SPEAKING FREELY Everyone is guilty of India's graft
By Samir Nazareth
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
It was just a few years back that Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, Prashant Bhushan were the three musketeers and d'Artagnan fighting the Cardinal Richelieu-like machinations of
"corrupt government" in India. Their fight's rallying cry was the Jan Lok Pal Bill, the citizen's ombudsman bill.
The bill, the four swore, would cleanse India of corruption, which was eating into the very foundations of the nation and so denying the common person their rights. This had resulted in the country joining this battle against corruption. The emotion of the common citizen that was channeled into promoting the bill was labelled as outrage against the pervasiveness of corruption that had allegedly permeated the government.
Could this sentiment then have been the manifestation of a false sense of victimization? Could this conflagration of rage have been cleverly fanned by an "us and them" strategy - the "us" being the common Indian trying to overwhelm "them" the government? The outrage was used to corner if not coerce "them" into accepting the Jan Lok Pal Bill. Even though this bill was sold as being the cornerstone of democracy, the way the "us" wanted to get the bill passed was anything but democratic, unless of course one defined democracy as mob rule.
Charging at windmills
Unfortunately, this "us and them" structure of the anti-corruption movement is also the primordial soup that gives rise to corruption. Corruption exists because people believe they are above the rules that are meant for all, or feel that laws restrict their freedom which they presume they are more entitled to than the rest of the population. Corruption exists when individuals do not wish to follow rules created by society for the common good.
Thus who is the "us" and "them" in the fight against corruption? Can the "them" be corrupt if the "us" is clean? Can "us" be clean if "them" is corrupt?
Unfortunately, the secularism of corruption was not realized by those demanding the Jan Lok Pal Bill. Therefore, while everyone raved, ranted and hurled abuse against the government, it sounded hollow to many because there was no acknowledgement that two hands are needed to clap. Could Dumas and Cervantes have got together in these modern times to get the musketeers to charge at windmills?
The need to re-invent the wheel
"Us vs Them" was the DNA from which Arvind Kejriwal and others created the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, which has just formed the new state government in Delhi. This speciously manufactured but much harped on conflict that late last year brought the AAP to power at the local-government level in Delhi and is fueling its national ambitions, was apparent after the swearing in ceremony, when Arvind Kejriwal made his acceptance speech.
He advised the more than 1 million people gathered for the ceremony, and the many other millions watching him on TV, that if they encountered an official demanding a bribe they should not refuse this demand. Instead, they should call up a helpline/complaint number that he promised to set up in two days where a complaint against the official could be made and a trap set. Kejriwal promised that he would personally ensure that their files would be processed.
India already has an Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and almost every government department has a Vigilance Cell that is supposed to look into cases of corruption. The contact numbers for officials of these agencies are advertised and prominently displayed. Not a day goes by when the ACB does not catch someone accepting a bribe. The Central Bureau of Investigation is another agency that has been used to catch corrupt officials.
So the question is, why is there a need to re-invent the wheel? Why wasn't the platform of the acceptance speech used to indicate the existence of these departments and promote them?
The answer is very simple. Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP want to be seen as something akin to the Phoenix - that mythical bird reborn from the ashes of its predecessor. There is an attempt to market him and his government as being different from - and with no links to - past governments. The difference is constantly played up by suggesting that the past was one of usurpation and the future is not.
This message could not have not been better put across than with a personal promise of setting up the help line, which suggests there was no similar system already in place and seemingly puts the common person in control and paints the government officials as unscrupulous.
Corruption off the people, by the people
However, nobody seems to ask why the official is in the crosshairs and whether it is only the government servant who is to blame for the much-hyped corruption.
Most of us Indians do not like "no" for an answer. To us, a "no" is a personal affront and an ego-buster. For us, being able to wangle a deal no matter how crooked is something that is laudable. At other times, we are like ostriches with our heads in the sand - we are so engrossed in ourselves that we are incapable of thinking of the fallout of our self-serving actions.
In both instances, a bribe is used to get the work done. It is not the government official who demands the bribe here. It is the "naughty" or "ignorant" common citizen of India who would like the government official to turn a blind eye and proffers money to facilitate this.
