Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In The Badlands of Klepto-Society: Wikileaks From Delhi!

With the Wikileaks sending shivers down diplomatic spines all over the world, I have often wondered how the American Embassy would be reporting back to Washington on happenings in India in general, and the kleptocratic society we live in, in particular. Here’s how it most likely would be.

Of the many things immutable in present-day India and amid other uncertainties that beset this benighted country called India, the longevity of the kleptocratic society is fully assured – this, for us, how reassuring is it! Hard to believe but reassuringly and surrealistically true is the fact that there is a mad scramble, so the story goes, among all insurance companies to insure it against a chance occurrence! The insurance shall never have to be redeemed; so cocksure are all Indians about its continuance without a hiccup.

To be fair, there is no dearth of Doubting Thomases who are forever prophesizing finis to this society. Such hopes are nurtured, happily (!), on the quicksand foundation of the sporadic recrudescence of activity displayed by the CBI from time to time and on the so-called hot air unleashed by the CVC in its periodic incantation of honesty. But like quicksand they surprise you with its hollowness; hot airs are hot airs good only for the formation of monsoon clouds. They are quickly forgotten.

As a counterpoint, see the foundations of this society – built on concrete, mortar, and steel! How deep the piled foundations go! The Indian Constitution provides so much security to public servants that anyone not indulging in heroics has to be really ninny! The procedures emanating from rule of law and natural justice make the hero count his blessings. And though they are not enough, the camaraderie all around sponsors quid pro quo! The denizens of this sublime society hail the visible achiever much as they castigate the voiceless, faceless nincompoop! Little wonder the foundations have been rendered earthquake-proof of any rich vicious magnitude (inquiry)!

And see the magnificent super-structure that seems to be forever growing into the sky! Everyday there’s something to the matter, the tall imperial edifice keep ascending to High Heavens as the myopic idealist standing on the ground misses out on the happenings in the rarefied stratospheric environs. The yawn widens further making the moralist hang in midair, in animated suspension, unable to appreciate the higher “reality”. All his ranting refuses to lift off the ground. He’s an anachronism.

See the flip side of this venerable society. Its roots are firm, almost invincible, and they run deep and criss-cross one another. The result: they bind the sub-soil inexorably, making a continental drift defy the time-tested laws of geology! On the surface it meanders much like limestone topography, giving rise to stalagmites, stalactites, and columns assuming shape and size depending on the availability of the stated quantum of precious lime.

In practical terms, they are the bourses encashable in the banks that can’t get illiquid because they have the backing of the rock-hard State apparatus. Who would like to dissolve such an apparatus unless he is bird-brained to do so! The apparatus subsumes all the tricks and rules of the game, all the propitious ground conditions that make a Tehelka possible, the large and petty crimes – CWG, Adarshgate, 2-G Spectrum scams – that make up a marketplace in whose entrepot CBI, CVC and such like other vigilante outfits draw succour and offer plentiful employment.

Paradoxical as it may sound, they subinfeud the system. Trust begets trust and it is the same theory here: carnal in appetite and bacchanalian in spirit. He who’s employed the short-cut clandestine route hogs it as an aphrodisiac. He would make no compromise on that score, for the meritorious path is not so meretricious and saturnalian. He stands to lose here. And they are the vociferous lot who make or mar Indian society.

Given the scams listed above, be convinced that the kleptocratic society is here to stay – for keeps. Mercifully, Klepto-society is proactive, making things happen. It is in the same breath also reactive – quickly playacting the ideal role when certain flagrante delicto is caught out to discomfit its kleptoacts. In such rare cases it pays to look the purist. Because kleptocracy is still not a staid term in the lexicon – even here in India – though the inhered histrionics practiced over years in varied situations and climes come in handy. Every experience counts, rich as it always is.

I must elaborate here to make it less abstract. Klepto-society believes in aggressive marketing. In a way, it has to. Because without this important prop it is liable to slip into disrepute and consequential obsolescence. With shamelessness its leitmotif of existence, the exercise is none too difficult – this exercise of self-promotion with a catholic heart. Where every creature comfort is peddled and provided to the powers-that-be so that the coffin’s shroud is left alone there, not resurrected. The lies and stealth remains embalmed.

A direct outflow of this is that the straitlaced is rubbished with impunity. Because the strait gate enjoins certain decorum and civility and mouthing even the unacceptable does not pass its muster. As a result, the filth and dirt stay hidden. The promotion campaign of the Klepto-society earns its rich dividends.

This is what makes this Republic of Kleptos impregnable. Their servitor manners and bootlicking instincts make them a veritable band of achievers who can pluck the moon for their seniors, if so asked. If the moon is unpluckable, not so their pluck and confidence. They may yet rustle up an ersatz moon from nowhere for the boss to moon over his own diktat. And all this achieved with the same joie de vivre as the one that minister to basal, carnal instincts. They are loud and rambunctious, gaudy and meretricious, opulent and generous – everything that admits of no limit. You come out of such experience in a daze, wondering if the act you’ve seen and enjoyed is real or surreal, imagining if these people of the habitat are not Martian men come calling to earth.

True, an odd hiccup can put pay to such impulses. But such one-offs hardly tarnish the Teflon-image. Public memory here is frightfully short, catalyzed as it is with innumerable scams that show up its putrescent heads to lie embedded in the avalanche of its own siblings. The Teflon-coat stays as lawyers make their killings and promote such august luminaries to other such august perches in this very lifetime.

