Earlier this week at a public meeting in Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal urged his supporters to celebrate Dussehra by burning the effigies not of the mythical demons, but of today’s demons – corrupt politicians. “I leave it to you to select which corrupt politician will be your Ravana, and which ones your Kumbhakarna and your Meghnad,” he told a cheering audience.
This facile personification of an abstraction (corruption) and its emotive linkage to a religious symbol (burning the effigies of the righteous Rama’s enemies) encapsulates the essential character of the anti-corruption movement that now aspires to be a “political alternative.”
Arvind Kejriwal and his band of activists are going to launch a political party. But is anti-corruption enough of a platform to launch a whole new political party? What constituency do they really represent? How does one understand Team Kejriwal’s leap into parliamentary politics? While I do not question their individual good intentions, their singular obsession with corruption and their reluctance to engage with the structural issues that make corruption widespread, if not necessary, are worth pondering.
Who does Team Kejriwal represent?
The past 20 years of liberalisation have put more money into the hands of India’s middle classes. Their economic empowerment has given them a new sense of political entitlement, but not political empowerment.
Unlike the economy, Indian politics has continued on its pre-liberalisation track. A small dynastic coterie calls the shots in all the mainstream parties. The pre-modern institutions of caste, religion and family still count for more than capability or integrity or leadership. As a result, the onward (and upward) economic march of the middle classes has been held to ransom by the regressive feudal politics of a tiny elite that has basically gamed the system.
From a Marxist perspective, the rise of the anti-corruption brigade can be read as a manifestation of the power struggle between two different factions of the ruling class – the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie. The former are in command now, their financial power having secured them political control over the state machinery and party functionaries, from the PMO downward. Vedanta’s grip over the state administration in Orissa is a telling example.
The petty bourgeoisie, or the educated urban middle classes, possess social and cultural capital but not enough of financial capital for deployment to produce surplus value – not in the prevailing political system. The present system is ‘corrupt’ and needs an overhaul precisely because it does not accord enough value to their social and cultural capital – encapsulated in the word ‘merit’.
Slaying the Corruption Dragon
Enter Team Anna/Kejriwal. Never before in independent India has the urban, literate middle class — cutting across the traditional divides of caste, religion or ethnicity — coalesced into an electorate by itself. But twenty years of consumerist prosperity has made this imminent.
This grouping of urbanised middle class Indians has tasted the fruits of western modernity. They are disgusted by the feudalism of the political class. They are even more disgusted by the impunity with which a tiny cabal of businessmen and politicians are sucking the country dry. But they are most disgusted at being left out of the banquet.
Clearly, the ‘system’ isn’t working. Not for them. Their sense of political entitlement is violently at odds with their political impotence. The BJP, which was supposed to look out for the entrepreneurial, meritorious, middle class Hindus, has long since betrayed its core constituency. It is less an opposition in Parliament than an envious but sporting rival. It is the political vacuum created by the BJP’s abnegation of its oppositional role that the anti-corruption brigade led by Team Anna/Kejriwal has exploited, and hopes to fill.
Hence the constant confusion about their relationship with the BJP: Are these guys with the BJP or not? They seem to be, with their borderline Hindutva symbolisms and rhetoric, but they are also anxious to distance themselves from the BJP, tainted as it is by the rot in the prevailing system. They want the BJP’s constituency but not its burdensome political legacy. So they walk the tightrope, leaning now on the side of jingoism and Hindutva, now tilting the other way to fire a few quick salvos against the ‘corrupt’ BJP.
For all its dangerous ideology, the BJP still has a political vision – of a Hindu rashtra. But the newly empowered middle classes, despite their recent political awakening, have no political vision as such. They may take pride in their Hindu identity, but they don’t care one way or the other about a Hindu rashtra, which explains the BJP’s ongoing existential crisis. Nor are they animated by a sense of social responsibility towards those less fortunate than themselves. Rather than calling them the middle class, it would be more accurate to refer to them as the ‘consumer class’.
Their very idea of citizenship is mixed up with that of the consumer. Their overarching political anxiety is: How do I secure the goods and services for which I’m paying by way of taxes? They cannot entertain the idea that the state may have responsibilities even to those who cannot pay taxes because they don’t earn or consume enough to do so. Their idea of a functioning political system is one that can quietly lay out a smooth expressway to consumerist paradise: Good infrastructure, parking, no slums, and law and order so they can walk around in branded clothes without getting mugged. And, oh yes, affordable education, hospitals, etc.
What’s preventing this consumerist paradise from materialising? Corruption, of course! The Solution? Kill this dragon of corruption. The knights of the Anna round table will hunt down the Corruption Dragon and slay it. Then all Indians can live happily ever after. This is the fairy tale that the anti-corruption brigade is peddling. But that is all it is: A fairy tale.
The uses of corruption
To make sense of the Kejriwal phenomenon, and to understand why the corporate media (itself hardly a paragon of probity), which has little time for issues of deprivation and social justice, is so invested in this campaign against corruption, we need to ask some basic questions: What is corruption exactly? And what purpose is served by the high decibel discourse of corruption?