Traffic policemen lament that they see no point in stopping vehicles when their drivers break rules because they just throw money at the police and continue on their way. I have been in the office of a Fire Chief when a middleman deposited a wad of notes in his desk drawer to facilitate passage of building plans that were ill-conceived. When rules are not respected by either society or those in a position enforce them, corruption is a natural corollary.
It takes two to tango, but not so according to Arvind Kejriwal. With these horse blinkers on, Arvind Kejriwal has deftly created a constituency of those sold on the idea that they are victims; that the corruption of previous governments has sucked the common person dry; that there is a dawn of a fresh beginning and a new light shines from the sun that is spelt AAP.
But this is a false hope because no one wants to be seen as a perpetrator of a crime or be pointed to as a criminal - sympathy is cornered by the victim no matter how wrong he is.
Corrupt victims or victims of corruption?
The ability to create a sense of victimhood nationally is not unique to this particular instance. There is a large number of people who weep for an unlived and unknown golden past that they claim was destroyed by invaders and colonization. We are known to find succor from this ethereal past while diminishing our present.
What Arvind Kejriwal has done is something extremely clever: he has modernized this genetically programmed victimhood to be relevant to these times. Instead of blaming an ancient history that no one has lived for our current state, he has provided a current history of which we are a part. However, even in being part of this history he has obligingly ensured we are removed from it. As before, when we did not blame the invasions on the factious kings who parceled this land into their kingdoms but instead blamed the invaders for invading, we now do not blame ourselves for the corruption, but instead blame it on the government and its officials.
Till now, the victimization that stems from being conned into believing that we are on the wrong side of history has been milked by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. But now Arvind has re-framed the contours to make it more secular, by ascribing our national problems not to the common person, whom he assures is guiltless, but foists the cause as the corruption of the powers-that-be.
He has beguiled us into believing that we are not the source of our problems. The saccharine sweetness of the mirage of this victim mentality has drawn people to his party like flies are drawn to sugar. His move makes sense when one reads the article "Rethinking 'Don't Blame the Victim': The Psychology of Victimhood" by Dr Ofer Zur in the Journal of Couple Therapy. The author highlights the following point: "The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible or accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy."
A clean sweep
Nothing could have been a greater representation of this than the choice of broom as the symbol of his political party - the AAP. The broom has many connotations. The first that springs to mind is the "us and them" setting - there is dirt and then there are those wielding the broom to remove the dirt; its simplicity of use - indicating its secular prowess; its commonness - every household has one because dirt is omnipresent. Most importantly, the ownership of the broom presupposes the intention to keep things clean.
We forget that a lot of dirt is brought into homes by residents of the household themselves. Every Indian household uses the broom only to sweep dirt from the house into the common area, where it becomes the responsibility of an unknown someone else. Dirt just outside the place of residence is okay as long as it does not cross its threshold.
How we clean our homes is symptomatic of us being victims - concern for the self and not for society at large. The victim seeks redress no matter the cost to the rest. The abdication of social responsibility is a result.
It is not enough to have a telephone hotline if we do not hold ourselves responsible to obey rules and appreciate the fact that we cannot always have our way. If truth be told, we are victims of perverting our individual responsibility at the cost of the state. We are victims of our own hypocrisy as we choose to ignore the role we play in debilitating India. It would appear that we are unable to judge ourselves because when circumstances demand we do so our morals suddenly leave the room.
It is easier to ascribe fault to someone else, not only because it absolves us of personal responsibility but also because we are remain who we are and continue doing what we do. This includes having a feudal mindset that makes demands of others without us being held accountable to anyone. Kejriwal has realized that there is a low personal cost in ascribing oneself as a victim. In effect, we do not want to be the change we want to see.
Kejriwal is milking our lazy conscience, this sense of victimization. Is it then surprising that many are joining his party to partake off this feast, while others see him as someone who will share the munificence?
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Samir Nazareth is a social commentator. He is the author of the soon to be released travelogue 1,400 bananas, 76 towns and 1 million people.