polity.
Very few politicians have tried to break out of this cycle, and I believe that the person with the greatest chance of succeeding is Modi.
The other person who is succeeding is Naveen Patnaik. Neither Modi nor Patnaik has an immediate chance of succeeding at the national level, but then, I’d expect a vacuum at the national level for the next few years anyway. In the next few years, I believe that we will see many more of these presidential Chief Ministers, i.e. Chief Ministers who bypass intermediaries and forge a direct contract with their constituents. The contract is: I provide you good governance and you vote for me. This will replace the multi-level contracts based on various caste allegiences that are now the norm. The Central Government will be a confederacy installed by these Chief Ministers.
And, this is something for the BJP to think of. 15 years ago, the BJP would have been the natural place for all these Chief Ministers to be in ( or be in alliance with). Now, it is no longer true. Karnataka is one place where they are really badly screwing up. There, if you had a presidential Chief Minister like Modi, they could have achieved a permanent majority just as they have achieved in Gujarat. Instead, they have Yedyurappa.
Also, this moral policing is a bad mistake. If you are wondering how this point is related to the previous ones, trust me, it is related. I have just skipped a few steps in the reasoning.
A refinement of my idea here. Minors should continue to have weighted votes to be exercised by their parents, but each parent should be allowed only one vote in addition to his or her own. That way, parents don’t get credit for having too many children. (Polygynous people of whichever religion will get credit for as many children as there are wives, plus 1, which sounds fair.) Now, I don’t think that it makes sense to argue that this will provide an incentive for parents to “game the system”. Those who think that it makes sense have obviously never had children themselves. But the point that it will overweight the votes of people who did not practise birth control is well-taken, hence the modification.
Second modification. The weights should be discounted. We should use the five-year average rate on government securities of appropriate tenor to determine the discounting. That will mitigate the advantage enjoyed by young people somewhat.