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.