So worry not; we need to vociferously applaud their goings-on with passionate fervour and declamation much as our President did in his address to the Indian Parliament and make them feel great as an emerged world power – both economic and political. This is the Indian summer of glory! As I write, I can see more of the Indian Neros go to fiddle as the nation now a teardrop in world economy and in complete disarray, slides to invisibility and into a quagmire of its own making.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

When C Equals M + D - A

It’s been incredibly mind-boggling these past few months. The CWG scam, the Adarshgate scam, the 2G Spectrum scam, the Karnataka land scam – the litany is endless; every bit surreal and growing. Lest anyone has any qualms about a humble unelected and unelectable individual like me making bold to touch upon these touch-me-nots, question-me-nots, let me say it upfront that I write this as a citizen and that I have an inalienable right and a bounden duty to do so. So please be disabused, you the eminent sons of this country who flaunt and parade patriotism on your shirt sleeves and on television studios, rolling out spiels of pious homilies to lesser mortals like me!

By any facile definition, corruption is immoral, it is illegal, it is illicit, it is illegitimate; no country has legalized bribery, graft, extortion, pelf, embezzlement, fraud, or nepotism. But peel off the epidermis that masks these abstractions and semantics, and you’ll see that corruption is also a crime of cold immoral calculus. Individuals weigh the benefits/costs of giving and taking bribes. They include moral costs shaped by individual consciences, social values, cultural norms, and ethical standards; they subsume economic calculations including costs of the illegal transactions.

Shorn of morals or attitudes, this is as true of the private sector as the government or the NGOs. Competition is less vulnerable to corruption than monopoly. Clear rules of the game are less susceptible to corruption than systems where discretion is paramount. Systems with accountability are less prone than systems whose lack of transparency readily lends to questionable operations. As Robert Klitgaard, an international expert on the issue of corruption says, “Corruption is more pronounced in systems characterized by the formula C = M + D – A: corruption equals monopoly plus discretion minus accountability.”

Put the three magnum scams through this sieve. The CWG scam stemmed from the monopoly of the Organizing Committee to do what its high priest and his cohorts willed or desired, giving the processes a go by. The discretion was not spelt out; there was simply no accountability. It was banana republic at its worst. The Adarshgate was everything that CWG was – and more. It was a criminal conspiracy, hatched with admirable planning and flawless networking. Discretion became the Dictator and Accountability crushed asunder. The conspiracy threw up its own Monopoly. How else would you expect the high and mighty to hide behind the fig-leaf of Kargil martyrs! It was not only a criminal conspiracy but the greatest shame that could have attended the armed forces. The 2G Spectrum scam was indeed sui generis. The unholy nexus among politicians-bureaucrats-corporates-media was caused by Monopoly with limitless Discretion and no Accountability.

How must we begin? First, promote competition. But willy-nilly there shall be certain monopolies that can’t be wished away – a nation’s natural and electromagnetic resources – and inevitably has to stay with the government. When Monopoly is inevitable, Discretion needs be circumscribed and Accountability total. In the case of 2G spectrum scam, Discretion, far from being carefully delineated, was given the freest and wildest run, and Accountability didn’t exist.

What must we do? As Klitgaard says, “Corruption is a crime of economic calculation. If the probability of being caught is small and the penalty is mild and the pay-off is large relative to the positive incentives facing the government official, then we will tend to find corruption. Fortunately, economic analysis suggests that it is possible to locate areas within an organization where corruption is most likely. A heuristic formula holds: Corruption equals monopoly plus discretion of officials minus accountability.”

Given human nature, there will be the impulse to improve one’s lot in a society that values hedonism – even when it is not legal. This kleptocratic instinct may not hold fast for all but surely for the majority. Consequently, officials will veer towards corruption when the ostensible gain from corrupt means far outstrips the penalty imposed times the probability of being caught times actually punished.

How, then, to limit corruption? It could be broadly two-fold: Institutional mechanism and strong punitive action. The obvious institutional thing is to reduce monopoly to the limit possible, circumscribe discretion and temper it with transparency, and enhance accountability. Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is a kind of super-body against corruption. It combines investigation, prevention, and popular participation – all rolled in one.

The other aspect relates to exemplary punitive action. Klitgaard suggests picking the low-hanging fruits – selecting a type of corruption “where visible progress can be made soon, without too great a cost”. This would help making a statement that rings through the citizens’ psyche – that the corrupt shall not walk away free.

Coupled with this, there is a need to upset the applecart of the pernicious culture of impunity – to disabuse citizen’s mind that has, over time of inactivity against corruption, become jaded and defeatist. Corruption today is not only tolerated but has come to be accepted as a way of life, a modus vivendi that has to be lived with.

This can only happen if the Big Fishes are fried. As a former Hong Kong’s ICAC Commissioner wrote: “An important point we had to keep in mind is the status of people we prosecute. The public tends to measure effectiveness by status! Will they all be small, unimportant people, or will there be amongst them a proportionate number of high-status people? Nothing will kill public confidence quicker than the belief that the anti-corruption effort is directed only at those below a certain level in society.” Italy’s success in its fight against corruption was largely due to frying a top Mafia official, many top business executives, and several important politicians from the ruling party. This would make a splash; big guns have high visibility, and more the frying the more the message conveyed.

The suggestions presuppose ringing in changes by simplifying laws, protocolizing procedures, and making processes transparent. Sadly, what we suffer today in India is not a lack of rules but a surfeit of them, with each caught up in tangles that makes legal interpretations – and consequential adjudicatory processes long-winded and endless – so cumbersome and infuriatingly exasperating that dares even to trivialize the constitutional performance of an august institution of Comptroller and Auditor-General.

The Big Three – CWG scam, the Kargil for Profit Adarshgate scam, the 2G Spectrum scam provide us with material that would make for excellent case studies – much like an articulated skeleton enabling medical students to understand human anatomy – to anatomize and educate the public. Given the outrage, they could be made the cornerstone for cleansing the system. Each one needs to be analyzed threadbare to lay bare how the processes were subverted and suborned and the nation deprived of its resources.