National Interest: The caste of corruption
Indian Express, December 24 2011
Is there a caste or communal link to corruption and crime? Or, are your chances of being involved (and getting caught) in corruption cases higher as you go down the caste ladder? Nobody in his right mind would say yes to either of these. But let’s examine some facts.
Why is there a preponderance of this underclass among those charged with corruption, or even targeted in media sting operations? Here is a roll call: A. Raja and Mayawati (Dalit), Madhu Koda and Shibu Soren (tribal), Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav (OBC), are all caught in corruption or disproportionate assets cases. Faggan Singh Kulaste, Ashok Argal and Mahavir Singh Bhagora, caught in the cash-for-votes sting, are all SC/ST; among the BSP MPs in the cash-for-queries sting, Narendra Kushwaha and Raja Ram Pal (who is now in the Congress) are OBC, and Lalchandra Kol a Dalit. Of course, there are also some illustrious upper-caste representatives in the net: Sukh Ram, Jayalalithaa, Suresh Kalmadi. But there are far fewer of them. Could it be that the upper crust tends to be “cleaner” as a rule, or could it be that the system is loaded against those in the lower half of the social pyramid? The Sachar Committee report on the condition of Muslims also tells us that the only place where our Muslims have numbers disproportionately high in comparison to their population is jails. So, face the question once again: do Muslims tend to be more criminal than Hindus, or is the system loaded against them?
For another example, look at the BJP. Two of its senior leaders were caught on camera accepting cash. One, Dilip Singh Judeo, caught taking Rs 9 lakh, was a mere MP, but of a high caste, and was happily rehabilitated in the party, fielded in the election, and is now back in Parliament. The other, Bangaru Laxman, caught taking just Rs 1 lakh, was ranked much higher in the party; he was, in fact, the president, but much lower on the caste pyramid, a Dalit. He has been banished and isolated and is fighting the charges in that Tehelka sting case by himself. I am sorry to use this expression, but the party treated him as an utter outcast even as it continued to defend Judeo. What is the difference between the two except caste? You want to take this argument to the judiciary? It has been loosely insinuated by many prominent people, including by some notable members of Team Anna, that a large number of our former chief justices have been corrupt. But who is the only one targeted by name (however unsubstantiated the charges)? It is Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, currently chairman of the National Human Rights Commission and, more importantly, India’s first Dalit chief justice.
These questions are inconvenient, but can never be brushed aside in a diverse democracy. These have become even more important now as the political class has responded to Team Anna’s Lokpal campaign by bringing in 50 per cent reservation for lower castes and minorities. You can say this is a cynical political ploy to counter what is, after all, an upper-class, upper-caste, urban movement so far. But facts are facts and there is no hiding from them. The system is much too prejudiced, much too loaded against the underclass. Reservations may not be the perfect solution. But how else do you ensure equity? How do you convince this vast majority of Indians below the very top of the social pyramid that this new all-powerful institution will be fair to them? Or, you can flip this very same question in the context of Team Anna. Why has this vast majority of socially and economically vulnerable Indians been so distant from their movement? Why are the leaders who represent them, from Lalu to Mulayam to Mayawati, so strongly critical of the institution of Lokpal? Because the minorities, the weaker sections, are always afraid of mass movements, particularly when these are led by the dominant upper classes. In these movements they see the threat of majoritarian excesses. And that is exactly the apprehension that the political class, particularly the UPA, has now gotten hold of.
The upper caste, creamy layer of our society is the most prejudiced, and yet the most dominant minority in any democracy in the world. That is why even the person representing Mayawati on otherwise brilliant funny-man Cyrus Broacha’s show on CNN-IBN always has a blackened face (Dalits are supposed to be dark-skinned, no?).
An interesting new turn has meanwhile taken place in the discourse over the Lokpal bill. Whenever asked to comment on the UPA’s ploy of reservations, members of Team Anna simply say they are happy to leave that entirely to the government. Leave something entirely to the government? When was the last time you heard Team Anna say that?
They are doing so because the caste card, howsoever cynical, has thrown them entirely off-balance. They are now paying for having built such an unrepresentative upper-crust leadership, deluded perhaps by the belief that this battle was theirs to win on Twitter, Facebook and television channels where their interlocutors were trumpeters or fellow travellers. They forgot that the battle for power and ideas is fought in a democracy’s parliament and within its institutions. They started to believe their own mythology of being apolitical. They did not realise that politics, in a democracy as diverse as ours, needs two essential pre-requisites: ideology and inclusiveness. Abhorrence of corruption is a universal virtue but not an ideology.
If there was an underlying ideological impulse to this movement, it was anti-politicianism, underlined by that slogan from the early, heady days — Mera Neta Chor Hai.
It was probably because of that philosophical abhorrence of politics, and the give-and-take, the unending deal-making it involves, that Anna did not set up a truly diverse and representative “Team” to begin with. They had the wisdom and the sincerity, they thought, and Indians, cutting across barriers of caste and religion, would be smart enough to see it. Representative inclusiveness, they probably believed, was part of our cynical electoral politics though that did not stop them from having a Dalit and a Muslim girl help Anna break his fast, making it the first time that a child was described as “Dalit” on a public stage in a mass rally.
Leaders of Team Anna now rightly say that theirs indeed is a political movement. But even if they assert that it is above electoral politics, they have erred gravely in not learning from the political class and building a representative leadership. It could have come from both their abhorrence and ignorance of politics, from a lack of respect for the political class, and an inability to appreciate that you need politics to create a sense of fairness, balance and empowerment in such a diverse society. That is the difference between Anna on the one hand, and Gandhi and JP on the other. Both of the latter made inclusive politics the vehicle of their revolutions. Team Anna, instead, tried to circumvent politics, and now finds itself right in the thick of it.