The most obvious rhetorical use of ‘corruption’ is as a diagnosis of what is ailing modern India. It presents us with an easy, identifiable, enemy: The corrupt. Where there is corruption, there are bound to be corrupt people, the Ravanas. Identify the corrupt, punish them, and cleanse the state of the corrupt, and India will be pristine once again, all set to fulfill her destiny of 10 per cent growth year after year for eternity.
Really? In fact, the syphoning of public funds into private pockets, or demanding bribes for doing a job (or not doing it) are symptoms of a malaise that runs deeper: a fundamental power inequality that comes into play soon as you erect an apparatus known as the state.
Power, as we all know, corrupts. Corruption is born at the same instant a bureaucrat is born – there is no existential gap that separates an ‘honest’ bureaucrat from a corrupt one, for the simple reason that every bureaucracy is nothing but an ejaculate of democracy getting shagged by power.
A politician holding an executive post is but another cog in the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, though a prestigious one. He is different from the bureaucrat in only one respect: he is elected by the ‘people’, while the bureaucrat is selected through an exam or nominated by an elite. But his job is essentially one with that of the state: To serve the power elite.
Indeed, there is nothing about the quality of power wielded by a Lokpal that would make this bureaucrat immune to the fundamental logic of power.
The discourse of corruption serves four key purposes. Firstly, it crowds inequality and social justice off the mainstream agenda. The two issues are linked: Social justice will not be a major concern (as it isn’t for the anti-corruption brigade; their primary concern is ‘governance’) unless there is an uncompromising respect for political equality. But nobody would argue that India’s middle classes believe in egalitarianism. Apparently, ‘merit’ somehow confers on them a distinction that exempts them from the logic of political and social equality.
Secondly, corruption, like ‘human rights’ or ‘terrorism’, is a term emptied of context and history. The exclusive focus on corruption as the prime failing of the state obfuscates the fact that a nation-state’s primary job has always been to organise the protection of ruling class interests. The history of independent India is an abiding testament to this simple political truth. But the bogey of corruption deflects attention from the repressive nature of the state’s relationship with the overwhelming majority of its subjects, and the exploitative economic structures it enforces. Ever wondered why the benevolent Indian state still needs the colonial IPC? And POTA? And MCOCA? And AFSPA? And UAPA? And the sedition law? They’re not for meant for corrupt politicians, by the way.
Thirdly, the hyper-focus on corruption serves to blunt the sharpening political consciousness of the ‘under-class’ by offering them a simplistic discourse containing good guys and bad guys. The corrupt politician is Ravana, while the honest ones, like Kejriwal or Ashok Khemka, are like Rama. And if you know your Ramayana, you’d vote for Rama and the allies of Rama.
The ‘us-pure’ versus ‘them-corrupt’
Lastly, an exclusive focus on state corruption furthers the neo-liberal agenda of a leaner but meaner state. This has been pointed out by many commentators, including, most expansively, by the eminent economist Prabhat Patnaik.
This is how it works: By repeatedly associating state initiatives and programmes with corruption, you make a strong case for privatisation, for the handing over of public assets held in trust by the state (such as PSUs) into private hands. Simultaneously, because governmental corruption (and consequent inefficiency) is anyway sucking up all tax revenues, you make another strong case — for lower taxation.
But when you lower taxes, government revenues will go down, which means government expenditure has to go down too – so the government has to shrink. But since the defence budget (no matter how obscenely large for a poor country) cannot be cut, it is the social welfare schemes that have to go – so, Down with Subsidies! Down with NREGA! Down with PDS!
Since the state cannot tax its richest citizens, ie the corporations (it could spoil the investment climate), it will never have enough in its coffers to invest in public projects. So to raise the money, it has to call in foreign investors, who won’t come unless they can take out from the country far more than what they put in (that’s just capitalism, nothing personal). So you woo them with more tax sops. Thus presiding over the draining of public assets into private hands, the state cannot but abdicate its responsibility towards the vast majority. This abdication, then, is presented to the aam admi in the form of a simplistic, depoliticised narrative – the narrative of political corruption. And the cycle begins all over again.
This, in a nutshell, is the agenda behind the anti-corruption agenda. This is not to say that all IAC activists are going about their job with a cynical awareness of what they’re really up to. But many of them are fairly sophisticated intellectuals who ought to know which side of the class bread their one-dimensional crusade will butter.
If it weren’t for the comforting binary of ‘us-pure’ versus ‘them-corrupt’, the working classes and the peasantry — whose very real and legitimate anger against the political class the anti-corruption movement is tapping into — might well pose a serious threat to the prevailing order. The land of a million mutinies might even cobble together a revolution, if not splinter into a dozen fragments.
By turning into a political party, Team Kejriwal will only serve the ruling class agenda of funneling the growing anger of the mango people into the same old democratic channels that are hard-wired to betray them. Thanks to the mythical beast known as Corruption, the nation under siege has a common enemy that millions can unite against in hateful rage. So let’s go burn those effigies. Happy Dussehra!
G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.